You’re finally home after a long day of work—this is the moment you’ve been waiting for all day.
You kick off your shoes, change into sweatpants, grab a bag of Cheetos and plop down on the couch.
You reach for the remote, eager to watch another episode of Narcos, when an alarm on your phone ruins the party.
In big red letters, it reads: GO TO THE GYM.
Your New Year’s resolution was to finally start working out, but it’s September 15th—and you haven’t even signed up for the gym.
Your Cheetos-filled belly is peeking out from the bottom of your shirt. A time lapse of your body from the top down would be called When Toes Disappear. You know you should have started working out months ago, but even though the gym is just down the street, it feels like a universe away.
You want to change—you really do. You remember the conviction you had earlier this morning, brushing your teeth and looking in the mirror: today would finally be the day you signed up for the gym no matter what.
You even tried an affirmation for the first time—“I am a warrior”—but your toothpaste-filled mouth made it sound more like, “I ah uh wawyuh.” Regardless, you were still excited about today’s potential, the start of something new.
But this morning was forever ago. Eleven hours later you’re exhausted, and you just want to chill.
You need to make a decision: gym or TV?
You look at the remote, then at the gym clothes, back at the remote, and back at the gym clothes.
What do you do?
It’s obvious what you’d rather do: sprawl on the couch and lick the Cheetos cheese off your fingers. And who wouldn’t?
But which decision is going to benefit you in the long run? Which decision are you going to be more proud of after the fact?
After weighing the two options in your mind, and giving the gym some “serious” consideration, you decide that you just don’t feel like going to the gym today.
Seven episodes later, a slew of empty pizza boxes litter the floor and a feeling of self-loathing runs through your body—or maybe that’s just gas…
YOU’RE NEVER GOING TO FEEL LIKE IT
Sometimes we put things off because we think there’s actually a moment in the future when we’ll be ecstatic to jump out of bed and pay our taxes. A time when we’ll suddenly be flushed with motivation to start a business, learn the piano, or finish that report.
That moment doesn’t and will never exist.
The moment that does is a lot less sexy. It’s one when you really feel like watching another episode of Narcos, but use every ounce of rational thinking to acknowledge that the TV will still be there after you get back from the gym, then throwing on your workout clothes and walking out the door before you have the chance to change your mind.
But it’s not always that easy.
Most of the time, it’s far easier to convince yourself that you don’t feel like going to the gym, and therefore you shouldn’t have to. As if you need to want to go to the gym before you’re physically capable of getting up and walking out the door.
Of course, this is bullshit. Our brain is a crafty storyteller that can rationalize just about anything in the moment. You’ve probably worn out at least one of these excuses: I deserve a break, just one more episode (whoever invented the Netflix countdown timer is evil), today was especially tough, or my personal favorite—I just don’t feel like it.
Most of the time, you’re not going to feel like it, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, there is something wrong with believing that you need to be motivated before you can start.
THE MOTIVATION MYTH
You don’t need to feel like doing something before you can do it. You don’t need to be motivated before you can start.
Regardless of what we tell ourselves in the moment, we are 100% capable of taking action without motivation, and we actually already do this for the things we need to do to survive.
For example, if we called into work sick every time we didn’t feel like going, we’d soon be out of a job, unable to support ourselves or put food on the table. While we may not always feel like going to work, we know that how we feel about going to work is irrelevant—it’s in our best interest to ignore our resistance and go anyway, because we’re dependent on our paycheck for survival.
If we don’t go to work, we can’t eat.
But these urgent and immediate consequences don’t exist for things that aren’t as life-or-death, like working out, learning a new language, or playing an instrument. While these pursuits could significantly raise the quality of our lives, they’re also things we could get away without doing, because no one is going to be pounding on our door or sending nasty e-mails if we forget to practice piano for twenty minutes on a Saturday afternoon. We don’t feel the same urgency to practice our Spanish vocabulary as we do to get to work on time every morning.
These ‘optional’ pursuits are the easiest to put off, because there is no external accountability. There are no deadlines. We have to surmise the motivation ourselves—because we want to, not because we have to.
It’s so easy to put off anything if the only consequence of inaction will be our own regret, even though regret may be the most expensive price to pay.
School and work both have a structure that punishes us if we don’t do anything. If we don’t study, we get bad grades, maybe have to repeat the year. If we read Perez Hilton all day at work instead of actually working, we’ll get fired, which means we won’t get paid.
But when we don’t have structure with these obvious negative consequences, we can procrastinate and get away with it, forever prolonging anything and everything because we’ve somehow convinced ourselves that what we care most about just isn’t as important as the latest episode of 16 and Pregnant, checking Facebook, or refreshing our inbox for the millionth time in the past ten minutes.
Of course you don’t feel like it. Why would you? Getting started on whatever you’re avoiding can’t compete with the dopamine fireworks that come from dicking around on your phone, but it is the better long-term choice.
It’s hard to prioritize the long-term when it feels so far away that it’s not even relevant, when you can’t see over the walls of this moment. And this will happen, a lot. When it does, remember that prioritizing the long-term is respecting your future self.
You’ve already proven to yourself that you’re fully capable of taking action without motivation by going to school, holding a job, raising a family, or even just by going to your cousin Susie’s third grade violin recital. The excuse of sitting on your ass because you’re not motivated doesn’t hold weight, because you have, at some point in your life, done at least one thing you really didn’t feel like doing in the moment. And you can do it again.
You’re probably not going to feel like it most of the time, and you have to accept this if you want to maintain any form of consistency.
If we believe that motivation is necessary, then we can use lack of motivation as an excuse, and we’re “technically” in the clear. But we’re lying to ourselves, using conveniently flawed logic in order to escape responsibility.
The idea that you need to be motivated before you can start is a myth. Most days, you’ll probably only feel motivated after you start—if at all—because dread is almost always the worst part. The people that understand this are usually successful people. The others will be forever waiting, curled up in bed scrolling through Instagram, hoping for a mythical lightning bolt of motivation to strike.
DISCIPLINE IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN MOTIVATION
While motivation might make for a better story—imagine the movies with writers who suddenly get inspired and run to the typewriter for a 48-hour marathon—discipline is far more reliable. There’s nothing particularly sexy about going to work full-time every day for two years, but which is more important: a better story, or a better life?
While you can’t control motivation, you can control discipline. You can’t control results, but you can control effort. You can get around a lack of motivation by committing to discipline above all else, including the work you’re trying to produce.
This doesn’t mean that the work has to suffer—great work is often a byproduct of great discipline—but you can’t be serious about your work without a commitment to showing up every day. When you make discipline your top priority, you get used to starting even when you least feel like it, and you eventually prove to yourself that waiting for motivation is as useful as waiting to win the lottery.
When you prioritize discipline over motivation, you become less dependent on results and more dependent on effort. You become more dependent on what you can control rather than what you can’t. You learn that getting your ass in the chair is more important than making something great.
When you prioritize discipline over motivation, you begin to understand that on some days, getting started will be the hardest thing in the world and you can’t do anything about it except show up anyway. Accepting you don’t have 100% agency over motivation makes everything easier, because you’re acknowledging the fact that you’re not a sitting duck who has to wait for another duck to come tap him on the shoulder before being able to swim. You can dive into the pond on your own.
The easiest way to get extremely overwhelmed and never do anything is to expect yourself to be motivated all the time. Motivation is not a light switch you can leave turned on—it’s something you need to accept is largely out of your control. You will get knocked off your horse only if you expect your body to be producing as much motivation as testosterone in the body of a fourteen year-old boy.
Motivation is a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have. If you only start when you feel like it, you’re only starting when external conditions favor you, which is unreliable and out of your control. It’s like sitting down to write only on Tuesdays when it’s snowing outside and you’re in a rustic cabin with a fireplace crackling in the background sipping hot chocolate.
Starting only when you’re motivated is like handing over the keys to yourself, because whether you can do anything is now conditional on something else doing the heavy lifting for you.
Ultimately, how you feel about what needs to be done doesn’t matter. The decision isn’t whether you feel like it or not, it’s whether you will or you won’t. If you’re serious about what you want to accomplish, you can’t give “feeling like it” any influence in the decision making process.
As Tchaikovsky put it: “A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”
ADAPTATION NEVER STOPS
You think you’re just saying you’ll do it tomorrow, but what you’re really saying is not now. And the more you tell yourself not now, the stronger a habit it becomes. Every time you avoid and procrastinate, you get better at the tendency to avoid and procrastinate.
The tricky thing about being human is that you become what you do:
“Adaptation never stops. You can’t turn it off and you can’t turn it on. The best you can hope for is to divert it into paths that reward you instead of punish you.”1
Stop living in the waiting room and admit to yourself that most of the time, you’re not putting it off because you can’t—you just would rather not.
The days you were on the fence could end up making all the difference.
- Page 254, The World’s Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne.
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