The Myth of Motivation
How often do you sit and do nothing while waiting for the motivation to complete a task? Whether it’s an incredibly in-depth work presentation or a simple but pressing errand, any undertaking, big or small, can be overwhelming. Many of us wait hopefully each day for a magic moment where motivation will sweep in and give us that burst of momentum we need to get things done.
The myth of motivation is a concept that has been around for centuries, so it’s natural to expect that we’ll eventually get around to completing something once we feel like it. Unfortunately, that moment often never presents itself, leaving us with an internal dilemma between a real need to finish and the inability to get the ball rolling.
The truth is that many of us have got it backward.
Motivation is a Train that May Never Arrive
Motivation is defined as “a feeling of enthusiasm that makes someone want to do something or work hard.” It's a common misconception that we must have it in order to be productive and successful.
We hopelessly wait for this moment, we expect it, and when it doesn't show up, we feel frustrated – or worse, defeated. But waiting for motivation is a big mistake, like banking on a train that may never come. In the end, you inevitably feel lost and unsure of the next step.
Worse yet, even when motivation or inspiration does appear, it doesn't necessarily lead to action. You might become incredibly inspired to quit your job and start your own business, but actually taking the steps to make that happen is another story entirely. This is where many people get stuck.
Motivation only appears reliably as a result of taking action. Thus, we need to cultivate a practice where we take action first, even when we don’t feel like it.
This requires a quality that is the real MVP in goal achievement: discipline.
Discipline for the Win
Discipline, as it relates to a personality trait, is the ability to carefully control the way that you live, work, or behave–especially to reach a goal. It’s a critical component of goal achievement and without it, we can never really see tangible results.
In fact, even if we feel motivated and inspired to start a task, a lack of discipline will prevent us from getting it done. So, rather than blindly waiting for motivation, focusing our energies on developing our discipline muscles is a surer bet.
Discipline creates the routines and structures that help us stay consistent, particularly when we don't feel like it. It's about making a commitment to yourself and taking action without relying on elusive moments of inspiration.
And, unlike motivation, it’s sustainable.
With discipline, you start to actually get the carrot – actual results. It’s a reliable, reproducible, and predictable process: the more disciplined you become, the more results you see, and your motivation increases. Rinse and repeat.
Being disciplined can be difficult at first, but once you embrace it and practice it regularly, you'll find more energy for the tasks that need to be done. You’ll also begin to experience greater focus and clarity for what comes next.
Imagine your goal is to lose 15 pounds. You may fall into the trap of waiting for the ‘right time’ or that hit of motivation. But really, you just need to go to the gym, and then go again, and again. A week later, your pants are now a smidge looser. That discovery is what gives you the motivation to continue.
The Discipline of High Achievers
“You’ve got to work. It’s about structure. It’s about discipline. It’s all these deadly things that your school teacher told you you needed… You need it”.
- J.K. Rowling
Consider some of the greatest entrepreneurs and achievers of our time: tech giants like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, world-renowned author J.K. Rowling, and environmental visionary Boyan Slat all had big ideas and entrepreneurial strengths.
Their successes were a result of focus, process, and action, rather than motivation. These people consistently worked hard, even during periods when they lacked motivation.
An important turning point in Bill Gates’ journey to founding Microsoft was a conscious decision to stop procrastinating and work in a diligent consistent manner. This commitment to daily persistent work towards his goals reflected a level of self-discipline that set Gates apart from many of his colleagues. In Walter Isaacson’s “The Innovators,” Microsoft’s co-founder, Paul Allen noted Bill Gates’ extraordinary ability to focus:
"Where I was curious to study everything in sight, Bill would focus on one task at a time with total discipline," said Allen. "You could see it when he programmed. He would sit with a marker clenched in his mouth, tapping his feet and rocking; impervious to distraction."
The success of J.K. Rowling is another testament to the power of discipline. The best-selling author has been candid about the keys to her success. She points out that while occasional moments of inspiration were wonderful when they appeared, it was ultimately the discipline of sitting down to write six hours a day that allowed her to complete her first Harry Potter novel.
Even after the book was completed, she had to persevere through 12 rejections before her manuscript was picked up. Surely, in the face of repeated rejection, her levels of motivation varied. She remained, however, disciplined in her practice of submitting manuscript after manuscript until she finally got a “yes”.
Slat, a young Dutch entrepreneur, was a 16-year-old on vacation in Greece when he saw several plastic bags in the water while swimming. He took action by researching solutions to clean up oceans and completed a school project on the topic. That led to a famous TEDx Conference talk, the video of which went viral.
Slat eventually created his company The Ocean Cleanup, which has gone on to become one of the most successful environmental initiatives in history. The goal is to remove 90% of plastic in the world’s oceans by 2040.
Slat’s story is an example of how passion for a cause can inspire and motivate you to want to do something about it, but it’s ultimately the discipline to act upon that motivation that will yield extraordinary results.
Unable to Start Work? Try Productivity Techniques
If you feel inspired by the discipline of high achievers but still aren’t sure how to get started, productivity techniques can help you. These strategies are designed to get us into a more productive headspace so we can do better work with less effort and most of them are based in behavioral science with an emphasis on how our brains work.
There are several useful productivity techniques that can help us step up and take action, including the following:
1. Eat the frog – tackling the most difficult task first. Once you get that out of the way, it will be easier to stay focused and motivated throughout the day.
2. Rule of three – decide on the three most important tasks you need to complete before the end of the day, no matter what. This helps you stay focused and keeps you from getting distracted by unimportant tasks.
3. Pareto principle – focus on the 20% of tasks that will give you 80% of your results.
4. Time blocking – this refers to devoting chunks of time in your day to specific tasks, like 30 minutes for email or an hour to write a document.
5. Task batching – group low-value tasks together and address them all at once.
These are just some of the productivity techniques that you can use to stay disciplined and productive. Note that all of these strategies only work if you have the discipline to actually implement them.
Finally, if the idea of being disciplined is overwhelming to you or you don’t know where to begin, simply start small. In The Motivation Myth, bestselling author Jeff Haden recommends starting not by focusing on the goal itself, but rather focusing on the process to achieve the goal. Then, break the process down into smaller manageable steps and concentrate on achieving one step at a time. This is an excellent way to get going towards a big goal without becoming intimidated and giving up.
Just do it
Remember this transformative point: Motivation is a result, but discipline is a choice you can make every day. Discipline is the surest bet you can make to ensure you achieve your goals. Practice it daily and watch your inner motivation levels soar. To quote the classic Nike campaign: Just Do It! Then continue to do it again and again.