But I Don't Want To! Secrets to Self-Motivation

When I sat down to write this piece, I thought the “slant” was pretty obvious. There are, after all, only a few things that truly motivate us to move in one direction or another: fear, money, love, and hate. (See also: 25 Ways to Get Motivated Today)

The key to self-motivating, then, is to find a way to apply those triggers on a day-to-day basis, thereby “tricking” ourselves into getting things done. Unfortunately, this kind of self-manipulation will only produce limited results because when you get right down to it, you’re either motivated to do something or you’re not. Some of us thrive on setting goals and then seeing what we can accomplish, while others don’t feel that thrill at all. Maybe you just haven’t found your passion yet, or maybe there’s not enough fear or money to get you moving. Whatever it is, the “fire” has yet to be lit, and only you can be the one to answer why.

That’s when I realized that my original slant for this article isn’t really the slant you need. I mean, we all know how to bite the bullet and get something done when we have to. But what about when those powerful prompts simply don’t exist? Or worse, what happens when you have to overcome those motivators in order to move in a different and conceivably better direction?

Truth be told, it’s much easier to motivate us to fail or settle than it is to motivate us to succeed. We’ll stay in unsatisfying jobs, for example, because we need the money and we have bills that must be paid. We’ll stay in equally unsatisfying relationships, too, because we’re simply too afraid to leave and venture out on our own.

As a result, much of what we don’t accomplish isn’t because we’re not motivated; it’s because we’re being motivated in a different direction Therein lies the real question — how can you overcome those traditional motivators to steer your life down a better path?

Well, in true Wise Bread fashion, I’ve come up with a short list of hacks to help you get out of your own way. Here they are, in no particular order.

Eat That Frog

This is something that I picked up from Simple Truths, and it’s become my mantra for getting things done. Eat that frog simply means to tackle the worst job first (eating the frog), and then the rest of the day is, well, cake.

For my daughter, that means doing her math homework. For me, it means cleaning out my office. But once we’ve done those horrible, distasteful jobs, everything else on our to-do list looks much more appealing.

For this philosophy to work, you have to be willing to rip off the band aid and jump in. You know that it’s going to sting a little, but you also know that the pain is temporary, and once it’s done, it’s done. The same is true with those things in life that we don’t want to do. Maybe they’re painful and unpleasant, but if we can just plow through them, we’ll ultimately be glad we did. And everything else that follows will seem simple in comparison to choking down that frog.

Face Your FEAR

I’ve seen a number of different acronyms for the word FEAR over the years, but there are a few that I think were created specifically with self-motivation in mind, and they work together seamlessly to hold you back and minimize your growth.

The first is Frantic Effort to Avoid Reality. Let’s face it — we’re creatures of habit. We don’t like change, and we’ll resist and struggle desperately to stay within our bubble, even when we might actually want or need whatever results the change might bring.

As part of our Frantic Effort, we Find Excuses And Reasons that we can’t do whatever it is we need to do. These excuses and reasons help us justify putting the thing off indefinitely, while we create False Expectations About Reality. This is where we really excel.

We have a knack for making mountains out of molehills, and then allowing those seemingly impossible set of circumstances to influence our decision on how to move forward. The truth is often much less dramatic than we make it out to be in our minds, but we’ll allow these False Expectations to keep us from something to the point that Failure (is) Expected And Received.

Now, what’s really interesting about this scenario is that when we do fail — or fail to try — we’ll say it was out of our hands. We knew this was going to happen and there was nothing we could do to avoid it.

The funny thing is though, our success never stood a chance against our FEAR, and we could have saved ourselves a great amount of worry and stress by just announcing to the world that we weren’t even going to attempt this particular step in our evolution.

But then, where’s the fun in that, right?

So before you work yourself into a frenzy, see if you can face your fear instead. What is it that you’re really afraid of? Are there truly absolutely awful things that could occur, or are you just setting up those False Expectations?

Break It Down

Sometimes it's not fear or disdain that holds us back but rather, the feeling of being overwhelmed. And using my office again as an example, I can say with certainty that this sensation is almost guaranteed to induce procrastination.

For whatever reason, my office seems to be the place that acts as a catch-all for things that don’t yet have a place to go. As a result, I have piles of books and boxes and bags that accumulate mysteriously in the corners, and if I don’t stay on top of it, those piles can grow rather quickly.

Cleaning out my office, then, can sometimes be exhausting before I even get started. I won’t deny walking in on occasions only to look around and walk right back out. The key to success in these instances is to find a way to remove that feeling of “impossibleness” and the best way to do that is to break the job down.

Maybe I clean one pile a day or start by simply cleaning off my desk. Whatever it is that I decide, I do that job and then I move onto something else entirely. Knowing that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel makes it easier to tackle the mess, and seeing that one clean area also serves as an inspiration to keep going until its all done.

Now, facing a big job isn’t the only thing that can cause you to feel overwhelmed. It can also happen when you’ve stepped too far outside your comfort zone. Yes, pushing the envelope and expanding your horizons is a good thing. But push too far too fast, and you lose your ability to reason and analyze. This causes you to feel besieged by confusion, and you’ll end up walking away from the project or opportunity almost every time.

The solution is to get around that feeling of being “lost” by applying the same milestone strategy to navigating your unchartered territory. Figure out what knowledge you would need to regain your comfort level, and then break it down into digestible chunks, just like they did when you were in school. You wouldn’t try to master complex physics equations on the first day, for example. Instead you’d start with a basic introduction into your new area of study. The same is true here, and applying this small-steps method will allow you to move forward with confidence.

Reconsider Your Path

All these self-motivating techniques aside, there is one final suggestion that perhaps should be applied before you try any of the others. Here it is — if you find that you’re frequently not motivated to do the things that need to be done, maybe you should be examining the things you’re supposed to be doing, and then consider doing something else on a regular basis instead.

We spend a lot of time just going through the motions, believing that we have no choice in the matter and must resign ourselves to the task(s) at hand. If this is how you talk yourself into making your bed each morning, then that’s probably a good strategy but if it’s how you talk yourself into getting out of bed everyday, then you should probably dig a little deeper.

Life should offer at least some excitement and adventure along the way — enough in fact, that we don’t mind so much about all those little things that make up the mundane part of our existence. If you’re finding that the mundane drastically overwhelms the adventure, then no amount of motivation will make you see it differently.

The solution, then, is to find something that doesn’t require so much motivation to get it done…something that lights that fire and gets you excited without any extra effort on your part.

Do that, and you won’t need to worry about self-motivation…and this article will have done its job.

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Guest's picture

This was a great and practical read. Thinking about it, fear is MUCH MORE powerful than success, in essence. We spend so much time with fear to the point where we may not even know we're spending time with it -- it's quite difficult to turn that around as to where we're spending so much time with success, we're not even aware of it. I think the biggest obstacle in overcoming those fears is to realize most of our fears won't place us in imminent danger in facing them.

Kate Luther's picture

Thanks Lamont - I agree... we do spend quite a bit of time with fear that it often becomes our "norm."

Facing it can be hard, but - at least in my experience - I'm typically happy when I force myself to do it.

Guest's picture

Loved the last tip! Awesome advice and great note to leave for thought! It is really easy to get caught up in the same old routine. Maybe even a routine we were once happy with, but grew tired of it. It takes an extra boost of effort starting out to change things up, but if is usually worth it. Life will become much easier and more satisfying in the long run!

Kate Luther's picture

Oh absolutely! I think we all get caught up in the "comfortable and secure" even when it no longer excites us... and as much as we want that excitement, it's just hard to step outside that comfort zone. But you're right Todd - life will be much more satisfying if we do :)

Guest's picture

I loved all the tips! Sometimes, when it comes to facing fear, its good to write down what you fear or verbalize it to someone. I often find that when I tell people my fears I see how foolish some of them are. Also, I like to keep in mind that what you imagine is often much worse than what the situation is--such is the power of the imagination.

Kate Luther's picture

Thanks so much, Adam :)

That's a really good tip about verbalizing your fears. I tend to write mine but I do like the idea of speaking them out loud... sometimes just the process of putting them into words is enough to make you go "wait - seriously?!"

Guest's picture

I hate the sudden little twinge of anxiety about money that jerks me out of bed most mornings. I'm passionate about the path that I'm on; I'm just scared that it won't pay off enough soon enough. That motivates me to eat the frog, which is better than morning twinges. I try to follow Eleanor Roosevelt's advice: "Do one thing that scares you every day."

Kate Luther's picture

That's excellent advice, Van... If we all did one thing that we found "scary" every day, we'd accomplish some amazing things. Thanks for the comment :)

Guest's picture

This is great advice. I have to admit, I'm all about the proverbial cake. I guess it's about time I had a nice portion of frog. I've got a lot of horrible jobs that have been piling up and they're just cluttering my mind.

Kate Luther's picture

LOL... Oh I'm with you - I totally prefer the cake :)

Guest's picture

For me, its going to the gym. If I don't do this right away in the morning, I will think of excuses throughout the day of why not to go and then feel guilty the next day, or I will be so aggravated later on when I just want to relax but force myself, that the workout is absolute torture. I think this is the best tip in motivation- if you get into the routine of getting your worst chore out of the way in the very beginning of the day- you'll see how good it feels and it will make you want to do it regularly.

Kate Luther's picture

Absolutely - my old gym had one of those electronic rowing machines where you race the computer in a CGI boat on the lake. I started out doing it because it was kind of mentally cleansing... I could just focus on the boat and row away.

But I realized that the more I did it, the more I looked forward to doing it again and I actually missed it when I couldn't make my regular workout.

Ironic isn't it, that the things we dread can so easily become habits we love :)

Guest's picture

When you're doing stuff for yourself, for you, you have to be your own master but also your own slave. Sometimes that's tough! Great advice, especially about the fear factor -it's often the fear of fear itself that makes you put off doing important jobs and things, and when you get started you wonder what all the fuss was about.

Guest's picture

Sometimes I have thought of myself as my own hero. It helps me to focus on my own best qualities more than the shortcomings.

Kate Luther's picture

I totally agree Drew - sometimes we just work ourselves into a frenzy about something and then when we finally dig in and do it, we think "oh... okay, that wasn't so bad after all"... That reminds me of the definition of courage - it's not being fearless... it's feeling the fear and doing the "thing" anyway. :)

Kate Luther's picture

Van - I love the idea of being your own hero! So much so, that I think that should be my next blog post :)

So, let's brainstorm Wisebread readers - what traits and skills do you think are an absolute must to be your own hero? I'm adding courage to the list... what else?

Guest's picture

When I don't feel like doing something that actually needs to be done, I do it little by little. For example, when I need to write an article but I'm not in the mood to do so, I indulge myself with TV. After 30-60 mins, I stop and think of a theme for my article. When I've thought of one, I go back to watching TV or doing something else. After 30 mins, I go back in front of my computer and start with my 1st paragraph. Then I do something else again. After 15-30 mins, I go back to writing, doing it paragraph by paragraph, until I notice that I'm standing up less and spending more time finishing my article.

Guest's picture
Andrew B.

I loved this article. I have been on the path of change the last few months for various unforseen circumstances. And this article pretty much straightened out the whole process I have been trying to achieve. From facing the fear of doing what I hate and breaking it down to achieve small wins I have really pushed ahead on my new path. Thankyou for the insight, it will allow me to focus better in the future. Andrew...

Kate Luther's picture

Aww, thanks Andrew for those very kind words. I'm glad to hear that this article helped reinforce your path of self-growth. Change can be really scary, no matter how badly we need it and even when we consciously want it.

Looking back, I probably should have added some sort of reward system in this article too as I think it's extremely important to celebrate those small victories in some way... so do something nice for yourself for sticking to your guns and pushing forward :)