I know, I know, we’re past halfway through January now, but it’s still a fresh year in my book. In fact the average day for giving up New Year’s resolutions is the 19th of January, so if you make it past the weekend you’re ahead of most.
I have terrible problems with motivation. It’s one of the reasons I’m so interested in it, and I suspect most people who talk and write about it a lot are similarly afflicted. Why does Tony Robbins have to start every day with an ice plunge? It’s a ritual of course, he’s setting the frame for his day — but there’s also a dark side to it. He doesn’t quite trust himself. He’s afraid of what will happen; what he (won’t) do if he misses a day. Even Tony Robbins needs a magic spell!
Call it what you want: magic, a boss, a ritual, a system. We’re all weak and we can’t do it on our own. I don’t think I even know what willpower is. If it’s real, I’m certain I don’t have any. All I have is a bag of tools, variably effective against my idiot marshmallow brain. Here are a few of them.
Do less, not more
The more we panic about our lack of motivation, the more we stimulate a frantic, chaotic energy. It’s very buzzy and bright and compelling, but of course it just makes everything worse. The way to get more done is often to pull the plug on energy. Observe your distractedness, get some distance on it, and try to have a calm mind about it. It’s not you, it’s just a behaviour you’ve exhibited. You’re not a bad, lazy person, and you’re not trapped here forever. You just did a behave. You can do a different behave.
Don’t misdiagnose yourself
When you’re in the middle of some important work and find yourself reaching for your phone, or wandering off to make your seventh cup of tea, it’s not because you want to stop doing the work. Understand yourself. The work’s not the problem. The urge to distract is happening because you want to have finished doing it. Think about it: there’s nothing better than the first cup of tea/bath/walk/tweet after a big bit of work is done, and you’re trying to capture a sliver of that ‘all done’ feeling, prematurely. It won’t work and it’s in direct opposition to your goal. You’re listening to an immature part of your brain that needs to have the oxygen supply cut off.
Breaks are junk food
OK, I’m not advocating burn-out here. But you know the kind of breaks I’m talking about. The social media break you decide to take, 90 seconds into that new piece of work. The desk-organising break that ends up taking three hours and before you know it you’ve deep-cleaned the freezer. Like cheat days on a diet, cheat hours can be a nice way of blowing off steam when you’ve been feeling the pressure of a regime – but the important thing to remember (if you’re working towards something constructive/creative/enjoyable) is that you actually like this stuff. It’s not a hardship. Taking time off when you don’t really need to is the real physical and mental oppression, like binging on a nutritionally bankrupt pile of junk food.
Don’t fall for the ‘I deserve it’ voice
There’s always some inner justification for distracting yourself, but the truth is you don’t deserve it and you don’t not deserve it. ‘Deserving’ doesn’t come into it. You don’t need a pat on the head, you have not been in the trenches of WWI. Stop building it up! Again — step back, drop the energy, make the whole thing less of a big deal. And here’s another reason you don’t deserve a prize:
You are never finished!
Here are some of the people I’ve worked with who don’t ever think they’re finished: world class dancers; comedy writers in TV and films; producers of BAFTA-winning TV shows; world-leading academics; artists exhibiting regularly around the world. Who does think they’ve finished? People lulling in happy complacency (congrats if that’s you, there aren’t many of you around!), and people who constantly reward themselves with breaks and distractions and never make any real progress.
I’ll continue this series throughout January and then normal service will resume – i.e. posts like this every day on motivation, creativity and empathy.
Being distracted is a kind of debt, it’s not the absence of something, it’s an active choice to dig under the foundations of your future. And it’s the choice to bump your own value and plans down the priorities list.
Ask yourself: what’s your future worth? Can you work for 45 minutes today without stopping to get up, or getting sucked into something else? If that’s too easy, make it an hour!