Motivation is a weighting-the-scales game.
One way of weighting the scales in the direction of a thing you want to get done is to growl and focus on it and swear you’ll do it — that’s one way, but it has a high energy-cost and only provides so much push. Over-relying on “telling yourself to do it” is exhausting and demoralizing.
An easier way to throw weight on the side of [thing you want to make yourself do] is to make sure there’s a recent memory in your mind and body of how awesome it feels to do that thing. Say for example you want to exercise more. If you’ve exercised recently, you’re more likely to experience a rush of “oh yeah that feels awesome!” when you think about exercising. If you haven’t felt the endorphin rush of doing a thing (both the rush of doing it, and the rush of feeling good that you got some done) in a while, the memory of it isn’t going to rise up and help pull you in the direction of doing it again.
This works for eating healthy food, meditating, working, practicing your art, cleaning the house — nearly anything. The more recently you did it and felt good as a result, the more weight is on the “do it!” side of the motivation-scales when the idea comes up.
Because of this effect, it’s a good idea to give yourself permission to do good things as often as possible, even if it’s only for a few seconds. Even if the amount of actual work on them you get done is meaningless — you eat one forkful of salad, or meditate for 60 seconds while the microwave is on, or pick up the pen and write one sentence or draw three lines — you’ll reinforce that feeling of “oh right, this is awesome!” that leads you to want to do more of those things in the first place. Even if it’s not a thing that feels good to do in itself, like housecleaning, you’ll still get a little rush from having gotten some of it done today. The “it feels good to have gotten that thing done” neural pathway will get re-drawn, and the next time you want to be motivated to do the thing, the echo of the sensation of reward is stronger.
Instead of getting caught up in how “useless” it is to do a thing for ten seconds, give yourself permission to START doing a good thing ANYTIME, without any pressure to keep doing it. Many things can take literally ten seconds or less, and no matter how rushed or down you feel, you can get yourself to tolerate nearly anything for that long. Just start. If you continue a bit longer than you expected, let it happen; but don’t set a timer or make yourself keep going — just do a little. Call having done it at all a win, and enjoy that.
Here are some examples I’ve been playing with:
- While the microwave is on (and it’s hot drink season so it often is), do some pull-ups, or practice a part of a form, or meditate until it beeps.
Stand up, put one out-of-place thing away, and go back to what you were doing.
Switch tabs/programs/apps to that thing you want to be working on, write one good sentence on it, and then go ahead and switch back.
When you stand up, pause and do one real stretch.
Grab your instrument and do one scale.
The purpose of this isn’t to get a ton of shit done, but so far I have been surprised how often, once I start doing the good thing, I want to keep going. I try to let that happen without forcing it, and it often results in doing a fair to moderate amount of the thing instead of just a tiny bit — with no more effort than it would have cost me to do ten seconds of workout, I often get five or ten minutes instead. (I’m trying not to overstate it, but I can totally see how the cumulative effect of this time could be huge in the long run!)
This doesn’t waste any of the time in the rest of my day either, because it’s all such tiny amounts; so I can feel completely relaxed about letting myself do it anytime I think of it — which also makes it easier to do, than when I’m being doubtful and decision-paralyzed and trying to decide what comes next.
Bonuses noted so far: Meditating for super-short periods is good practice for being more meditative generally, and for working the states of mind achieved in meditation into daily life more. Working on forms for even a few seconds at a time keeps things stretched out and warm. Every little cleaning thing that gets done this way is one less I have to do later. Oh, and let’s not forget that for me personally, switching tasks and mental states frequently is a really good thing — it heads off my tendency to fall into emotional holes and shut down.
To come back to the original point though, since I’ve been making a point to start good things as often as I can, and making it easier to do that more frequently by removing the pressure to keep doing them at all, the good things have stayed more in the forefront of my mind, and the reward of feeling good about doing them (and often from doing them, like with exercise) is stronger and fresher. So when I think about them next, the motivation to do them again is weighted more towards “yes” than it would be if I hadn’t done them at all for days. I’m not sure yet, but it’d be pretty awesome if this effect was cumulative!
…I hope that makes sense; I’m busy today but I wanted to get that down, because I really like it as an example of a 100% good life-hack. It’s a good hack because:
- It’s low-effort — it involves getting a legitimate reward in exchange for almost no work
- It generates some immediate real-world benefits — some exercise, cleaning etc. that wouldn’t have gotten done otherwise, gets done
- It helps generate future benefits by strengthening good associations and behavioral rewards
- It has no downside
- There’s a very low risk of it becoming something to be angry at myself for failing at. It’s a poor source of guilt, because no matter how little gets done, something did.
Here’s to helping things look up!