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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)
  • Darsy

    I agree so much with this you know, it’s very insteresting because that’s exactly what was happening to me, when searching for motivational videos in youtube. It’s the attachment to a certain type of feeling that makes us lazy, but it’s also important to be able to forgive yourself for your own imperfections when you’re not able to simply “switch on” the “happy button”. Meditation helps a lot because instead of fighting the problem you learn how to get in terms with it and it’s a profound self-knowledge practice!

  • Clearsite Web Design

    Good post. Stepping away from it sometimes is the best way to get motivated!

  • jlag

    This is a bit unimpressive. Summary: the best way to do something is to just do it?

  • F Escamilla

    In my case, after years of struggling with motivation barriers in my work, I discovered that following ludic lines help me a lot to turn down the blocks and go on. For instance, when I get blocked, I start drawing schemes of my ideas using color pens. Turning it into a game makes me keep going on, and frequently this conducts me to the solution of the problem I was trying to solve. I design financial products.

  • kv

    I guess cause deep down you know it has to be done, so motivation isn’t the only vehicle of doing things.

  • Narjas Windo

    I love this post. Fantastic advice. Especially the non-attachment idea. Letting go is exactly what I have worked out recently works best for me too. 🙂

  • shalini

    Great advice! I agree that it works because sometimes I find the reason I am not motivated is that I feel that I am not doing a good job at what I am doing or it will be difficult and keep procrastinating but then sometimes I just start doing it even though I don’t want to And I start feeling that the task was actually easy to do. Once you start doing it you feel confident. And then I start enjoying it. 😀

  • GeeMomma

    This is old advice. Growing up, my dad used to always tell me: “Fake it till you make it. Do the right thing and your emotions will fall into place.” Similar to Yoda: “Try not. DO.”

    • Rachel

      fake it till you make it is a good one, and works so well!

      • danshafer

        Or, perhaps slightly more positively stated, “Act as if.”

  • Lily

    Pretty interesting article! Thanks for this useful advice.

  • gili

    Thank you for the advice! Everyone should practice to be imperfectly perfect!

    • danshafer

      The Japanese have a cool-sounding phrase for this: wabi-sabi. Look for the perfection in the imperfection. This one doesn’t work well for me but I have two clients and a colleague for whom it is THE answer.

  • Ricardo Gurgel

    I’m using exactly the same technique and I feel great. It’s a little new for me, but I see it as a “children mode one”. Nothing matters, just do it! (Nike?!) The great about this, is that, the end of work, you will feel very well most times, and little frustrated sometimes. At the end, you see that just dont matters and it is realy great turn to make more motivated for next level !

  • BioWorkZ

    I try to remind myself that I’m a professional. What matters is doing what needs to be done regardless of how I feel at the moment. What I can’t help is that I get distracted easily and my artwork suffers because I’m not “feeling it”.

    • Maxi Winter

      But let’s be honest: there’s always a reason for a lack of motivation. Plus, we’re not machines and even machines need a break otherwise they’ll be broken soon. I think it depends on how balanced your life is and how often you can do what you like. If you feel that what you’re doing is “work” then you simply don’t like the project. And sometimes you’ll even get to a point where something else matters more than getting work done. My advice is to be kind to yourself and ask yourself what you’d like to do instead and then act accordingly. Genuine rewards help getting more motivated than telling yourself that this is only a nuisance.

      • Sean Blanda

        well said!

  • Geoff McMahen

    This is an awesome article. I have been trying to do mini meditation sessions in the middle of the day. Sounds crazy but it works!

    • danshafer

      Doesn’t sound crazy at all and it isn’t. Millions of people and dozens of studies confirm the value of this approach. Like all such techniques, it doesn’t work for everyone, but if it does work for you, it’s quite powerful.

  • Michael Ash

    Great piece Oliver. I agree and disagree with your stance because;
    all my research tells me there are two schools of thought. In “The
    Happiness Advantage,” Harvard lecturer and researcher, Shawn Achor talks
    extensively about the science of positive psychology. It’s only befitting that
    the same institution produces such polar views. As it should be… Shawn’s
    research highlighted many case studies about the power of positive
    priming, which seems to be the antithesis of this article. I think the “Screw It,
    Let’s Do It,” attitude works when both worlds come together. To simply dismiss
    one for the other is a problem. There are days when stepping back and jumping onto a project works. But as someone pointed out earlier, habits go a long way.

  • Jehangir Mehentee

    Thanks for this. Sometimes, it’s hard to be motivated when you’re mentally tired. Stepping away, disconnecting, and then coming back and doing works wonders for – I had to do it yesterday while designing a resilience course 🙂

    It’s good to know that there’s a scientific basis behind what I practice.

  • Valerie Norberry

    I would recommend fasting for clarity, then going forward.

  • Xavi Serra

    Follow your dreams, if you don’t find a dream then travel away

  • Sahil Sk

    Indeed good tips sacked wonderfully in few English written lines.
    I also feel demotivated, working on personal project especially. For clients, I’ve forces backed by feelings of embarrassment if failed to deliver them in time that always keep pushing me. But for personal projects these forces no longer exist and thus carving way for sluggishness in me to come before me and giving writers block.

    But after these post, i realised there is way to put this ‘Demotivator’ at bay. Instead of saying “Not now”, i should be focussing on “Right away”.

    Thanks for giving away this nice article. Very good take away of the day, for me. 🙂

  • Steve

    I waste more time by reading blogs like this. (no offence 99U)

    • Agnieszka

      I agree. – no worth reading points unfortunatelly.

  • petrnew

    I’d absolutely agree! I think the idea of just taking action should be prevailing in everything we do. Sure, there is a time for “get motivated” steps but that should not be the only mantra. I try to kill the “dull time” by changing projects I am working on because it usually helps to start doing something and those little achievements (even though they are not from my main activity which needs to be done) then allow me to switch to the main project and just keep doing…

  • Rachel

    I learned this when going through therapy for depression. I learned to allow the feeling, accept that I was going to feel that way, and keep on moving, even at a slower pace. I always felt just a little better afterward, knowing I actually accomplished something. It makes things so much easier!

  • radmission

    aka Just F*cking Do It.

  • SkinnybyTara

    Give up and come back better!

  • Monique


  • ThroughTheLines

    For me, when motivation is practically non-existent, it’s usually because I’m not feeling optimistic about getting good results (PR). So I handle this by putting in effort that is equally practically non-existent. And if I’m lucky, I make just enough progress to be snapped out of my mind-numbing stupor, and it’s amazing how inspiring that can be.

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