Motivation doesn't exist

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Confession time. It’s been three days since I wrote 1,000+ words.

I pulled out my August accountability calendar on the 1st, and thought to myself, “Let’s make August kick ass!” It’s mostly zero daily word counts so far.  

The main thing going through my mind: “I just don’t have the motivation to write right now.” But that is bullshit. 

Motivation doesn't exist

Why? Because motivation doesn’t exist. Or, if you depend on its existence for you to get your work done and show up consistently, the job’s not going to get done.  

Motivation requires dependence on external forces to help make things happen. When those things don’t happen, it’s easy to blame the lack of motivation. But what’s really happening is the lack of you showing up. 

I realized this yesterday at work when I was asked to create an illustration for a t-shirt for an upcoming 5K fundraiser. “Illustration?” I thought. “It’s been nearly two months since I drew anything.” Why? Because of lack of motivation to draw. I’ve been focusing on other things, like writing my book, so I let my art slide for the past few weeks. But really, it was because I started to feel like drawing wasn’t rewarding, or it was too hard, or I wasn’t good enough, etc. 

Because I was asked to show up to create this t-shirt illustration, I had no choice but to put pen to paper. In the act of doing so, I remembered how much I love to draw and implement my own illustration style. As I brought the doodle into Adobe Illustrator, my digital artist mind went crazy happy, and the next time I looked up at the clock, it was time to leave for the day.

Have a breakthrough moment

Little “breakthrough” moments like this one remind us that motivation doesn’t exist. You have to commit to showing up. And if you don’t feel like it, show up anyway. The first few minutes of work are going to be the hardest, but once you sit down and get started, your body and mind will go straight back into work mode. 

Are you a writer who is stuck? Sit down at your writing spot with your laptop. Open your writing program. Your brain will say, “Hey, I know this place!” The blinking cursor won’t be as scary as you’d imagined it to be all day – I promise. Turn off your wi-fi and mute your phone. Put on your headphones and listen to whatever gets you in the mood to write. Start writing anything. Write absolute nonsense for two minutes, and something good will happen. Even if something great doesn’t happen, you’re committing yourself to the habit, which will make it easier for you to sit down tomorrow and write something awesome. 

Are you an artist who feels rusty? Grab your sketchbook and pens. Start doodling anything that you see around you. Silence your phone and leave it at the other side of the room. Turn off the TV. Draw for at least five minutes and something may come to you. Don’t be afraid to make stupid doodles or stray marks. Again, forming the habit is most important. 

Do you know you have to go to the gym but you don’t feel like it? I hate to break it to you, but speaking from experience, you may never feel like going to the gym. Make it your mission to get out the door as quickly as possible. Put on your workout gear and go. Start walking before you run. Hop on the elliptical if you need a lower impact exercise. If you don’t get the routine in place, it’s going to be even harder to go to the gym the next time you’re supposed to go.

Having a breakthrough moment will help remind you why you set out to do what you do. Having a good or great writing session will renew your faith in yourself. Drawing something cool will help make those artistic and spatial connections in your brain stronger. And everyone knows that you feel awesome and more energized after a workout.

More about habit and routine in regards to motivation

Let me repeat: motivation does not exist. I haven’t felt like doing much of anything this month. But you know what I’ve shown up every day to do? Journaling. Why? Because it’s part of my morning routine

According to my journal, I’m now on day 190 of my routine. And since I’ve added an accountability calendar to my desk, I’ve journaled for 24 days in a row. Including weekends. That is easily the longest streak I’ve had in the entire 190 days.

What does this tell you? (What does this tell me?) Scheduling something for every day with a time of day works better than loosely saying, “I’m going to write every day.” What the habit experts say is true. The more specific your goal is, the more likely you’re going to achieve it.

Adjust your routine until it works for you

However, this is an important caveat: part of what makes the routine viable is making sure it works for you. It won’t just work to put “gym” on your calendar every other day after work for the rest of your life. (Or if it does work for you, I hate you, and you’re awesome.)

You have to have a few false starts before your routine will stick. Figure out what time and what days really work for you. A 6:30AM daily journaling session works for me, but it may not work for you. My original goal of writing every day after work to set a post to publish is a nice idea, but it isn’t working for me. Perhaps if I try writing every day, but only publish on Mondays and Thursdays, I’ll have a lot more success and won’t beat myself up as much. (Thanks to James Clear for the idea.) 

If you’re a perfectionist or an over-achiever, this is going to be hard for you. But – and excuse me while I cringe when I say this – balance is the key for consistently showing up for your goals.

After all, you need to have balance to stay sane. To avoid burnout. To want to continue to do your thing when shit gets tough.

So, motivation doesn’t exist. It never will. Not if you want to rely on motivation to succeed. Motivation is fleeting and is fickle. You can’t depend on it to get things done. You just need to show up and work undistracted for two to five minutes. Get started. Have a breakthrough moment to renew your faith in yourself. Then set a routine, but make sure it will work for you in the long run so you won’t get burned out or overwhelmed by your new habit.

What is your relationship to motivation versus showing up?

Cover photo by Kelly Sikkema