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Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Dealing With Failure

The Key to Getting Motivated: Give Up

Motivation advice for people who can't stand positive thinking.

No matter how fulfilling your work, there’ll be days when you just can’t summon any enthusiasm for it. What makes the experience of undermotivation especially frustrating is that the solution seems as if it ought to be obvious: what you need, you tell yourself, is more motivation. So you scour the web for motivational tips (visualize your goals! reconnect with your ‘core values’!). You remind yourself about the mountain bike you want to buy, or the family you’ve got to feed. Yet it’s rare that any of this works: instead, undermotivation digs in its heels, making progress harder than ever.

There’s a reason for this, though it’s one that a whole industry of motivational gurus has a strong incentive to conceal: trying to “get motivated” can often make matters worse. The real problem isn’t that you don’t feel like taking action. Rather, it’s the underlying assumption that you need to feel like taking action before you can act. Which explains the hidden pitfall of most “motivational” advice: it’s not about how to get things done, but about how to get in the mood for getting things done. That wouldn’t matter if generating a feeling of enthusiasm were a simple matter of repeating affirmations in front of the mirror, or taping an upbeat Anthony Robbins quotation to your monitor, and glancing at it occasionally. But as research by the Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner and others has repeatedly demonstrated, our efforts to control our emotions through sheer force of will can end in self-sabotage: resolve to get “psyched” about some unappealing task, and it’s all too easy to end up fixating on the gap between the emotion you feel and the one you wish you were feeling. Visualizing your goals can backfire, as can repeating slogans to yourself. By internalizing the idea that you need to “get motivated”, you’ve inadvertently placed an additional hurdle between where you are and where you want to be. Now you don’t merely have to accomplish certain tasks. You’ve set yourself the much harder task of feeling like doing them, too.

Trying to “get motivated” can often make matters worse.

Fortunately, there’s a powerful alternative, crystallized by the psychology writer Julie Fast in a pithy eight-word phrase: “Don’t wait until you feel like doing something.” When you’re mired in negative emotions about work, resist the urge to try to stamp them out. Instead, get a little distance — step away from your desk, focus on your breath for a few seconds — and then just feel the negativity, without trying to banish it. Then take action alongside the emotion. Usually, the negative feelings will soon dissipate. Even if they don’t, you’ll be a step closer to a meaningful achievement. This approach is one aspect of what’s known in Buddhism as “non-attachment”, and it’s no surprise that one of its foremost practitioners, the Japanese psychiatrist Shoma Morita, was heavily influenced by Zen.

As James Hill, a contemporary practitioner of Morita Therapy, points out, many of our most significant achievements get done despite the absence of enthusiasm: “Is it accurate to assume that we must ‘overcome’ fear to jump off the high dive at the pool, or increase our confidence before we ask someone out for a date?” he asks. “If it was, most of us would still be waiting to do these things.” Morita himself had some startling advice for those afflicted by procrastination and other woes: “Give up on yourself.” He meant that trying to stop being “a procrastinator” or “a lazy person”  was a distracting waste of time; what mattered was action. “Go ahead and be the best imperfect person you can be,” he went on, “and get started on those things you want to accomplish before you die.” Don’t worry about getting motivated. Just get going.

How about you?
What are your techniques for getting things done when the spark of enthusiasm isn’t there?

Oliver Burkeman

Oliver Burkeman is the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, and writes a column on psychology for The Guardian. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. Follow him at @oliverburkeman.

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Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco.
Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco.