How to motivate yourself for the year ahead — and stay on track
Being motivated can be exhausting. It can even be debilitating. We spend a lot of time psyching ourselves into that elusive positive mindset in order to lose those last 10 kilos or pen that novel burning within us, so why is it that we end up sneaking snacks or staring at that accusatory blank page?
We are all acquainted with that feeling of failure and self-loathing that come upon us when we don’t follow through. What ultimately disappoints us is the sinking feeling that we have let ourselves down. But perhaps we’ve got it all wrong. Is the dogged pursuit of getting motivated stopping us from actually getting the job done?
Back to basics
Survival has always been the greatest motivator. When we look back to our hunter/gatherer beginnings, every day was a question of survival. Tomorrow was not a given — our ancient ancestors lived in the moment as there was no other option. Hunting was a critical daily activity and the ability to respond to a stressful situation meant that mental and physical reflexes were always at the ready. Action taken was often literally a case of life and death. This primal legacy remains within us.
Even now, when there is no choice but to take a particular course of action, those primal instincts will most likely kick in. We see this most acutely on the sporting field where athletes respond with lightning reflexes, making instinctual decisions. When there is much riding on an outcome, hesitation is not an option. In these instances, flight/fight responses mean that, more often than not, we won’t get mired in deep contemplation working up the motivation to act. We will act.
But in this post-industrial, post baby-boom world at the beginning of the 21st century, survival is not a daily preoccupation. We fixate on success, happiness and love. It appears that we have come a long way from our primal roots. We have dispensed with that sense of urgency, as survival is no longer a goal but a given. And perhaps this is to our detriment when it comes to taking affirmative action in our lives.
The enemy of action is procrastination. Suddenly we find ourselves with the First World problem of how to be motivated in order to act on our dreams of self-fulfilment. We have esoteric goals beyond the need to eat and find shelter. And this creates inertia, as we feel time is on our side and all we have to do to achieve our goals is to remain positive. Motivation will follow.
Motivational words are just words
More than 60 years ago, the breakthrough book that pioneered the self-help industry, The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale, entered the public consciousness. Ever since, we have been clamouring over ourselves to eliminate negativity and self-doubt to achieve more, to be richer, to have long-lasting relationships and, of course, to be happier. The promise was that if we were motivated enough to create a positive belief system, our dreams were absolutely within reach.
Peale’s book was slammed at the time for not providing efficacious clinical evidence for its claims, but the lure of the message was too seductive, launching what was to become a multi-million dollar self-help industry that has lost none of its momentum. Yet it says something that more than half a century on, we are still looking for answers.
Today, we have self-proclaimed motivational gurus who, with evangelical fervour, urge us to walk over hot coals and chant affirmations to prove our dedication to our goals of success. All care and no responsibility, these cheerleaders for success make no provision for bad luck, lack of talent or extenuating circumstances that may thwart our best intentions.
Moreover, while we may get caught up in the hype, swept up in this frenzied energy, there is little evidence showing that this chronic motivating actually works in achieving our goals. In fact, research shows that, once the circus has moved on, many of us are left disheartened and, ironically, even more demotivated than we were at our starting point.
British writer and columnist for The Guardian newspaper, Oliver Burkeman, when researching his book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, published in 2012, recounts his journey on the American motivational circuit where he attended a seminar in Texas aptly called Get Motivated!. One of the speakers was none other than George W. Bush. Another speaker was Pastor Robert Schuller, who Burkeman described as a “veteran self-help author”. He had constructed the largest church in America, made entirely of glass, which he dubbed the “Crystal Cathedral”.
Burkeman goes on to say that after much chest-beating and foot-stomping, Schuller challenged the audience to eliminate the word “impossible” from their lexicon; that is, if they were serious about being successful. He held himself as testament to that absolute thinking. The audience accepted this dictum as gospel.
The punch line, of course, is that only a few months afterwards, Burkeman wryly observed that the Schuller’s church had filed for bankruptcy. Tragically for Schuller, his health, too, abandoned him with the onset of throat cancer. This fervent speaker could literally no longer expound the virtues of possibility. He’d lost his voice.
What’s more, Burkeman noted at the time of the publication of his anti-self-help book that the company Get Motivated! filed for Chapter 11 — they, too, had gone under. “Too much focus on positivity and optimism is the problem, not the answer,” asserts Burkeman. Pure motivation simply is not the way forward. Many factors need to converge for any possibility of a fortuitous outcome, not excluding forces beyond one’s control.
Burkeman in his reply to unabashed positivity argues that taking a more stoic — even negative — approach actually leads to a more meaningful existence and potentially better outcomes. By taking this “rainy day” approach, you tend to be more alert and attentive to the task at hand. He contends that merely visualising your goals “can make you less likely to achieve them as your brain relaxes, tricking you into thinking you have already achieved them”.
American entrepreneur Derek Sivers goes one step further by exhorting us to keep our goals to ourselves. The moment we blab to our friends, colleagues or family about our idea or goal, watch it evaporate. At his (2010) TED talk, he cited various psychology tests asserting that when a dream is vocalised it becomes what is termed a “social reality”. Consequently, the mind concludes that no more actual work needs to be done, leaving the tell-all satisfied but with very little motivation to pursue and complete the task. This goes against conventional wisdom, which tells us to create mood boards or to pin up goals and discuss our strategy with friends. In fact, it’s the quiet achiever who ends up at the finishing line.
Make like Nike and just do it
If procrastination is the enemy of action, then it follows that distraction is no friend to motivation. Many of us have made an art form of how to duck and weave. At times we rationalise and avoid doing our dreaded tax return or jumping on the treadmill by using supposedly useful alternatives. It’s much easier to default to these activities as we can legitimately deem them useful or even necessary and can shrug off feelings of guilt or remorse. After all, Who else is going to chop the vegetables for tonight’s minestrone? Or the old favourite, My girlfriend really did need a sympathetic ear to talk about her marriage breakdown from three years ago. I can get fit tomorrow.
We swap arduous tasks for seemingly necessary chores that we know are not time-critical but give us a hit of instant gratification. We are experts at putting off until tomorrow what should be done today. Implicit in this rationalising is the idea there’s time enough to get the job done. Whether it’s taking steps to get healthy or writing a will, we often make the fatal mistake of leaving it for another day. While we swap meaningful or essentials tasks with useful distraction, we also commit a worse crime against ourselves when we inevitably fall victim to filling valuable time with useless distraction or activity.
The modern-day distraction is the internet. What may start as a random five-minute search can end up in hours spent poring over Pinterest or scrolling through Instagram pages. No doubt we can blame Facebook for the loss of hours, days and weeks of productivity, but even more insidious is the addictiveness of it. We are literally wasting our lives away lost in cyberspace.
Time is not on your side
Over 2000 years ago, the Roman philosopher Seneca, who was tutor to Emperor Nero, was mindful of our carelessness with time. He practised a form of philosophy first developed by the Greeks 500 years earlier called Stoicism and put a “modern” twist on it. This way of thinking takes a pragmatic view of life, to the point of considering all the variables that could go wrong in any given scenario.
Seneca, in his seminal work, On the Shortness of Life, states simply, “The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.” And he should know — he was forced to commit suicide (not unlike his Greek predecessor, Socrates) for allegedly conspiring to kill his one-time young charge, Nero. Life really is unpredictable.
This philosophy seems a little bleak, but in the age we live in, where we are actively encouraged to look on the bright side no matter what, this vein of thinking may restore some balance and perspective to how we live. We have what psychologists call an “optimism bias”, whereby we naturally assume that we can “will” the best outcome no matter the odds. This “everything will turn out OK” attitude can lead to devastating outcomes for individuals and the positive bias has directly contributed to seismic events that have changed our lives at a global level.
Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Smile or Die, cited that it was unabashed American positive thinking that allowed bankers to bundle sub-prime loans, selling them on, thinking they would find a happy landing, which set in motion the global financial crash. This thinking, along with entitlement and arrogance, has meant world leaders have taken us into disastrous wars that they had told us were unloseable.
The stoics urged us not to take anything, least of all life, for granted. Moreover, they advised us to think about life should the bubble burst, which it inevitably does. Seneca would argue that life’s greatest motivation should be death. He implored us to get on with useful endeavours — today, not tomorrow. Being positive or motivated alone doesn’t make things happen.
“It’s not that we have a short time to live but that we waste a lot of it.” That said, Seneca condones active contemplation but frowns on ruminating or deliberating when it’s time to get on and just do it. The sports brand Nike (aptly named after the winged Greek Goddess who personified victory and speed) may not have known just how profound that tagline was, but it is the essence of living life to the full and in the moment.
Seneca’s top five ancient action tips
- Get on with pursuing your life purpose or life goals. “You act like mortals in all that you fear. But you act like immortals in all that you desire.” Seneca asserts that we fail to confront our demons, such as accepting our mortality, but when it comes to chasing our desired goals we think we have all the time in the world. He adamantly warns not to wait.
- Stay healthy. To get things done, you need to keep your mind and body in peak condition. Do not give in to a hedonistic life for the sake of pure indulgence. Moderate your alcohol intake and treat your body as a temple that can be used for active enterprise. Ever tried to think straight with a hangover?
- Don’t worry about what others think of you. It’s only natural to seek approval or validation from others, but be unapologetic about who you are. When it comes to life’s dreams, if you are concerned that your work might be criticised or dismissed, it may lead to abandoning your purpose or project. Be true to yourself and do it for no one but yourself.
- Stay on track and don’t get side-tracked. How much time will you waste dedicating yourself to useless activities?
- Guard fiercely the precious time that has been allocated to you. Money can come and go and come again. But time comes and then goes forever. “The problem is you are living as if you are destined to live forever. Your own frailty never occurs to you. You don’t notice how much time has already passed but squander it as though you have a full and overflowing supply,” says Seneca.
Forget intention; pay attention
Actually getting yourself motivated is possibly the most difficult act in itself. How often have we spent time contemplating an action without ever getting around to doing it? We are under the illusion that getting motivated is part of that action. It isn’t. Mustering the required motivation can actually exhaust us. We end up turning the tables on ourselves by giving up, leaving us despondent and diminished. The idea of getting in the mood so you can meet your deadline or shift those kilos is a recipe for disaster. It is both time-consuming and energy-draining.
Take a leaf out of Graham Greene’s book. Literally. This famous British author was prolific in his output. A publisher’s dream, he said of his process, “For over 20 years I have probably averaged 500 words a day for five days a week. I can produce a novel in a year and that allows time for revision and the correction of the typescript. I have always been very methodical and when my quota of work is done I break off, even in the middle of a scene.”
At 80, screenwriter, director and actor Woody Allen is not dissimilar. Mira Sorvino, the Hollywood actress who starred in his movie Mighty Aphrodite, said of Allen, “The day he finishes the editing on one movie, he starts writing the script of his next one.” This is dedication to the process, not the outcome, and in fact should be a model for us all.
These creative heavyweights show us that discipline and application are the hallmarks of success. But the intrinsic benefit is the satisfaction achieved in the pursuit of fulfilling your purpose or passion.
Mustering motivation also means that by the time we work ourselves into that state to “work”, we think we have to perform sublimely — perfection is the only acceptable option. So when we don’t achieve that, we give up on ourselves. In the above examples, they work on their process, not perfection. They don’t suffer the burden of finding motivation or achieving brilliance, which, of course, is the desired consequence.
In her book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, writer Ann Lamott urges us to simply get on with it. She writes with sympathetic eloquence, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that, if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die, anyway, and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”
Routine and discipline are boring, but they work
We’ve all heard and maybe we’ve even said that boundaries and structure confine the creative process. How can you let ideas flow if you have rigid time schedules whereby you have to produce on demand? While in theory this seems like a reasonable argument, in practice it simply doesn’t work. One can dream of writing that sublime piano composition, but unless you are at the keyboard, neither artistry nor expertise can be achieved.
Likewise, we know children operate much better within boundaries. They flex their negotiating muscles knowing they have a safety net. In the same way, adults can use routine, discipline and structure to stay on task. When you have guidelines and you stick to them, the process becomes everything and the outcome looks after itself.
Burkeman, when speaking about dispensing with motivation and getting on with the job, cites British writer Anthony Trollope, who wrote extensively while holding down a full-time job and having a family. Born a century earlier but no less dissimilar to Graham Greene in his process, Trollope had a strict regimen. Rather than have a daily word allocation, his routine was to write non-stop for three hours before he went to his job at the post office.
Trollope kept this rule without exception and his dedication to process was so uncompromising that if he found he had completed a novel within this timeframe, he would simply start on a new manuscript, there and then. He kept the flow and used structure to aid the creative process.
The other valuable lesson Trollope teaches us is that our day job may not be our passion or purpose, but by providing an income it allows us to pursue our loftier life ambitions. Being disciplined and shunning self-entitlement mean we can live our life purpose on a daily basis. This is emancipation from the rigours and impediments of life. Ironically, being shackled to structure can free us to be creative and productive.
Deadlines are lifelines
What’s the old saying? Give a busy person a job and they’ll get it done — on time. Momentum is a fundamental principle of physics: when a being or object is in motion, it’s easier to stay in motion. Moreover, to harness more energy while in this perpetual flow is also much easier. The idea of operating in a continual flow of activity does make for a more productive person.
While, obviously, this is not possible 24/7, it helps to be kick-started every day by a rollcall of mandatory activity. This gets the ball in play and we all do this to some extent every day where choice is not on the menu. Mothers get kids up and dressed, breakfasted, lunches made and dropped off to daycare or school before the bell goes every morning. Many do all that and still make the 8am bus to work. The dedicated few will even sandwich the kids’ routine between a 6am gym workout and making the bus.
Routine and structure are the syntax of daily life and require military-style operational management. It goes without saying that there are organisational platforms firmly in place, but as in the theory of momentum, things get done when we are in flow.
Every day, we adhere to deadlines — most of them not of our own making. Whether it’s work, social activities or family-related matters, we can function like machines. But what happens when we go on holidays and all those deadlines drop away?
First, this is a good thing, as we all need to free fall. There is great freedom and respite in not having to be on auto-pilot, with time for our bodies and brains to rest. We love the idea of not being dictated to or contained by the rigid structures of life, but many of us will concede that, were those structures not imposed on us, life could easily spin out of control. In reality, how much would actually get done? And in what timeframe?
Outside of holidays, when we consciously take time out, deadlines are very helpful in the way we manage our lives, as long as we don’t take on too much or become anxious about that never-ending to-do list.
Deadlines and structure mean we don’t need to rely on pure self-discipline and dedication to achieve outcomes. This becomes even more pertinent when working towards discretionary goals, such as writing that novel or training for a marathon, which have intrinsic rather than extrinsic payoffs. As they are not deemed essential tasks, they can often sit in the dream pile and stay there indefinitely, sometimes forever. Make them happen by acknowledging they matter to you and prioritising them in your life. And then create a structure to make them happen through specified routines and deadlines.
It’s more likely that you’ll meet that deadline if you know what has to be done in an allocated time. Be realistic with your deadlines and don’t build in extra time for arbitrary activity that allows you to slack off. The idea is to hit your mark and then take some time to enjoy your achievement before you move on to the next deadline, which can be part of a greater plan. This process works for just about all things where you have full autonomy and control. It becomes a little trickier when you are dealing with variables outside your field of vision.
If deadlines scare you, start off by breaking them down and making each sub-goal ridiculously easy so you can score some easy points. For instance, if you want to start a walking regime and the idea of walking around the oval seems daunting, try just walking to the end of your street and back again. Too easy, but so achievable. Do it again the next day at an allocated time so it becomes a habit. Savour each daily triumph. It matters. Then move the marker. Before you know it, you’re at the oval and ready for the next challenge.
Keep your eye on your prize
It has become a unique phenomenon in recent times that many participants in long-distance races and marathons are over-40 mums who have something to prove to themselves. They are now jostling for pole position at the starting line, up against much younger athletes. It’s not about winning, but they want to achieve something beyond being a mother and wife, especially if they’ve had to abandon a career to take on these nurturing roles. They’re not after accolades but rather self-recognition.
Angela, 43, mother of three, would have described herself as relatively fit, as she did Pilates twice a week and yoga on Saturdays. A friend presented her with the idea of running a 100km half-marathon, which the friend herself had completed the previous weekend. Initially, the notion elicited a fit of giggles, but after further pondering, Angela, who had not had a singular life purpose for many years, took it on. Not just motivated, she was inspired! It wasn’t about fitness or losing weight, although these were subsequent outcomes; it was about self-fulfilment and challenging her sense of self. The idea gained traction and she found herself running for the first time in her life.
At first she could only run a kilometre, but after gaining confidence and building her fitness levels, this number grew over weeks and months. She gave herself deadlines to achieve certain running goals and created a new routine to incorporate this time-consuming activity into her life. She came to love this ritual. It was almost spiritual: she was out in nature, she felt she had governance over her body and she used some of this time on the road to ponder her life. Running allowed Angela to get to know herself all over again. She joined a running group, made new friends and found she’d opened a whole new world for herself.
The following year, Angela was at the start-line. She ran through the day and struggled on into the night, sometimes alone. She managed to make it in just under 27 hours. She didn’t break any records, but when she saw her husband and kids cheering her on at the finishing line, the tears streamed down her face. She had done it: she had faced down some of her deepest fears and found victory in redefining herself.
The prize was never about winning but proving something to herself and the gratification that she could do it. She had learned who she was in that past year, realising she was so much more than a mother and wife. Before she started this endeavour, she remembered herself saying she didn’t have time and that it was all too much. But she took it on, booked in her time with herself, set the deadlines and kept her eye on the prize.
Needless to say, she was back the following year. What’s more, she sliced two hours off her previous time.
Become a groupie
Deadlines are mean, but they keep you honest. What keeps you really on your toes, though, is having to front up to a group. Not wanting to let your friends or colleagues down is, in effect, a great motivator: there’s no get-out clause when you have to answer to people who may be depending on you. To avoid guilt and even shame, we do what needs to be done.
Research tells us that working in a collective rather than individually both is inspiring and provides the necessary impetus to contribute or be productive. People join writers’ groups, book clubs, running groups and even weight-loss organisations because they don’t want to do it alone. Many report that they like being accountable to others while others say it’s simply more enjoyable.
We are social creatures, after all, designed to work and play in groups. Jennifer, who joined a book club a year ago, loves both the responsibility of contributing as well as the enforced deadline of getting the book read. “I was once a voracious reader, but kids and work meant I barely read a book a year. Now, with book club, I am reading one a month. I know my deadline and, by hook or by crook, I get it done. I would hate to feel I am letting down others who have made the effort.” For this to work, of course, all members have to be on board, with everyone showing mutual commitment.
Groups can also have their pitfalls: for example a book club devolves into a gossip session or a weight-loss forum ends up with members swapping cake recipes. So it’s important that you pick a group that reflects your goals and values.
Going it alone is tough when you make a career out of it. With more and more people working from Home, operating micro-businesses, research shows that one of the biggest difficulties confronting home workers is mustering up the motivation to “get to work”. Gone are the old rituals of getting dressed in business or work attire, travelling to the workplace and having that first meeting with colleagues over coffee.
All the customs of working life inevitably fall by the wayside and many home-office operators can be found still in their pyjamas at the end of the working day. They also report jumping from work to domestic tasks and being easily drawn away by distractions. Outside of it becoming undisciplined, working from home can also be a lonely experience.
In response to the isolation, there is now a shift happening in redefining the domestic workspace. “Hot-desking” has become big business; this is where a desk, effectively, can be hired in a shared office. Similarly, people are forming peer consulting groups with members sharing ideas and problems over coffee. We are social beings and feed off others, so even though we enjoy the freedom of working from home, we still gravitate to others for reflection and consultation. Working in a collective is both motivating and rewarding. You don’t need to go it alone.
Set the scene
The ancient Chinese philosophy, Taoism, tells us to take the path of least resistance. The inference is not to take the easy way out but to lead our lives “in flow”, following our life goals, taking options that support the process. So joining a group, becoming process-driven and setting achievable deadlines are all part of making the journey easier.
British behavioural scientist Paul Dolan, who works at the London School of Economics, has put some science behind this thinking. In his book, Happiness by Design, his fundamental tenet is to not change how you think — which he believes is just too hard — but rather to change what you do. Moreover, he strongly asserts that you should make your life as easy as possible to ensure your goals and dreams happen. And this starts with your immediate environment.
Sometimes, your headspace is cluttered with pressure, self-talk and endless critiquing. It’s easier to dispense with that and simply “set the scene”. Making your environment more conducive to getting the job done is essential. Rather than affirmations or visualisations, use visual prompts. For instance, Dolan suggests using an image of a guitar as your screensaver if you want to learn to play the guitar. Reminders encourage you to get on with things.
He refutes the notion of unrelenting willpower. He cites research showing that, if you live close to fast food places, you’ll inevitably put on weight. And we do see the obesity problem in lower socio-economic regions where these outlets abound. It follows that you have to manage your “people settings”, too.
Doing what you think will make you happy takes a lot of effort to muster the motivation. So switch to what actually makes you feel happy and gives you a sense of life purpose. Wait and see — things will start getting done.
The Buddhist guide to motivation
For those of us who need spiritual guidance, the last word must go to the Buddha. The greatest motivation is compassion, the desire to alleviate the pain and suffering of others. We know that when we are in service to our fellow travellers in life, we feel useful and life has meaningful purpose. This is where real gratification occurs. There is no better motivation than making others feel better through our empathy and regard for them.
Conversely, when we are motivated by greed, envy or vanity, we can indeed be productive, but to what end? The fear of missing out that has become a real and rampant disease in modern society propels us to push at the expense of ourselves and sometimes others. Modern-day philosopher Alain De Botton urges us to show some self-compassion and to act on what really matters in life. “There is a real correlation between a society that tells people they can do anything and the existence of low self-esteem,” he says.
Ultimately, to live a good life means we need to live true to our values and to do what really matters to us. Finding our meaning or purpose is life’s only valid motivation. When we know it, we are free to follow our goals or dreams without fear, self-recrimination or regret.
You don’t need motivation. You just need you. Time is of the essence, so get started on your life right now. You haven’t a minute to waste.
Top 5 practical tips for getting things done
- Motivation needs momentum — get on a roll and keep going until the job gets done.
- Set process goals, not outcome goals. While it’s important to keep your eye on the prize, goals become achievable when we immerse ourselves in a disciplined regime. By and by, the prize comes within reach.
- Make it easy by creating deadlines and structure.
- Set the scene: don’t rely on pure willpower, but all those environmental cues you put in place to make things happen.
- Be single-minded, but in a group setting. Make a group promise to each other and rely on the goodwill that can be generated by good old-fashioned teamwork.