With summer holidays long gone, are you finding it hard to get back into your routines? I once resisted starting a necessary task, only to have my co-worker say “Just get stuck in. You’ll be right.” I now realise how much wisdom was buried in her throwaway line. Volumes have been written about how to find and maintain motivation. An unmotivated person can do a number of widely-agreed things to get going. This post will remind you of some of them, but I have a takeaway point today which departs from popular advice: we don’t have to actually find motivation in order to take action. Undermotivation – not feeling like taking action – isn’t the main problem; rather, it is the assumption that we need to feel like taking action before we can act. We’ll come back to this in a moment.

The agreed steps toward motivation

First, though, let’s review common knowledge. There are both physical/action items and mental/emotional steps for when the spirit of the endeavour eludes you.

Physical/action steps

  1. Write your goal clearly and large; post it. You are clear on the goal your task will lead to, aren’t you? If not, see my last post on goal-setting. We write it BIG so that we can be reminded of it often. A goal in our mind is a goal attracting resources and energy to it.
  2. Take baby steps every day. Big tasks can be broken up into smaller ones. Some jobs are just too big to be positively motivational, but carved up into bite-sized slices, they might be digestible. For example, going directly from no exercise to an hour-a-day weight lifting program might be hard, but you could start bench press this week, adding in biceps curl next week, and so on, until you are working all the muscle groups.
  3. Don’t go it alone. For group support, you could join an online forum. You could set up a support network (say: partner/friend/mum/colleague) to help pump you up. And you can take advantage of the near-universal desire not to look bad in front of others by announcing your intention publicly; the fear of potential embarrassment will motivate you to keep your commitment.
  4. Schedule in the time for the task and turn off distractions. Especially if this is a task you aren’t naturally passionate about, program it into your diary just as you would a dentist’s appointment. Few of us like going to the dentist, but most of us get there once the appointment is booked! When the appointed hour comes, turn off email, Facebook, and all other “social procrastination sites”. It’s not fair to yourself to have your unmotivated task compete with all those tantalising notifications.

Mental/emotional steps

In addition to the above actions, the following can help you get up to cruising speed on your task.

  1. Think about the benefits. Why is this important? What favourable consequences will flow to you as a result of doing this? From getting that big assignment done to toilet-training your toddler, you wouldn’t be trying to accomplish this thing if you weren’t going to be better off in some way. Note, though, that this one can backfire, highlighting the gap between the emotion you would like to feel and the emotion you are feeling (i.e. a lack of enthusiasm)
  2. Recall other times when you succeeded. Here you can focus particularly on other times when motivation ebbed, but you somehow summoned the will energy and got through it. What did you do to prevail then? Could you adapt that strategy to your situation now?
  3. Build on small successes. Maybe you’re having trouble motivating yourself to keep eating healthy food; those chocolate croissants are tempting! Don’t berate yourself for what you didn’t do, but if you managed one day of raw carrots for morning tea instead of croissants, see if you can build up to two days of the carrots next week.
  4. Try to find inspiration. Might there be – online, in a book, or somewhere in your life – a person, quotation, or way of handling this from which you could take heart?

And an alternative possibility

The above are standard suggestions to increase motivation to do a task. But there is a pitfall in following them that motivational gurus have an incentive for you not to figure out: most “motivational” advice is not about getting things done, but about how to get in the mood to get them done. I propose an alternative: don’t wait until you feel like doing something. Instead, if you are undermotivated and mired in negative emotions, don’t try to squash them down. Step back from the task, focus on your breath for a moment, and feel the negativity, without trying to banish it. Then take action, alongside the “blah” emotions.

This is a Zen alternative, known in Buddhism as “non-attachment”. Chances are that your undesirable feelings will ebb once you get into the task and you will be on your way to achievement. Self-management expert Brian Tracy observes that momentum will build once you start. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) says you will experience the “both/and”: both undermotivation and also achievement. I say that you will grow your character, will, and self-discipline, making future undesirable tasks easier. Just get stuck in; you’ll be right!

Life can be a crazy balancing act at times. Try the Wheel of Balance if you feel you need some help prioritising things.

Written by Dr Meg Carbonatto B.S., M.A., and Ph.D.

This article was originally published in Asteron Life’s Balance BlogAIPC regularly contributes to Balance’s wellbeing blog category.