I’ve been working with self development advice for a large percentage of my life. I’ve come across a lot of concepts and ideas as well as invented quite a few of my own. But the following is one of the most important ideas I’ve stumbled across in my life:
Action isn’t just the effect of motivation, but also the cause of it.
Most people only commit to action if they feel a certain level of motivation. And they only feel motivation when they feel an emotional inspiration.
People only become motivated to study for the exam when they’re afraid of the consequences. People only pick up and learn that instrument when they feel inspired by the people they can play for.
And we’ve all slacked off for lack of motivation before. Especially in times where we shouldn’t. We feel lethargic and apathetic towards a certain goal that we’ve set for ourselves because we lack the motivation and we lack the motivation because we don’t feel any overarching emotional desire to accomplish something.
Emotional Inspiration → Motivation → Desirable Action
But there’s a problem with operating under this framework: often the changes and actions we most need in our lives are inspired by negative emotions which simultaneously hinder us from taking action.
If someone wants to fix their relationship with their mother, the emotions of the situation (hurt, resentment, avoidance) completely go against the necessary action to fix it (confrontation, honesty, communication). If someone wants to lose weight, but experiences massive amounts of shame about their body, then the act of going to the gym is apt to inspire in them the exact emotions that kept them at home on the couch in the first place. Past traumas, negative expectations, and feelings of guilt, shame and fear often motivate us away from the actions necessary to overcome those very traumas, negative expectations, and negative emotions.
It’s a catch-22 of sorts. But the thing about the motivation chain is that it’s not only a three-part chain, but an endless loop:
Inspiration → Motivation → Action → Inspiration → Motivation → Action → Etc.
Your actions create further emotional reactions and inspirations and move on to motivate your future actions. Taking advantage of this knowledge, we can actually re-orient our mindset in the following way:
Action → Inspiration → Motivation
The conclusion is that if you lack the motivation to make an important change in your life, then do something, anything really, and then harness the reaction to that action as a way to begin motivating yourself.
I call this the “do something” principle, and I developed it on accident back in my years as a consultant, helping people who were otherwise immobilized by fears, rationalizations, and apathy to take action.
It began out of simple pragmatism: you paid me to be here, so you might as well do something. I don’t care, do anything!
What I found is that often once they did something, even the smallest of actions, it would soon give them the inspiration and motivation to do something else. They had sent a signal to themselves, “OK, I did that, I guess I can do more.” And slowly we could take it from there.
Over the years, I’ve applied the “do something” principle in my own life as well.
The most obvious example is running this website and my business ventures online. I work for myself. I don’t have a boss telling me what to do and not to do. I also often have to take major calculated risks in which I’m personally invested, both financially and emotionally (spending months writing a book, re-branding my entire website, ceasing promotions of my past products, etc.). It’s been nerve-wracking at times, and major feelings of doubt and uncertainty arise. And when no one is around to push you, sitting around and watching TV reruns all day can quickly become a more appealing option.
The first couple years I worked for myself, entire weeks would go by without accomplishing much for no other reason than I was anxious and stressed about what I had to do, and it was too easy to put it off. I quickly learned that forcing myself to do something, even the most menial of tasks, quickly made the larger tasks seem much easier. If I had to redesign an entire website, then I’d force myself to sit down and would say, “OK, I’ll just design the header right now.” But after the header was done, I’d find myself moving on to other parts of it. And before I knew it, I’d be energized and engaged in the project.
I also use this regularly in my own life. If I’m about to tackle a large project that I’m anxious about, or if I’m in a new country and I need to give myself a little push to get out and meet people, I apply the do something principle. Instead of expecting the moon, I just decide, “OK, I’ll start on the outline,” or “OK, I’ll just go out and have a beer and see what’s going on.” The mere action of doing this almost always spurs me on.
Inevitably, the appropriate action occurs at some point or another. The motivation is natural. The inspiration is genuine. It’s an overall far more pleasant way of accomplishing my goals.
My math teacher used to tell us in high school, “If you don’t know how to do a problem, start writing something down, your brain will begin to figure it out as you go.” And sure enough, to this day, this seems to be true. The mere action itself inspires new thoughts and ideas which lead us to solving the problems in our lives. But that new insight never comes if we simply sit around contemplating it.
I recently heard a story about a novelist who had written over 70 novels. Someone asked him how he was able to write so consistently and remain inspired and motivated every day, as writers are notorious for procrastination and for fighting through bouts of “writer’s block.” The novelist said, “200 crappy words per day, that’s it.” The idea is that if he forced himself to write 200 crappy words, more often than not, the act of writing would inspire him and before he knew it he’d have thousands down on the page.
You may recognize this concept among other writings in different guises. I’ve seen it mentioned in terms such as “failing forward” or “ready, fire, aim.” But no matter how you frame it to yourself, it’s an extremely useful mindset and habit to adopt. The more time goes on, the more I realize that success in anything is tied less to knowledge or talent, and tied more to action supplemented by knowledge and talent. You can become successful at something without knowing what you’re doing. You can become successful at something without having much particular talent at it. But you can never become successful at anything without taking action. Ever.
This post originally appeared at MarkManson.net.