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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?

More Posts by 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.

Comments (154)
  • lacedout

    Ha! So I a human. I used to find myself often overwhelmed with projects I wanted to try and complete, and dwell on the negative obstacles I felt were keeping me from achieving my goals. I was finding fault in my environment and circumstances when all the while it was me. Once I came to the realization I was holding back myself creativity began to flow and now I’m nonstop. I’m so much happier.

  • Jared Eddy

    Wait until there is pressure, then use the pressure to activate my competitive side which usually drives me to do great work. Also I try to think about how awesome the work will look or be when it is all finished. Sometimes my lack of motivation or procrastination is due to the fact that I feel like it’s either going to be bad work, or less then my best in the end. This can even happen mid project when I realize it’s not what I had visualized. Best solution so far, take a step back and figure out what about the project isn’t as I saw it. If it just looked cooler in my head it’s time to start over. I can usually get a much better design stating over that I like in the same amount of time as it takes me to finish one I hate half way into it.

  • Dale Mallie

    procrastination isn’t my problem
    too many projects is
    creativity is a curse and aadd doesn’t help either
    starting a project has to go through several steps:
    the first being what my wife and I call the Art Carnies
    those of you old enough to remember the Jackie Gleason Show will remember when Ralph was going to compete on “Name That Tune”
    Carnie playing the character Ed Norton was asked to help Cramdon prep for the contest by playing songs on the piano, but Ed started every tune by playing the Swannie River tune fist and then went into the different tunes Ralph would guess
    when Ralph got to the show and his tune was Swannie River, he didn’t know the name of the song
    all through my career my wife would ask if I’ve started the project yet?
    I would usually reply that I was still in the Art Carnies
    Da Da tDa Ta Da Da Da ta

  • Dave

    “The reality of getting it done is more satisfying than the dream of getting it perfect.”
    — Theodore Bryant

    • Sean Blanda

      Loved this!

  • Shahryar Saqib

    Nice post

  • darweech

    I love these hours when I really can’t work..
    love it when i have the real excuse,
    because the rest of the time I just don’t stop…

    without any decisions, I just slow down!!!!
    connect to the way i feel,
    and do anything that comes to my mind and makes me feel like doing it.
    From eating an ice cream to listening to music
    or doing my own lovely things
    that are stuck in my mind for a while with no time to do them….

    so these hours become full of living in harmony…

    yohoooooo…. LET’s STOP WORKING…

  • JohnT

    The last paragraph really spoke to me- thanks. Being blessed with dyslexia an ADD I can make a mountain out of finding motivation. I find that having a large to do list out of sight and a small list of the next priorities taken from the large one with five items on an index card seems to help. It never looks daunting and appears to fool my brain in to thinking theirs a light at the end of the tunnel. And being that it is a small list if I don’t complete it that day it’s just as easy to carry over items to the next without getting discouraged and keeping my energy up by focusing on what’s at hand now.
    This reminds me of a favorite quote, I think it was Jonathan Winters who said-

    “If your ship doesn’t come in, swim out to meet it!” .

  • Brian Park

    Awesome post and one I needed to read. For me I think the enemy to starting is perfection. I try to tackle the small tasks first to gather the momentum of completely something and hopefully that will snowball into finishing the project.

  • sdfs

    great article – thank you

  • Armaan Khanna

    “and get started on those things you want to accomplish before you die.” That’s what all matters. A good article.


    GREAT article! Mentioned @

  • motar

    i just can’t get motivated

  • what

    not really helpful although there was one new thing learnt

  • Gord Collins

    Excellent article Oliver. “Antidote for positive thinking” So what do we do with cognitive behavioral therapy which has us countering negative thoughts with positive ones? Is a positive thought just pushing yourself hopelessly. The whole point about not pushing ourselves during those blah times is very relevant. Instead of giving up on ourself though, it might better to use that old saying “get over yourself” and you’d have a better attitude about it. It makes you laugh at yourself, and with that release of tension, you might be able to progress.

    It’s that moment when we’re pushing that we’re forcing our ineffective style or attitudes on the situation, that we need to back off and accept our limitations. But accepting limitations is not popular with management who would prefer you are in “attack mode” all the time (especially sales pros) — to show your true interest, integrity and drive. I hope all managers read this article.

  • James K Yamungu

    terrific! i love it!

  • hoatam

    ignore the feeling then take action, but everyone is affected by feeling when doing things. I understand the concept but still stuck in bringing it the real. Anyway this is great article, I can learn some points here.

  • maximiliano

    Great article – thank you very much

  • SeaDragon

    As Popeye once said, “That’s all I can stands, cuz I can’t stands n’more!” Well, that’s how I felt after enduring yet another unrelenting micromanager. So, I recently decided to gracefully walk away from a semi-rewarding 43-year career. Fortunately, I always knew it could go down this way, and began financially preparing for the possibility long ago.

    Although I’m slightly disappointed in coming-up shy of my self-envisioned retirement date by three years, it’s balanced by the knowledge that I actually pulled-off the oft elusive dream of leaving on my own terms. Here’s hoping that many others can eventually do the same.

  • Feeling Magnets

    Yep.. I’ve been there and done that… For a long time I was failing miserably with pushing myself to get things done when I clearly didn’t feel like doing them.
    It was really a big discovery for me that only when I started to recognize and accept my negative feelings about the task, I have managed to actually complete it!

    It’s amazing that they don’t teach this at school…. Knowing this earlier would have made my life so much easier!


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