My alarm clock went off. After going to bed at 6 am, the last thing I wanted to do was get up at 10, but I did it anyway. I dragged myself to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. The face staring back at me seemed vaguely familiar – a dashing young man, kind of looking like me, but with huge shadows under his eyes. “A cold shower will fix this,” I thought. A chill went down my spine. I hate cold showers with a burning passion.
As the cold water was washing away all the fatigue and focusing my mind, I tried to plan my day. But the only thing I could think about was how cold I was, so I simply finished showering. I had plenty of time for planning while brushing my teeth.
After I got dressed, I prepared breakfast. Oatmeal with hot water. I don’t eat it this way because it’s healthier or due to the low calorie count (although that is a bonus). I eat it this way to remind myself I can do and eat things I don’t like, even when I don’t have to. I’m not a slave to how I feel.
Next, I sat down and sent some emails. I’m currently experimenting with cold emailing and I must say – I’m pretty pleased with the results. Even though it was uncomfortable to start, it’s growing on me.
Finally, I hit the gym, even though I didn’t feel like training at all. To be honest, I rarely do before I start that very first set but it’s smooth sailing after that. I feel like the workout jumpstarts my day, even though I oftentimes hate the idea of going.
Why am I telling you all this? Because these are things I used to find difficult at one point or the other. And these days, I start my day doing them without an ounce of motivation. That’s right – none. I’m not motivated to do any of them, but I still do them. I have a purpose. I have a mission. And oftentimes, that means doing things you don’t want to do.
Of course, you can choose not to do them. But then you will never achieve your goals and you will live life in a pool mediocrity. Which, if you want to run a business, or if you want to excel at anything, you cannot afford. And this is where many people trip and fall. Because they think they need to be motivated to do something worthwhile. They don’t realize one simple truth: motivation is bullshit.
Why is motivation bullshit?
Motivation is one of the biggest dream-killers in existence. It’s right up there with fear of failure, procrastination, and Netflix. That’s why motivational videos on YouTube get millions of hits while the people watching them go through the motions. And why so few live with purpose and intent.
I used to think motivation was the most important factor for achieving anything. It seems so intuitive – if you’re motivated to do something and it feels good to do it, you will excel. It’s motivation that gets you out of bed at 5 am for your morning run. In the same vein, it’s motivation that keeps you working on your business for 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. So without motivation, you can’t achieve anything, right? Wrong. It’s not motivation that allows you to do any of those things in the long run.
Let us first define what motivation is before we get back to why it’s bullshit. In its most basic form, motivation is a desire or an aversion caused by emotion. Because it’s based on emotion, motivation is, by definition, short-term. That’s why it’s easy to get motivated to do something… tomorrow. It’s an awesome feeling that has the power to jumpstart change. But rely on it too much and you’ll be back to square one in no time.
One of the most vivid examples of motivation is New Year’s resolutions. “New Year, new me”, people say on January first. Pumped up by emotions, fireworks and gallons of alcohol, they decide this year is going to be different. Yes, this year, they’ll finally achieve the body they want, read 15 books, start learning a foreign language, travel, and quit smoking. People make a list with all these desires and every intention of following through.
What happens next is almost magical. January second comes. The hangover (and the only excuse not to start) is gone. But the awesome feeling of turning one’s life around begins to dwindle now that we need to start doing the fuckin’ work. Oh, well – gym memberships are a dime a dozen, so let’s start there. Besides, how hard can it be to lift some weights? And so they flock into the gym, ready to begin the transformation.
Most resolutioners never make it past their first few workouts. Their motivation is gone way before they can see some results and receive a positive reinforcement. And this beautifully illustrates the problem with motivation. It’s a spark, but you can’t rely on it to be a burning fire.
Am I out of my mind?
A huge reason why resolutioners almost never follow through has to do with the way motivation works neurologically. Have you ever noticed how you’re very motivated to eat junk food and sweets? No one needs to watch a motivational video before downing a soft cookie with 3 types of chocolate chip (shoutout to my friend Nelly – hers are the best I’ve ever tasted). Why’s that? The answer is simple – dopamine.
Dopamine is what you might call “a pleasure molecule”. It’s a chemical signal in your brain that makes you feel pleasure. The more dopamine your brain releases, the more pleasure you feel. Eating sugar leads to a dopamine hit which makes you want to repeat the pattern. And before you know it, you have a sugar addiction (which is why I avoid making it a habit). In fact, many of our vices (and addictions) are related to dopamine release, be it caffeine, alcohol, drugs, or gambling.
Herein lies the problem. Motivation, by definition, activates as a result of an emotion. Let’s say you set new goals for yourself because you want people to admire you. Experiencing this admiration and climbing the dominance hierarchy is pleasurable, so it seems like a worthy goal. Once you set a goal, you’re motivated because your brain releases dopamine to get you going. That’s why motivation “feels good” in the moment.
But here’s the thing – you’re probably not going to be getting another hit anytime soon. Whatever goals you set for yourself, if they’re worth something, they’ll require time, work, and dedication. The dopamine hits that would keep you going simply won’t come. That admiration you wanted to receive won’t be coming anytime soon, either. Besides, this path leads you to a fixed mindset, which has its own set of problems. So you’ll just drop it and play video games where the gratification is instant. And, by the way, I’m not dunking on video games, Netflix, YouTube, etc. There’s nothing wrong with doing any of these things, as long as they don’t stand in the way of you fulfilling your potential and becoming a better version of yourself.
Let’s say you want to start a business. How far can motivation get you? You can tell your friends about your new business. Print out some awesome business cards and make a website. All of this will feel pretty good. But what happens when the good feeling is gone? Two weeks later, you have a website, a bunch of cards, and zero clients. What happens when you have to start grinding, creating content, and reaching out to potential clients? What happens when it doesn’t feel good? When it’s no longer new, or sexy, and your friends no longer congratulate you on your new venture? What do you do then?
This is why most people pick something up, try it out and put it down two minutes later. And, by the way, I’m telling you all this as a student of the game. I’ve fallen victim to the same traps, myself. That’s why I know that nothing happens if you don’t have a purpose. When your purpose is crystal clear, then the pain of not doing something becomes greater than the pain of doing it.
As I’m writing these words, it’s 4 AM. I’ve been staring at the screen for most of the day – doing research, sending emails, reading, showcasing gaps in a brand strategy for a client. My eyes hurt. My back is killing me. My head is pounding. Oh, and, it’s Sunday night (or technically Monday morning).
I’m not saying all this to show you “how much I hustle” (ugh). And the last thing I want to do is glorify pain (it sucks; I should be taking better care of myself, and so should you). I’m saying it so you can see going after your goals is not all sunshine and rainbows. It’s not about pleasure. But to me, it’s worth it. While the gratification is delayed, there is a sense of fulfillment in walking my own path.
Having a real vision, a purpose, and the discipline to pursue them are far more important than motivation. Just fuckin’ starting is far more important than motivation (hint: you don’t need motivation to start). Stop being a slave to your feelings. Doing something small every day, even when you don’t feel like it, will get you much farther than all the motivation in the world.
How to actually get shit done.
Motivation can serve its purpose as a spark. It can begin a chain reaction of change. But something else needs to take its place if you want to keep going.
It’s habits and small routines that win the day, not motivation. Instead of motivation, claim discipline and responsibility.
With great responsibility comes great power.
Jocko Willing calls it “Extreme Ownership“. The idea of taking responsibility (sometimes, even when it’s not yours to bear). Doing this makes you powerful beyond measure. Because now it doesn’t matter if you’re motivated or not – you’re in charge of your own well-being.
Don’t feel like hitting the gym? It’s OK. Don’t. But then don’t complain about what you see in the mirror. Or about feeling tired all the time and not having energy.
Don’t feel like working on your business? Fine, you do you. But then don’t complain clients aren’t flocking to work with you. And don’t blame them for going with your comeptitors.
This “mode” allows you to completely exclude motivation from the equation. You know there is something you need to do and you do it. How you feel has no place in the picture.
I know this may sound harsh to some of you, especially the more sensitive kind. So let me extend an olive branch – your feelings do matter and can be a powerful compass to let you know if you’re going in the right direction. But a compass is just a tool – it alone cannot bring you to your destination. You also need a map.
Sometimes you have to power through the unpleasant feelings so you can get to the pleasant ones. Only then can you finally begin to see the results of your labor after years of pouring effort in. But that can’t happen if you always quit when “you don’t feel like it”.
Your brain is lazy. Ignore it.
Your brain uses 20% of the energy and oxygen in your body, despite being about 2% of your total bodyweight. Just let that sink in.
Naturally, it tries to optimize every process in the interest of conserving energy. This conservation could’ve saved your life 100,000 years ago when food was scarce. That’s no longer the case but our brains haven’t gotten the memo. The same basic mechanisms still drive our behaviour.
So if your brain is given the choice between doing something and doing nothing, in most cases it will choose the latter to conserve energy. That’s why you’re rarely motivated to do anything, unless it’s directly related achieving pleasure or avoiding pain in the short-term.
This is another reason why you shouldn’t always “listen to your feelings”. Of course you’re not going to feel like sweating like crazy for an hour at the gym – are you insane? And why would you deny yourself the chocolatey goodness of a soft cookie with three types of chocolate chip? You have to be out of your mind for that. Yet, thinking about the long-term benefits instead of short-term gratification will ultimately help you win.
The same thing happens in business. It’s a lot easier to take shortcuts and have an OK business. And if that’s what you want – fine. But if you set aside short-sighted goals in favor of creating something truly awesome, then your business will be amazing. Otherwise, the results will be mediocre. Mediocre effort leads to a mediocre life.
Set goals for yourself and go after them.
How will you know if you’re going in the right direction if you’re not listening to your feelings? Easy – set goals for yourself. These goals should resonate with you on a personal level. They should be a way in which you want to improve your life.
Goals should be clear and at least in some way – measurable. But they should also be within your control. So, for example, getting a certain award isn’t a good goal, because that’s not up to you. However, showing up every day and doing your best work – is.
Set goals for different faucets of your life. What do you want from your career, business, fitness, health, partner, etc. Then figure out what you need to be doing daily to achieve those goals.
So, for example, one of my goals is to help at least one person a day grow in some way. But to do that, first I need to grow every day. So I read, I write, I listen to podcasts. I train, I challenge myself, and try to get better daily. I work on my own struggles so that when other people face something similar, I can offer helpful advice. My blog is a way to reach even more people through space and time (you may be reading this a few years after I wrote it and still find value in it). Which is why, writing regularly is also on the goals list.
Of course, I have other goals, and each of them requires the same amount of attention and dedication. Yet, I don’t know another way in which one can excel or make a difference.
Once you set these personal goals, they should be the North star you’re striving towards. Whether you “feel like it” or not. Figure out what you need to do daily in order to move towards the goal and ask yourself every night before you go to bed, “Did I move closer to my goal today?”
It’s important that the goals you set are something you truly want to achieve. You. Not your parents, not your spouse, or your kids, or your creepy uncle. Striving towards someone else’s goals is a curse. It’s like living someone else’s life. It will never feel fulfilling.
I’m sorry if I’m starting to sound like a motivational speaker (the irony is not lost on me) who is trying to sell you a life coaching course. I’m not. This is just how things are. When you start doing this, you see motivation is a very small, insignificant part of the whole equation.
Create powerful habits.
You’ve written down your goals. You’ve figured out what you need to do daily in order to achieve them. Now what? Now you start building habits. If you want the definitive guide on how to do this, you should check out James Clear’s Atomic Habits. The book is jam-packed with useful information and examples.
Remember the part about the brain being lazy? You can use this to your advantage. Once you manage to turn something into a habit, you begin to do it almost automatically. You don’t need will power or motivation to do something automatic. Plan ahead, schedule your day and form habits that move you towards your goals.
So what does your business need in order to grow? Networking? Contacting more potential clients? Better marketing? Whatever it is, figure it out and work on it. Even if you hire the right people, you still need to be involved. It’s your business. You need to be aware of your goals and create the right habits to achieve them.
Working on your business should be a daily habit. Taking care of yourself should be a daily habit (I still struggle with this when I dive deep into my work). Or in the words of Will Durant (summing up Aristotle), “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Powerful habits set you up for success.
While motivation has its place here and there, it’s overrated. There are many other factors that are way more important than motivation if you want to get somewhere in life. “I’m not motivated” is just a convenient excuse.
If you have discipline, develop good habits and take control over your life, then you will achieve far more than if you’re simply “motivated”. Don’t let motivation (or lack thereof) stand in the way of your goals.
Till next time.