How do you get motivated?

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.

Anyway, do check out the essay How to Stay Motivated.

10 Responses to “How do you get motivated?”


    Yes I’d agree with most of your pointers here Scott. Personally I found having to drop something in order to take something else on really hard. We are all guilty of taking more and more on without ever thinking of the additional stress and breaking point we are reaching.

    I also find that like you, once I lose a routine I’m in, whether working on the site everyday or when a contract finishes, then there is a hiatus of focus until finally I pull myself together. However I find the key during this time is not to beat yourself over the head but to think of it as a time when you body tries to chill.

    Finally with regard to motivation find something you enjoy. Preferably find something you enjoy which pays, then you have double the amount of motivation!


    Susan de Sousa
    Site Editor

  2. Shane Hale

    Very true about eliminating distractions, but once I’m in the zone, you got to rip me out of it. I’ll burn through the night until the sun is rising, or I’m passed out on the keyboard. But those are the days/night I feel the most motivated.

    Another nice post Scott.

  3. Dana Chisnell

    How do you get over failures? Say you get sucky reviews, or no one comes to a talk, or worse, they come and they hate it. What do you do?


  4. Scott Berkun


    To be fair I work really hard to be good. My goal isn’t to have bad reviews, or to fail at things just so I can learn. But I go in knowing if I’m doing something hard, of course it won’t be perfect. And of course some people will hate what I say, how I say it, or who I am. That’s the nature of doing anything interesting – people will have opinions about what you do.

    But when it happens, the best thing in the world is a sense of humor. And perspective. I wasn’t burned at the stake. No one stoned me. My friends and my Mom still care about me. It can always be so much worse. I have an exceedingly dark and robust sense of humor. I find many things funny, including my failures. This doesn’t mean I don’t feel awful about them, but I think I’m successful in part because my time to convert disaster from misery into (self deprecating) humor is shorter than average.

    Everyone has their own way of licking their wounds. I find doing something physical is one of the best. A walk, a run, anything that reminds my body it’s not going to die because of how my mind feels. A great meal, and of course some wine, can help to, especially if it’s with friends who can help me process what happened.

    I’m also a believer in work. If I’m pissed off that I sucked, or depressed, there is a kind of energy there I have to find a way to do something with. With a blog, it’s easy. I can write about it sucking (as I did with the toughest room I had this year) – at least someone can learn from my suckage.

    I wrote an essay on learning from mistakes which doesn’t suck too much.

  5. Scott Berkun


    I’ve found that there’s a trick to keeping motivation even. Always leave something juicy for the next day. Hemmingway talked about this – he’d quit before he ran out of gas, since it made starting the next day easier.

    Since my goal is a writing career, I don’t need the short term bursts (and burnouts) as much. I’m trying to pace myself for doing this forever. The more control I can learn to have over my throttle the better off I’ll be.

    Books are marathons – as are many different kinds of goals.

  6. Vivek Gupta

    Your ‘…a bit of a ramble.’ is truly inspirational. At least to me – who is desperately trying to write academic papers.
    For over two years now, your writings have become sort of staple diet for me. Almost every day, I visit your site. You may not believe, but your blog is the only one that I visit (plus the links that you mention on your linkfest).
    I am sure that whenever, apart from academic papers, I am able to write a book, your contribution would be the greatest.
    I hope, wish and pray that your empty shelf gets filled up earlier than you think it can. I am sure that with the imaginative capacity and the innocuous charm your written words possess, it shouldn’t be difficult at all.
    However, have you also thought about filling it up with some co-authored books as well?

    1. Scott Berkun

      Vivek: Well then, I hope my future rambles are at least as inspirational. Thanks.

  7. Mike Nitabach

    5 minutes of doing is much better than a hour of thinking about doing.

    While I don’t doubt that this works for you, Scott, this is not a universal for good writers. Some writers, myself included, perform large amounts of the work of writing while ostensibly only thinking about writing–or even “procrastinating”–and then when they sit down to actually type in words, what they end up with is much closer to the final product than if they had forced themselves to sit down and type any earlier. I know that for myself, in the long run it is more efficient for me to write this way than to force myself to churn out X pages per day.



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