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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)
  • Mary Koster

    Ok, I didn’t read this earlier because but this is exactly what I needed to read this week with my overwhelm and getting ready to be motivated..haha. And thanks to my friend, Pete, for sending it to me AGAIN after I deleted my email already. Thanks to Behance for sharing this…very good blog. Just do something… and the rest will come and the emotion will pass.

  • Mirna Noaman

    When I stress out, I take a five-minute dance break. But not actual “breaks”. I just keep going, even if I make crap. I make crap and improve it and develop it until I eventually get somewhere. Inspiration really DOES have to find you working.

  • T Clark

    ready, fire aim. tried and true. .

  • Pauline Kennedy

    Yep, needed this. Our emotions are our servants, not our masters. As an artist my blank canvas can freak me out so I throw a little dirt on it, clean it up and 2 hours later I’m in the middle of my next work.

  • Treavor Wagoner

    1) Get the task/project off my mind by watching a movie or videos, listening to music, reading, calling a friend. My problem is that I over-think which undoes my blocks motivation for me.
    2) Eat something.
    3) Drink water.4) Go outside.
    5) Go for a drive.

  • Manoel Ricardo

    im really glad in reading this. today was a day of acomplishments that were result of many choices like that: jump free in the unknown. while i was like “oh my, do I have what it takes?” i was losing time. instead i started to go like “fuck it, ill do it. i dont know how, but ill fucking do it!” things started to happen. im glad.
    now i know this is kind of a tactic to face projects, i gotta aply it to others parts of my life.
    thank you very much for the post!

  • Susan

    This is right on! Many times, making a list of what I need to do gets my head clear and, then, writing down the first tiniest steps at the beginning make it impossible to not get going and get some momentum. Sometimes my head is just not in the game and organizing my paperwork and desk, making a list — aka preparing — is the fastest route to action.

  • kickstreet

    I have found that I am most creative when walking or taking a break. This is
    because I am more relaxed and calm. Therefore, I am able to come up with great ideas
    and make better decisions.

  • Jeff

    Man I’m so lacking in motivation that I can barely bring myself to write this comment… Yet I think I’m ill, so I’ll let myself of.

    I agree that time spent “trying” to get motivated is time wasted although, becoming motivated indirectly through that which inspires us has a hugely positive affect. In my opinion, when people are trying to get themselves motivated what they are really doing, is looking for something that might inspire them. So just doing it, works really well as the act of our doing is inspirational and therefore, a motivation.

    For a more “american football” affect, search MOTIVATION – “I AM A CHAMPION!” in youtube and you will become VERY motivated, regardless of your occupation.


  • uri

    gran ilustración primo!!!

  • Elissimo

    I’ve had an inkling about this theory for a while.. I always look up motivation advice, listen to Tony Robins and other motivational talks. None of it works for me but surprisingly when I’m on holiday and I’m in a position where I actually can’t work even if I wanted to (due to lack of internet access or my laptop’s inferiority to my desktop), that’s when I get the urge to get back to work and I’m reminded that I do like doing what I do.

    I think you have to remove yourself from the situation and put yourself in a situation where you literally can’t do what you need to do, even if you wanted to. That way you don’t focus on the fact that you need to do it and don’t want to, but you focus on that barrier to doing it and then overcoming it.

  • Daniel Kauwe

    very timely, just when i’ve been grappling with this very conundrum…

  • Behrang Saeedzadeh

    Thanks for writing this thought provoking article, Oliver. I enjoyed reading it. Any good resources about Buddhism and Non-attachment, as well as Zen that you recommend?

    • Alan Arnett

      Behrang. I don’t have any generic books on Zen, but a while ago I read a great book called ‘Writing Down the Bones’, which applies the thinking of Zen to creative writing. One of the core techniques in the book is ‘writing practice’ – just getting up every morning and writing something/anything, to get past the procrastination and into action. In fact, having recommended it I’ll probably go back and read it again.

      • Komal J. Verma

        That’s like ‘morning pages’ from ‘The Artist’s Way’ by Julia Cameron.

      • Behrang

        Thanks Alan. Should be an interesting read.

  • Thanan

    Its really cute & useful article!

  • David Van Staden

    Like the Nike slogan says – “Just do it”…Best motivation ever

  • David Van Staden

    Also, Mark Zuckerberg Said – “Done is better than perfect”

    • danshafer

      Alternatively, “Don’t let perfection become the enemy of completion.”

  • Oli Murugavel

    Very provoking article..! Thanks for writing!

  • Vipsu

    Interesting article! I also tend to wait that I “feel like it” before I start on things. A good tip is also to cheat yourself to start. -If you start by thinking “I’m just gonna write few lines…”, “maybe plan the outline, Nothing else” you can find the inspiration on the way. (It’s one way to “give up”) Btw, it works on homechores too! 😉

  • clotilde

    Thanks for this very interesting article ! I used to react as Vipsu does : wait that I “feel like it”. Now, I’ll be the best imperfect person I can be 😉

  • Becca Gardner

    This just put a name to my madness. I often feel like there are 2 “me’s”, (positive/negative, motivated/unmotivated) and I regularly push myself to spite the lazy/unmotivated/negative “me”. Also, if you select the worst job from your list to do first (rather than avoiding and procrastinating, doing the nice ones until you have run out of time) you get through them much faster. Something about eating a frog… but I never did read that book.

  • Lisa Wain


  • Debbie mcCarthy

    I’m so glad it’s not just me that feels this way. I can see from just reading this article that I often spend too much time thinking about what I need to get done without getting things done especially if I don’t really want to. I then end up feeling guilty about it.
    I think like most people I try to get motivated and that in itself is hard work.
    Now I can forgive myself if there are days when I feel unmotivated and negative and I may even allow myself a few treats from time to time. Time to be good to myself..

  • Dana Adzur Neren

    So real. So good. Thank you. It’s like Shine Meditation or Gestalt.

  • Alan Arnett

    Great article – I needed this today 🙂 I’ve found that when I do avoid doing something, I’ll often spend ages in internal dialogue justifying why its not the right time to start. So now (when I notice) I balance that with just acknowledging I’ll feel much better when this annoying task is out of the way. Its still connected to a sense of the future, but its not visualizing a goal, just disposing of something frustrating.

  • Elena

    SO relevant right now. Woke up at 3:30am with the worst anxiety. Ug! It’s so relieving to read others’ experience with this feeling.

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