Why Motivation Does Not Work - But Here's What Does!

“Inspiration is for amateurs - the rest of us just get to work.” - Chuck Close

We talk about ‘motivation’ as if it were the force that makes the world turn. As if the spark of inspiration is what it takes to switch us into gear, and hesitating when the spark begins to dwindle. It becomes easy to attribute our successes to our feelings of motivation, and justify our lack of productivity to our deficiency in motivation. It’s as if we wait for our feelings to match our desire to do something rather than to just act.

While I can understand the need for good timing, perhaps this can all too quickly present the opportunity to wait for the someday to come where we will be ready to change or commit. Viewing motivation as an outside resource, or something that we must wait to receive, can be a dangerous way to view our own ambition. Of course it is a wonderful feeling to be filled with joy and wonder as we are accomplishing our goals, but we do not always have that luxury.

It does make sense that we would be wired to be tentative about our risk taking. Sometimes risk taking can be the loss of our valuable time, as it would be very discouraging to not see matched results with our level of effort. Our minds naturally protect us from things that are frightening or difficult, therefore despite our best judgment calls trying new things can require some mental persuasion and overcoming of fear.

People often discuss the idea of ‘what motivates us’, or ‘what inspires us’, rather than the why we feel the need to be inspired. Artist Chuck Close has expressed the amateur nature of people who wait for inspiration. He believes that people who are serious about their work or are choosing to be disciplined in their field, simply just do the work. He believes that to acquire a truly wonderful body of work waiting on the luxurious experience of inspiration is unlikely.

Even the most driven and determined people reach points in time when they lack motivation. At some stages, even the people pursuing their life’s passion cannot rely on a constant stream of energy and motivation. There comes a time when we can rely only on one source of energy - discipline. But how is discipline found? The dictionary definition of discipline can come off quite harsh, reading ‘the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience’. For this association of ‘punishing’, I was scared of discipline for a long time. But it eventually occurred to me that these ‘rules’ can pertain to self-chosen goals, and this ‘correction’ of ‘disobedience’ merely means to keep oneself in alignment with your own goals. It is simply a form of self-governance, and when applied diligently and compassionately, it can become the key to success.

Mel Robbins, a motivational speaker and writer, often refers to a concept she created called ‘The 5 Second Rule’. This rule suggests that instead of waiting for motivation to spring, it is most effective to just count down from 5 and just do it. Write, go for a run, start painting. She has outrightly spoken about how ‘motivation is garbage’ and that how it merely does not work. Relying on motivation subjects you to living in the perpetual planning stage of your life, rather than actually being called to action. Robbins discusses the falsehood she says she believes people have bought into that ‘at some point you’re gonna have the courage. At some point you’re gonna have the confidence. And it’s total bullsh*t, frankly...” She talks about how we all have these incredible dreams, which often go to waste because we believe that what we are missing is motivation, rather than the actual capability to do something.

My boyfriend recently gifted me a book called ‘Daily Rituals’ by Mason Currey, which filled with short excerpts based on the work routines of historically famous writers, artists, philosophers, composers and engineers. In the book I read about how Picasso, Beethoven, Freud, Mozart, Warhol, Einstein and Hemmingway start and end their days. Alongside drinking a lot of coffee, smoking a lot of cigarettes and drinking a lot of whiskey (not that I’m implying these to be the keys to success...) I notice a common recipe for success across them that includes having an established daily routine where they go to work regardless of that days inspiration. Of the dozens of masterminds I read about, I don’t recall a single person who relied on ‘feeling inspired’ to start their work.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, many of these people seemed to rely on a quantity over quality mindset. Many of the creators even mention scrapping a majority of their work. But sometimes you have to pump through a lot of mental sludge to get to the gold. Some people may refer to the 10,000 Hour Rule, implying that one can master a skill if that amount of time is devoted to the craft. I’d be hesitant to become too attached to the specific number, and I would definitely argue that there can be outlying cases of mastery. But I would agree that there is a lot of merit to just getting started.

But what if you don’t know what the first step looks like? First off, it would be a great start to write down your goal, identify the time frame in which you’d like to accomplish it, then break down that time frame into bite-sized steps. It would be unrealistic to do something such as lose weight or write a book without developing an understanding of what can be done on a day to day basis to get there. If the goal is bite-sized enough, you should derive a sense of relief. If you only hold yourself responsible to take a bite out of your goal that day, there would be no need to worry about what you would need to do tomorrow. And in doing so, this will allow discipline and consistency do the work rather than guilt and self-defeating thoughts. If you were to fall short and miss one day of running or one day of writing, then that should not be something that is brought into the next day. There is no purpose of that.

Psychologist Jordan Peterson frames his approach by saying that ‘we all pay the price for the things that we do and the things that we don’t do’. He says that we do not get to decide to not pay the price. There is going to be a consequence of either starting or not starting. You can either start and be frustrated for a while, but eventually discover something to work with, or you can be suffer from the weight of never even trying. The ‘price’ that he mentions is the frustration of not feeling good enough, which is just inevitable either way. But we are offered the opportunity to either try to change our behaviour and wait for our skills and self esteem will align with them, or we can sit in a pattern of unchanged behaviour and wallow in feelings.

The matter of the fact is this: what we refer to as ‘motivation’ is out of our control. But we do have elements of control in our decision making, the ways we discipline ourselves and the goals that we set. We all want to feel as if our lives are an experience that we are choosing. Don’t let inspiration keep you waiting.