Four thoughts on motivation

Recently, I’ve had the persistent niggling feeling that I’m working too slowly and should be doing more. If only I had the motivation! Then, the calendar flipped over a month and I realised we’d only just reached June. It reminded me there’s more than half the year left, I’m making progress and my pace is right for me.

Nevertheless, it can be frustrating to lack the motivation to do something, especially when you actually want to do it. Here are some thoughts on motivation I’ve been mulling over this past month.

Motivation isn’t something you have, it’s something you create

It can be so easy for fear to overrule motivation. It could be fear of failure, fear of looking silly, fear of being seen to start small or any other reason. You might not be consciously aware of the fear that’s holding you back but it still prevents action.

Creating confidence and resilience can help overcome these fears. When the action you’re most afraid of taking feels too overwhelming, build confidence in something that feels more accessible as a manageable first step.

I added daily cold showers to my goals partly because they would help build my resilience to discomfort. If I could willingly turn my own shower cold everyday then surely I could use that discipline to push myself in other areas too. It’s becoming part of my identity that I am a person who can push through something even when it feels hard. In addition, numerous studies have found that regular cold showers promote emotional resilience by encouraging the nervous system to increase its tolerance to environmental stress.

Achievements wouldn’t be achievements if they came without effort

Achieving a goal is only rewarding when you’ve had to overcome something to get it. If everything came easily and immediately, there would be no sense of growth or accomplishment and we’d grow complacent. It may sound cliché but the real joy is in the journey and what you learn on the way.

Even for the most dedicated person, motivation will ebb and flow. When you face a setback and lose momentum for a while, any progress after that is worth celebrating no matter how inconsistent it may seem at the time. And when you do start up again, it won’t be from scratch, it will be from a place of experience.

The greatest leverage you can create for yourself is pain

What we take action on is determined either by a need to avoid pain or a desire to gain pleasure. The problem is change is often considered a ‘should’ or ‘must’; we make it optional rather than an essential. If you believe there’s endless time, it’s easy to rationalise delaying action for another day.

To change this, we need to create a sense of urgency that compels us to follow through. It’s often hard to do this because we have mixed emotions associated with change. You might want to eat better quality food to feel healthier in the long run (desire to gain pleasure) but get too much immediate pleasure from eating sugary, processed food in the moment (desire to avoid pain). Linking both pain and pleasure to making change creates mixed emotions and leaves the brain uncertain what to do.

To break the stalemate, we need to reach the emotional pain threshold. Anyone can put up with something uncomfortable for a while and convince themselves that the situation will improve. If this continues and becomes unbearable, you hit the pain threshold, lose patience, and finally commit to make a change. The greatest leverage you can create for yourself is actively associating inaction with massive pain in order to inspire action.

Know when to focus on the wood and when to focus on the tree

The saying ‘I can’t see the wood for the trees’ illustrates how focusing on the detail of something can make it hard to step back and recognise what’s important overall.

It’s easy to get caught between appreciating how far you’ve come and stressing over how far you have to go. It’s been important for me to try and keep things in perspective but recognise that might look different depending on what I’m looking at.

When I’m thinking about how far I have to go, I focus on the tree. Take one step at a time and only focus on the first task. Then once that’s complete, look at the next task and so on.  I’ve found this helps keep me focused in the present, reduces overwhelm, builds momentum and celebrates the incremental achievements.

When I’m looking at the progress I’ve made, I focus on the wood. It prevents taking one bad day and feeling like a failure. Look at all the progress that’s come before that and celebrate it.