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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)
  • Jia Ying

    amazing. just what i need at the moment.

  • Mikey Hamm

    I agree! This has worked for me. It de-mystifies the task, and helps with the fear (of failure, of success) that is stopping you.

    Steven Pressfield addresses this in “The War of Art”. He says what works for him is to become the begrudging, job hating coal miner. The blue collar stiff that goes to work anyway, who takes pride along with his work-buddies in how awful their conditions are.

  • Praveen

    Even that’s what BhagvataGeeta tell about taking action detached from any feelings or expectations. Nice to know one branch of psychology is also proposing it. 🙂

  • Gwen Hill

    I LOVE fresh ideas. I am definitely a positive thinker. I am also a person who has to be creative on demand. The fresh idea takeaway for me is that enthusiasm is not required to get your work done. What a concept! 😉

  • Rich

    I really suffer from lack of motivation, especially when it comes to personal projects – things i actually really want to do, more so that the things i actually do at my day job, I just cant face more hours in front of the bright rectangle in front of me after an 8-9 hour shift. I even caught mysekf in a daze just reading this post – completely zoned out… there’s something wrong with me I think lol.

  • Kevin Hollingsworth

    I try to “personify” the negativity by trying to dialogue with it. Not by literally talking with myself, but i’ll grab a pen and paper and write in screenplay style. I find that after awhile the negativity or whatever the distraction will tend to dissipate.

  • Jill

    This reminds me of the book The Tools. One of the tools is about the practice of taking your fears or negative feelings (about anything in life: work, relationships etc) and embracing them as something you want to feel eg: I want to be bored, I want to be uninspired, I want to be rejected. Then once you do that you can move past it, broaden your comfort zone and not feel the resistance as much. The bigger your comfort zone the more freedom for “movement” you have. Similar to what this article is saying, don’t think about anything, just get up and do it and things fall into place. Although, it IS a little easier said than done. I’m struggling with this today when just a few days ago I was pulling all nighters getting tons of work done and enjoying it. It’s frustrating but I am doing the work at least.

  • Victoria Fann

    A similar technique I’ve used myself and with my coaching clients is to give yourself permission to quit everything every once in a while. Have a full blown tantrum and release all of that pent up negativity and sabotaging self-talk and just quit. Stay in bed, read magazines, eat ice cream, go to a movie…do anything BUT what you have to do…avoid it completely. After a day of full-out avoidance and indulging your resistance, what I’ve found is that the next day I’m super motivated, full of new ideas and ready to start over again! It’s a complete reboot of the system, a purge of a bunch of negative fragments hanging around that just need to be fully felt and then dismissed. It really helps to do it all at once rather than fits and starts. Just quit, have the tantrum, feel the feelings and then start again.

    • tracey peever

      I totally agree with this strategy, Victoria. GO ALL THE WAY INTO IT. SO amazingly non-attached to pleasure and satisfaction that I wholeheartedly indulge and enjoy my resistance in all its resistful glory! And then it feels different on the other side, so that I can move through instead of around.

    • Gabriel

      Well said, sometimes I do this as well and it works!

  • Jordan

    Written simply and tastefully. It’s pleasant to read. Thank u.

  • Laurent Boncenne

    this is timely advice, exactly the mindset I needed right now!

  • Adil

    Absolutely loved it. Amazing articles and aamazing people

  • Aaron Morton

    Adopt the fetal position and bath in self-pity! Only joking, when motivation is low I tend to do a ‘low energy’ aspect of the job I am ‘trying’ to get motivated to do like research, or I just walk away coming back to it later.

    I think this is a strong concept that has to be ingrained in people that you don’t have to have a certain feeling to start work. Create the environment and then do it. the ‘do it’ part is said so often it is in danger of becoming a cliche yet it seems like it is not getting in yet.

    Good article.
    Aaron Morton

  • Kriss

    I have been hearing more about these kind of techniques over the last couple of years i.e. that letting go of the built up pressure we create around our policies (what we say we should and should not do) can often make it easier to follow them.

    My understanding of this is not completely coherent. But I think these ideas have potential to become coherent and would love to learn more about this topic. 🙂

    One strong philosophical argument for this is about Hume’s ‘is… ought to gap’ i.e He said that all your ‘ought to’s must be justified by values to make sense; unless your policy lead to some kind of value it doesn’t make sense to follow it. And it seems reasonable that only if we let go of rationalized pressures from ourselves and our culture do we allow ourselves to feel what it is we truly value about the task. Which in turn will make it easier for us to follow our policies since we actually feel a real motivating force i.e. what we truly value will guide our behaviour rather than what we have rationalized we ‘ought to do’ (with flawed logic and a heave cultural heritage).

    A scientific argument is about glycogen levels in our brain. I don’t know too much about it but I have read about many experiments that conclude that there is some (complex) connection between the glycogen levels in our brain and our ability to power through i.e. exercising our ‘will power’. Once we are burning a lot of glycogen our brain send some kind of signal to our body that we need to reserve glycogen which leads to an inability to exercise our ‘will power’ (probably to save some incase something really important comes up). It has been showed that we use up less glycogen when we do things we value and when we do things we have the habit to do. Since so many of our values are competing against one another for attention, how much glycogen we burn during a task must depend on what we are thinking about. So it make sense that once you let go of trying to rationalize all angles of whether or not to sit down and work right now you will not burn out as quickly. Therefore find yourself just doing it rather than not doing it. Maybe focusing on what you value about the task (i.e. positive thinking) early on can work, but once you are low on glycogen you are out. It is physically impossible for you to power through, regardless of how much you tell yourself you value it.

    In particular I have to questions:
    1. Has anyone seen any studies on (brain) glycogen, will power and allowing yourself to let go (give up)?

    2. What is the connection between ‘letting go’ and meditation?

  • Richie

    My technique for getting things done is to physically write down everything that is clogging my thoughts. I make a large list and break down why I’m thinking about certain things. I start to eliminate the random creative thoughts and focus on what needs to get done. Also next to each task I give myself a reasonable time it will take for me to finish the task. Physically writing things down helps me when I feel distracted. Great article!!

  • Adam Smith

    What a new idea. I like it.

  • Zell Liew

    Love the post.

    Previously, I have kept falling into the need to get into the mood before I can get things done. This articles puts on a totally fresh perspective that is similar to the meditation practice that I’ve been following recently.

    Now its not a matter of feeling good before I can get things done, but rather, doing the task after taking a small break and accepting my feelings.

    It’s been great to see the article and keep my mind refreshed about this perspective.


  • Ivana

    one little thing that worked perfectly for me is telling myself one sentence that, i think, only confirms the non- attachment and non- importance of getting into mood before doing something, feeling all motivational, etc. every time i feel that i have absolutely no will to work or create, or the negativity overwhelms me, i tell myself: `shhhhhh, i`m trying to work here. ` the thoughts subside as i choose to ignore them and pay them absolutely no importance. this has worked wonders.

    • Amy

      Ivana, Thank you so much for this! It DOES work wonders.

  • Marya

    This is just the post I needed to read at the exact right moment. Thank you.

  • Phyllis

    Oh, I love this. This is how I do things on many, many days. I don’t try to get pumped up; I don’t try to like things that i just don’t like. It takes too much energy. It tires me out. And at the end of the day, it’s not all that helpful for moving on with the work.

  • Amandah T. Blackwell

    “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.” I agree with this. If you have to psyche yourself up to do something, you won’t want to do it.

    “…just feel the negativity, without trying to banish it.” This reminds me of what Debbie Ford’s saying, “What you resist persists?”

    Affirmations are great if you believe them. Saying a bunch of words won’t magically make your troubles or procrastination disappear. You must believe first.

    Thanks for the article. I loved the headline. Sometimes, giving up can open up new doors for you.

  • H. Jude Boudreaux, CFP®

    I love this post. I’ve been trying to meditate more, and become less attached to outcomes and emotions and this is a great reinforcement. Thanks!

  • Gabriel

    My method of doing something when I just can’t summon the enthusiasm to do it is sometimes to take them one step at a time (especially if it’s a task I’m dreading to do). Thinking about the progress I’m making (forced as it may be) and how I am getting ever closer to completing the task helps. Something to the effect of “okay, 1% done, 99% to go”.

    Pretty lame, I know, but effective (for me).

  • Dré Swaby

    When the spark of enthusiasm isn’t present I usually take myself away from the project, I engage in done other activity, mostly music or videogames, something to relax; sitting on the toilet works! (LOL) All along the project is still present but more on the down low and somewhere along relax boulevard the spark reignites and I resume activity.

  • Teresa Capaldo

    I just did a post today on moving inspiration into motivation, cool coincidence. I think changing it up is a good place to start…

    creativity can’t be forced or faked but there is a point when you are right on the fringe of something and you have to surrender to letting it happen versus making it happen….I believe it has to do with trusting your intuition and differentiating when you need to take a walk, take a nap, watch trashy TV, eat a snack or meditate….and allow [it] to unfold.

    I don’t think there’s a sure fire recipe, TRUST in yourself to know what’s needed, including “giving up” temporarily. Cheers!

    • Amy Barnes

      Trust in yourself is the key.

  • Steve Hullfish

    My method for motivation is similar to the advice offered here. My method is to do some small and almost meaningless step in the process just to get one step closer. This often leads to taking the next step and the next step. Sometimes it will be just to send an email to ask a question about the project. Anything I can do to move the ball closer to the goal line with the least possible effort. Eventually the inertia is overcome by the smallest amount of momentum.

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