People who have difficulty settling down to a task will tell you that procrastination is the only thing that keeps the house clean. While that may well be true, a lack of motivation can be a serious concern, especially for those who work at home. In an office setting, the problem can be even more pressing when others are waiting for the fruits of your labor and can see you dithering around. Either way, staring at a blank screen waiting for inspiration to move you to production can be extremely stressful.
Understanding how our brains respond to motivation is the first step to building a creative drive. Research at Princeton University in 2003 identified that the human brain is basically receptive to two types of motivation. The first involves doing something to either get rewarded, or avoid a negative outcome. This is the type of extrinsic or external motivation that makes you finish a boring report because you know your boss will make your life miserable if you don’t. Alternatively, external motivation may drive you to weed the garden, even though you hate doing it, because you’re looking forward to eating the vegetables you planted.
Intrinsic or internal motivation is usually the most productive reason people do things. It isn’t hard to concentrate on something you love, and it’s easy to find the motivation to work on a project you’re passionate about. Even the things we enjoy doing, however, can at times seem like a chore. Tally up the projects you started and never got around to finishing and you’ll get some sense of what we mean.
The ability to self-motivate is an acquired skill, and one that is highly valued. It’s for good reason that so many employers put “self-starter” on their list of desirable qualities. Practicing these few mental exercises will increase the ease with which you move from procrastination to solid production.
1. Give Meaning to Your Work
Let’s face it, most of what we do to earn a living isn’t going to bring about world peace or cure cancer. Our working lives are filled with a series of tasks which may seem trite or unimportant if we look at them in isolation. If you’re sitting down to write a report you know nobody is ever going to read, it can be extremely difficult to get started.
That’s why it’s important to think of whatever it is you’re having trouble doing in its full context. Why is this something that needs to be done at all? You’ll find that everything has meaning, and identifying the one that matters to you will trigger the motivation you’re looking for.
Here’s a really simply example. Your car’s a dump and really needs to be cleaned out. The game’s on tv and you’d rather be doing just about anything other than picking out the garbage wedged between the seats. Your external motivator is the fact that your wife is going to lose her mind if you don’t get around to doing it today. Your internal motivator, however, is much more powerful.
Think about how much you loved your car when it had that new car smell. It was a major purchase and you used to be really proud of it. Now you live in fear of anyone ever asking you for a lift. What if you could make it really nice again? How good would it feel to slide behind the wheel and not be embarrassed or guilty about the mess? Cleaning out the car is part of feeling good about yourself and your ability to take care of the stuff you value. It’s about taking control of your environment, and it’s a meaningful task because it enhances your feelings of self-worth.
If you take this principle and apply it to the boring report, you’ll come up with a similar intrinsic motivator. Regardless of who’s going to read it, you may be motivated by your own need to do a good job. Or it could be part of a bigger project that you really do care about. Or it could simply be a dull part of the job you otherwise love. You need to contextualize the report and make it meaningful beyond its immediate purpose. Your motivation will follow.
2. Don’t Push It
Before we all had Google, somebody asking you who played a certain character in a movie could drive you crazy. The harder you tried to remember the name, the more it seemed to slip away. The answer, inevitably, would come to you at 2:00 in the morning.
That’s because our brains don’t work very well when we try too hard. Our synapses literally harden with stress, and our thoughts repeat on an endless, anxiety-ridden loop. The more you push yourself to “get on with it”, the harder you’ll find it to accomplish anything. You may force your fingers to start tapping the keyboard, but the result will be guaranteed to disappoint.
One of the primary reasons people resort to procrastination is that they don’t know where to start. The project they’re working on just seems too overwhelming. Instead of pushing yourself to complete the project in its entirety, break it down into manageable pieces. You’re looking for the motivation to handle a single chunk, not the whole thing. If you can get started on one discreet component of the job, completing it will give you the motivation to move to the next.
The bottom line is that you can’t fake it. You need to find a genuine source of motivation or you’ll simply stall-out again before getting finished. Your brain needs to be relaxed to function properly, and taking small bites is the best way to relieve the pressure that’s holding you back.
3. Getting Unstuck
For some, finding the motivation to keep going when you hit a wall can be harder than embarking on the project in the first place. Everything was going fine and you were making good progress, when suddenly it all comes to a grinding halt. You get up, take a couple of laps around the room, and when you come back you’re completely seized.
The reason people find it so hard to get unstuck when the creative juices dry up is that they know they’re going to have to backtrack. Basically, you’ve taken a wrong turn and have to go back to the fork in the road where you made it. Nobody is every thrilled at the prospect of having to redo any part of their work, but becoming stuck is inevitably the result of having strayed from your purpose.
Go back over everything you’ve done and stop when it starts to look like something you’re not completely happy with. As soon as you find your “sticking spot”, the motivation to redirect your focus and move on will come more easily. Your intrinsic motivation comes from the desire to find the problem, and you’ll be externally motivated by being able to see a way forward to the finish line.
4. Deal with Your Subconscious
It can be very difficult to motivate yourself to do something that you’ve done before if it didn’t end well. For instance, last time you had to prepare the quarterly budget, you mixed up a couple of figures and looked like an idiot at the Board meeting.
Now that you’re sitting down to write the budget again, you may not be consciously thinking about the last time. In fact, you’ve probably shoved the memory somewhere deep in the hope that it will never again see the light of day. Negative feelings about a task block your intrinsic motivation, however, and the best way to get rid of them is to do a little self-examination.
If you’re dreading starting a job, ask yourself where that negative energy is coming from. Why does this particular task fill you with stress/anger/fear or whatever else it is that’s preventing you from getting into it. The memories will resurface and you’ll find that once you recognize what’s actually going on in your head, your brain will relax and allow you to move on.
5. Focus on the Aftermath
Never lose sight of the fact that this too shall pass. One way or the other, the task will eventually be accomplished and you’ll get to do something else.
Pile on the external motivators and promise yourself a reward at the end. Dig for the internal motivators that make the job meaningful and something worth doing. Remember how good it feels to complete a significant piece of work, and visualize what “finished” will look like. You can either focus on how horrible you’re feeling right now, or concentrate on the joy of completion. Given the choice, think about the end.
Ultimately, your brain is happy to accept whatever internal or external devices you can use to galvanize yourself into action. It is also, however, prone to give more conscious space to negative thoughts than positive ones. Self-motivation is really just an exercise in giving priority to your constructive thoughts and cutting back on the white noise of negativity. It takes a little practice, but is within everyone’s ability to master.