A common excuse I hear for not setting goals, building mastery or sticking to important habits is the phrase, “I’m just not motivated enough.”
I wonder whether these people believe motivation will simply fall from the sky and strike them. As if sitting and doing nothing was the best way to break a cycle of apathy.
To me, this excuse brings up two important points. First, that motivation is as much a construction as it is an inspiration. You build motivation, it doesn’t just slap you across the face one morning.
Second, that sometimes this excuse is valid. In cases of dead-end motivation, no amount of construction will fix the fact that you hate what you’re doing. The problem is many people confuse temporary boredom or frustration with a dead-end.
Motivation is Built, Not Stumbled Upon
A surprising piece of our own psychology is that, it turns out, our emotions work both ways. That is, we smile because we’re happy, but also to an extent we can make ourselves happier by smiling.
The person steeped in his own apathy is often stuck for the reason of being stuck. If you’re dwelling on your lack of motivation, you’re probably triggering all sorts of habits that simply reinforce that pattern. Waking up by noon, excessive internet surfing, even your posture may be contributing to your apathy.
Ironically, the best way to get motivated is to get the momentum to start working. If you started triggering productive habits, those would cascade to feeling more motivated.
The problem is this forms a catch-22. How do you motivate yourself enough to get started when you’re still excusing yourself from a lack of motivation? How do you break the cycle of apathy?
Why Discipline Needs to Come First
Remember discipline? That thing our grandparents were so good at? Before we were conditioned to think that you needed to love your job and that happiness meant owning two cars and a 4-bedroom house even if you can’t afford it, people used to do things they didn’t like to do. Because they had to.
Okay, so maybe we’re not as lazy I claim, and perhaps my nostalgia for a time I never lived is a little facetious. But it always surprises me that “building more discipline” isn’t the obvious answer to people when they’re stuck in a motivation sinkhole.
Discipline is the productive habits you can start even when you don’t feel motivated. In practice, it should function a lot like a battery in a car: it provides the initial spark to get the whole process moving, afterward momentum will take over.
Take writing this article for example. I wasn’t sure what I would write when I woke up this morning. Writers block certainly isn’t a huge motivator for working. But, I had developed the discipline to give myself at least 20-30 minutes before taking a break.
Sure enough, after ten minutes of brainstorming, I had the idea for this post and started writing. Now that I’ve started, it is a lot easier to continue and I’m motivated to finish.
How Do You Develop Discipline?
I believe most of us are more disciplined than we normally act, provided we phrase the problem in the right way. If you phrase your situation as:
“I don’t have enough motivation to work.”
Then it might not occur to you that the solution is to use discipline and start working even though you don’t feel like it. However, if you phrased the problem as:
“I’m stalled at the moment and I need a push to get started.”
You might decide that you actually have that push in you, but had been sparing it because you didn’t think it would last the entire journey. The car battery doesn’t need to last the entire drive, just enough to spark the ignition.
This won’t work in every case. Procrastination isn’t defeated merely by labeling it that way. That’s why I’m such a fan of building productive habits. When you’ve set up a baseline  level of output and organized your tasks to focus a few crucial pieces at a time , a lot of discipline is unnecessary. The internal angst and guilt to get started simply aren’t needed.
What About Chronic Low Motivation?
The idea that you can just kick-start your motivation once and it will run smoothly from that point forward is ridiculous. Productivity is a vehicle that is constantly stalling, needing the disciplined push to get rolling again.
If you suffer from chronic low motivation, there are two ways you can look at it. One, you might hate the particular tasks you need to do at this moment. As a medical student, you might have an inspiring vision to be a world-class surgeon, but absolutely hate your organic chemistry homework.
This, I think is also a case of discipline. If your motivation for the goal is strong enough, it should give you the basis to build the discipline to overcome frequent stalling in a boring patch of work.
The alternative is that you suffer from chronic low motivation and you can’t set any meaningful goals related to the work. In which case, why are you still working there?
If it is out of necessity, then your new goal should be planning your escape route. If it isn’t out of necessity, then you should stop right now. To paraphrase Gary Vaynerchuk, “there is absolutely no reason to be doing shit you hate.”
But I think most people are stuck in the former case. They do have big, interesting goals for their lives, otherwise, why would they have gotten started in that area to begin with? It’s just that those goals lose focus when it breaks down to what they should be doing this very second.
Everyone Lacks Motivation
When someone tells me that they, “lack motivation,” they don’t usually mean that they lack an objective reason for working. They mean they lack a feeling, some internal lust for working that they are supposed to possess.
Most people don’t have that internal lust. And if they do, it’s usually because their discipline and baseline is so strong that they never settle into apathy. Motivation shouldn’t be the excuse for not taking the first step.