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How to summon motivation when you feel like you don’t have any

You don’t need motivation to make progress on your goals.

How to summon motivation when you feel like you don’t have any
[Photo: Guilherme Almeida/Pexels]

When you feel a strong urge to procrastinate, grab a pen and paper. Write down one thing you could do today that would move the needle. Maybe it’s drafting a paragraph of your book proposal or making a chart for your investor deck. Now silence your phone and do that task. Commit fully–even if you have just 15 minutes.

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Now, before this starts to feel like the world’s most obvious productivity hack, note that the results of this practice won’t emerge until the end of your day. That’s when you should spend another five minutes writing. Ask yourself: How did the task go? Why was it meaningful? Repeat this process tomorrow.

Motivation grows through action, and nothing is more motivating than progress. The first step of that is defining what it means to complete your day. It builds critical momentum.

But long-lasting motivation comes from seeing progress. I launched my company, JotForm, 13 years ago, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not wildly motivated. I don’t get up at the crack of dawn, I often dread my daily workouts, and I don’t read 100 books a year. I have, however, learned to apply a few simple principles to overcome resistance–and I’ve discovered that you don’t need superhuman motivation in order to succeed.

The power of progress

In a multiyear study, Harvard psychologist Teresa Amabile and her colleagues asked 238 creative professionals to keep a private electronic diary during a single work project. “We wanted to look at what makes people happy, motivated, productive, and creative at work,” Amabile said in a 99U presentation. At the end of each weekday, participants filled out an online diary describing one standout event associated with that project.

After combing through 12,000 entries, the research team learned that when people feel focused and engaged in their work, they’re more likely to be creative and productive. Amabile and her colleagues call this the “Inner Work Life Effect,” and they determined that it expands when we make progress in meaningful work, even if it’s just a small progress.

Progress proves that you don’t need motivation. Your energy and drive will vary from day to day, but you can accomplish big things by being consistent.

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Stop the procrastination loop

Procrastination can be a vicious, anxiety-inducing cycle. As humans, we tend to avoid activity that is painful or uncomfortable. But with procrastination, the delay soon amplifies those emotions. To escape the procrastination spiral, we have to identify whether we’re dealing with prevention or promotion.

A prevention focus centers on avoiding loss. For example, if you’re worried about delivering an awkward public speech, you might postpone all preparations. With a promotion focus, you see an activity as a source of growth or improvement. Say you want to become a morning runner, but you struggle to get out of bed and lace up your shoes. In both cases, emotions hinder action.

Ultimately, procrastination is an emotional issue, which is why you need to remove it from the equation. Don’t consider how you feel. As Oliver Burkeman suggests in The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, you need to treat your thoughts and emotions like passing weather patterns. That means noticing the urge to procrastinate, but moving forward anyway. You’ll soon realize that you can coexist with any feelings of reluctance.

Motivation is a result, not a cause

We often view motivation as a mysterious, elusive force, but the truth is that like a well-trained dog, it usually comes when you call.

Author James Clear wrote in a blog post that Sir Isaac Newton’s three laws of motion also apply to productivity. According to Newton, objects in motion tend to stay in motion. Objects at rest tend to remain at rest. That’s why you can have big ambitions, but still feel like the couch has a gravitational pull. To beat procrastination, Clear recommended finding a way to start your task in less than two minutes.

Applying the two-minute rule, wrote Clear, gets the ball rolling. If you’re struggling to produce a report, for example, open a blank document. Write anything for two minutes. Soon, some useful thoughts will probably begin to emerge. Use this technique for any activity where procrastination keeps you at rest. Pairing it with a ritual is even better–whether that’s brewing a cup of tea, meditating for five minutes, or lighting a candle. Repeating the same activity primes the brain to break through the fog.

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Start your engines

As we consider focus and motivation, it’s easy to turn the process upside down. We imagine motivation as the spark that starts up the engine, but in practice, it’s the other way around. As author Jeff Haden writes in The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win, motivation is “the fire that starts burning after you manually, painfully, coax it into existence, and it feeds on the satisfaction of seeing yourself make progress.”

Achievement begins when you do. Identify the emotions that are holding you back, then set them aside. Dive in for two minutes and see what happens. And be sure to track your progress. Your pride, and yes, your motivation, will grow as you begin to see what’s possible with consistent daily action.


Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.

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