Note: In a series of posts, now called readers choice, I answer reader questions.
I’m going to cheat here, as I wrote a nice tasty essay on this very question: How to stay motivated – give it a spin. I think you’ll like it.
I think “how to stay” is a better question, since I know many people who are great at starting something, but once the initial wave of enthusiasm wanes, and the easy/fun parts are done, their interest fades. For me I gain motivation by being committed for the long haul. I don’t care if I get a bad review, or a tough thread of comments on a post, as long as I learn something. I don’t care if I fail, provided I grow. I’m focused on the 50 or 80 year old version of me and how I’ll feel when I look backwards. Given that view, many of the things that upset or discourage other people seem to have slightly less impact on me.
I work hard to put things in the long view. A paragraph isn’t just a bunch of sentences, it’s part of a book, or a body of work. Just as a brick isn’t just a pile of mud, it’s part of a cathedral, or a school, or a monument to some great cause.I have an empty shelf on my bookcase for my books. Filling that shelf is my life goal. If ever I’m confused about how to prioritize work or why I’m working, there it is. On a personal level I work on the elimination of distraction theory. It’s not so much about whether I’m motivated or not, it’s how good I am at preventing myself from other things. Motivation isn’t a problem you have if you are starving and need to eat, or are cold and need shelter. You just do it because it must be done.
This sounds tough, and it is. I don’t know any novelist or marathon runner who debates every time they start whether they’re going to do it or not. They try to reach a point where it’s assumed they’ll do it, even when they’re not motivated. Discipline and motivation are tightly coupled for me.One big trick was to quit my job. If you have to do X to make a living, motivation becomes less of an issue. It simply IS. If I want to keep writing, I have to write. End of story. When it comes to tasks that are “hard”, like writing, I eliminate other variables. I close the door, I close the web browser, and promise myself I will either sit and write, or stare at a mostly blank monitor for an hour.
Given the choice, much like starving, eventually my mind would prefer to actively write, rather than sit and stare at nothing. So I write. I also believe in the theory of daily practice. Anything truly important is worth doing once every day, even if just for 5 minutes. If I’m actively writing a book, I must look at it or work on it once every day. Then I never have to worry about thinking about it. I Just do it, in the same way you go the bathroom or eat meals. It just IS. 5 minutes of doing is much better than a hour of thinking about doing. Rituals of this kind are good as they spare you the burden of inventing reasons every day.
If you make a new years resolution, part of it has to be to do that thing once a day.Another trap is the zero-sum problem: When someone tells me they have a wish, or a new years resolution, I ask what are you taking off of your plate to make room in your life for this new thing?Maybe it’s less TV, or less aimless web browsing, but motivation is easier if the choices are clearer. If you don’t make room, you’re letting your motivations compete with each other, and that can often have side effect of negating them completely.Right now I need to follow my own advice. When I’m between books I’m all over the place and it takes weeks to find my center and rhythm again. But, I see this more as a problem of discipline rather than motivation.