04 Jul

Dealing with Lack of Motivation

Dealing with Lack of Motivation

Dealing with Lack of MotivationI’m losing my will to write. I’m losing my will to design. In fact, I’m losing my will.

And I should have seen it coming.

I’ve learned some things about myself, things that I can’t seem to change. First off, I’m a carrot type of guy. I work best when I’m motivated by positive feelings. Negative motivation, stress, and pushes don’t work for me. And I know that I’m not alone.

Positive vs. Negative Motivation

Imagine that you’ve got a goal. You aim to write 2 000 words today, finish an article and mail out a query. But since you’ve got a whole lot of other things on your table as well, you decide to reward yourself. When you finish everything you get an ice cream. One of those Haägen-Dazs cups where the cream is real cream and the vanilla is real vanilla. You can feel your mouth water just thinking about it.

Is that positive or negative motivation?

No idea. The fact that you’re rewarding yourself is merely an action. How you frame it in your mind is the motivation.

Imagine that you think: “I finish what I’ve got to do, and I’ll get an ice cream.” That’s positive motivation. Do, then reward.

But imagine that you think: “if I don’t finish what I’ve got to do I won’t get an ice cream.” Same situation, negative motivation: don’t do and don’t get.

And since everything is in your head, you’re likely to fall into the type of motivation that works worst for you whenever you hit a snag.

The Dangers of Cyclic Productivity

Take a look at these numbers:

  • August: 7 200
  • September: 15 800
  • October: 19 400
  • November: 5 500
  • December: 3 950

Those are my fiction word counts for last year. I average about 10 000 words a month, with a median of 7 500, for the past year. But I don’t produce evenly – I’m cyclic. These are my numbers for this year:

  • February: 7 500
  • March: 10 900
  • April: 18 600
  • May: 13 750
  • June: 3 850

Just like last year, there’s an increase until I max out in April. But then, instead of accepting that I’m going to have a rest month or two, I tried pushing myself. I wanted to write. Writing worked so well. And I did. I pushed myself to an above average month in May. And half of those May numbers were forced.

I forced myself to write past where my brain wanted to quit. And I did. I cranked out a 4 100 word story at the end of May, and I cranked out more words in my stalled project. And come my birthday I stopped writing. Just clean stopped. I couldn’t motivate myself any longer.

Failure of Momentum

Yeah, I know. All that “you can’t force yourself”-stuff is bullshit. You can force yourself. That’s how Navy SEALs do it. That’s how Grandmaster Chess players do it. That’s how anyone who’s ever had to struggle through resistance does it.

[bctt tweet=”All that ‘you can’t force yourself’-stuff is bullshit. Except when it’s true.” username=”FilipWiltgren”]

And it works. Ex-Navy SEAL Stew Smith teaches regular Joes to do 2 000+ push-ups in 10 days. Taiwanese violin master Roy Chiu practiced until his fingers bled. Steve Martin did stand-up before literally empty nightclubs. They persevered and succeeded. You can do it too.

Except if you fail to motivate yourself.

See, there are two ways to get stuff done: through motivation and willpower, and through enjoyment. If you enjoy what you’re doing, then you’re automatically motivated to do it. Enjoying your work is a great way to get it done. And it works, it works wonders – until the day you hit an obstacle you can’t push through on pure momentum.

Momentum is what you build up when things are going fine. When you’re becoming better, more skilled, stronger, faster. When the word counts soar, the music flows, and everything feels so easy. It’s the feeling you get after you’ve worked out for half an hour and you don’t feel your muscles burning, you just feel sooooo great.

But then you hit a snag. You sprain yourself during an exercise. Pull a back muscle or catch a severe cold. You realize that the action in your story makes no sense, or that your readers don’t get what you’ve written. You need to scale down, get back to basics. Do, you know, work.

And it works. You push through for a while on the mere memory of how great it felt. But if the hurdle is too high you won’t be able to pass it on momentum alone. That’s when you turn to willpower.

Errors of Motivation

Willpower is great. It enables you do accomplish things that are bigger than what you can visualize right now. It makes long-term goals possible. It’s even expandable – exert your willpower enough and it will become stronger[note]And, conversely, if you don’t exert your willpower regularly you will reach a stage where just vegging out in front of the TV feels like a chore.[/note].

But willpower relies on motivation, on the way you get yourself going. And that’s where I failed.

Yes, you can force yourself to go on pure grit. You can work against your natural motivational style, and it will work – for a time.

[bctt tweet=”You can force yourself to go on pure grit – for a time.” username=”FilipWiltgren”]

That’s what happened to me. When I hit a snag in my project, I tried to force it. And when I forced it I turned it from a positive motivation into a negative motivation: instead of “I will do this and succeed”, my head came up with “I will do this, or I won’t succeed.”

In other words, I was focusing on the costs of failure.

In Love with Successful Failures

Our culture loves winners who talk about failure. Take Thomas Edison:

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

Or take Coco Chanel:

Success is most often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is inevitable.

Or Winston Churchill:

Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.[note]Or his more popular: Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.[/note]

All these successful people who say “accept failure, failure isn’t failure, just go on, just get going.” Sounds great, but it isn’t the whole truth. Anyone, even a Churchill or Edison or Oprah, has moments when they give up. Not feel like, but give up. Change directions. Do something else. Henry Ford went bankrupt 5 times before building his automotive empire. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard and went belly-up with his Traf-O-Data startup[note]Traf-O-Data was supposed to take information from roadway traffic counters and present it in an accessible to way to engineers. Then the State of Washington offered the service for free to every city in the US. End of Traf-O-Data.[/note].

[bctt tweet=”Anyone, even a Churchill or Edison or Oprah, has moments when they give up. ” username=”FilipWiltgren”]

But we don’t see that. We see the model-T and Microsoft. We see the times where they fought through failure and succeeded. And that teaches us to ignore our internal motivational style and just fight through it.

Dangers of Wrong Motivation

Remember when I said that I’m a carroty kind of guy? Well, guess what; I can’t fight through it.

Or rather, I can, but then I burn out. That’s because when I start to fight through, I get hooked on failure. I start to look at the cost of failing. I start to look at how much harder failing will make everything. This is why daily word count goals don’t work for me. If I miss one goal, I feel that I need to make it up the next day or I’ve failed. Instead of making it easier on myself when the going gets hard, I make it harder, ensuring that I’m more likely to fail and more likely to make things even harder.

That’s why I only track my word counts after the fact. That gives me an affirmation that things are going great, that I’m doing good.

Except that in May I started taking my high output in April for granted. Instead of thinking “I did this”, I started saying “I should do that.” I twisted myself from positive motivation (“look at everything I’ve accomplished”) to negative (“look at what I should accomplish”).

[bctt tweet=”Replacing the carrot with the stick made work a chore.” username=”FilipWiltgren”]

It didn’t work. Replacing the carrot with the stick made the work a chore. I don’t motivate by being whipped. Big challenges don’t get me fired up, they make me scared. They make me stop working, because it’s easier to give up now and accept that I’m a failure[note]Note the stretch from “I fail” to “I’m a failure” – that’s another danger of the slippery slope of working against your natural inclinations. And, by the way, when I say natural I mean “what you’ve trained yourself to accept.” Everyone can change. Most people don’t.[/note].

Deadlines and the Problem of Extremes

I’ve been talking about positive motivation because that’s how I work. But I’ve got friends who are motivated by negative things. They love deadlines, do their most creative work when they’re pushed to the limit. Failure makes them focus. Impossible tasks give them goosebumps.

I admire people like that. I would love to be more like that (or even better, one of the rare people who are motivated by both the positive and the negative). But being negatively motivated doesn’t mean that they’ve got it easier, or are more productive. And they face the same type of motivational pitfalls.

One of my deadline motivated friends is unable to create unless pushed to it. If he sees results, he stops. He needs the gap to make the jump, needs the fear of failure in order to get the energy to push himself.

[bctt tweet=”Deadline motivated people are unable to work unless pushed. If they see results, they stop.” username=”FilipWiltgren”]

But wait, you say, all he needs to do is take on more work and then he’ll be tremendously productive. Yeah, he was. Then he hit the wall and spent half a year on sick leave. Too much pressure broke him, just as surely as too little de-motivated him.

He set the bar too high and crashed. Me, I’m the opposite. I’m in danger of not producing anything because I set the bar too low. Both problems stem from the type of motivation that gets us going.

How to Stick to Your Motivation

So, knowing your motivation, how do you stick to it? How do you prevent yourself from sliding into the wrong kind of thinking?

[bctt tweet=”How do you prevent yourself from sliding into the wrong kind of motivation?” username=”FilipWiltgren”]

For me, it’s a matter of setting a minimal minimum. I failed to do that with writing, starting to think that I’m about to break it big, be eternally productive, and become a star. Too high goals, too much pressure.

But I succeeded in another aspect: my physical workouts.

I’ve been wanting to start working out every day for a long time. I’ve even tried and failed. But then I found a good hook and added to it a very simple goal: I’d do one push-up.

One push-up. That’s it. That’s my entire goal. Brush my teeth, then do one push-up.

That’s a very non-threatening goal. It’s something that I can do even when I’m a bit sick. Of course, when I start to do push-ups I rarely quit after one. I do thirty (right now, when I started I did 12) and then I do crunches, back-ups, and squats. I don’t have to, but I do, because I’m already doing a workout and it’s easy to keep going.

Except that I started to fall into the same pit as with my writing. I started being impressed with myself: Oh, wow, I did 15 push-ups today, tomorrow I’ll do 20, and crunches, and this and that. NO.

No, no, no. I’ll do one push-up. That’s it. That’s all I need to do.

And that’s what I keep reminding myself of: do one, and be happy if I do more.

5 thoughts on “Dealing with Lack of Motivation

  1. Hello Filip !
    First of all, thank you so much for your blog ! I haven’t posted any comments yet but I am following you since the beginning of April this year. And there’s a good reason for that : I have just taken a year off to work on a dream project of becoming a writer… Sounds familiar ?

    So, it’s been roughly 4 months into it and the motivation factor is now becoming more and more important. My first goal was to write all these short-stories that I had been storing in my head for years now and I’ve managed to do so (by the way I’m French and apart from a couple of texts in English, I mostly write in French) with quite a good word count, although for me it’s more the page count 😉

    Anyway, I feel that I’ve been hitting a kind of wall lately. Maybe I burnt myself out or I need some kind of rest but I’m finding it a lot harder to be happy with my production and yet, I’m pushing through it. I know I have a rather strong will power but I’ve got to say that your article has got me thinking quite a lot. Especially on the negative motivational factor. I need to look at myself and admit what really is my kind of motivation. One motivational clue for me lies in imagining the pleasure the reader can feel while discovering my story. I want this reader to feel, to be excited, to share the emotion. And when I struggle to do that when writing, it’s hard to take. It’s all about admitting the idea is not as good as I first thought. Which is ok for a short-story but much more difficult when you’ve spent weeks writing. Or, rewrite a big chunk to approach things differently. Which can be just as hard.

    I’am also a carrot kind of guy, or rather a “request/challenge” kind of guy. What I mean is that some of the best stories I have written have been linked to people challenging me to write a story on a special theme or with a constraint that I would not have thought about myself. That’s why I keep an eye out for short-story contests to get inspiration.

    I felt bad on weeks/months when the page count didn’t add up. Like you, I took it for granted “that’s what I should be doing now”. It’s a difficult balance to find between too low a goal and a too big one. What do you think about NaNoWriMo ? Ready to take on *that* challenge this year ? If not, there is also what people refer to as the “Bradbury project”, following what the great writer said during a conference, that somebody who really wants to write and to become better at it should aim at writing a story a week for a year. Some people have done it and shared their experience. I’m sort of trying unofficially myself.

    Anyway, I don’t want to pollute the comment zone, but again, thank you for this really interesting article ! I’ve got some thinking to do now… Good luck too you!
    JerkyHips

    • Hey JH, glad to see that you’re following your dreams!

      Yeah, I’ve done NaNoWriMo a couple of times (three, I think) and finished it once. I like the idea of it, and I’ll at least think about entering this year as well.

      As for the motivation issues, have you read Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way”? It helped me a lot in getting to the place where I could write because I loved it, rather than because I wanted to have written. I can highly recommend it.

      • Thanks Filip ! I’ll chek out The Artist’s way. (I just realized that you replied to my comments as I didn’t receive any email telling me). As for the NanoWriMo, congratulations ! Now, did you make anything of what you wrote when you finished it or was it just about the pleasure of the “exercise”?

        • Just seeing if I could do it. I was surprised that I finished; that year I dallied and didn’t start until November 10. But finish I did, although the story was very much horrible. It featured a locomotive going through a wasteland for 50 000 words, and there really wasn’t any point to it. Maybe I’ll reuse the idea some day (I like the image of a giant locomotive) but the plot *phew*, let’s burry it and hope it doesn’t rise… 😉

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