Life doesn’t live itself well. Like a ball rolling downhill, the default life takes the natural, easy, safe path. At the bottom of the hill lies mediocrity. Living well requires effort: to push past fear and engage with the world, to invest ten thousand hours in mastering a skill, to overcome inertia and become the person you want to be. The life worth living lies on the uphill path. And to ascend that path, you need motivation. A lot of it.
Intrinsically rewarding activities provide effortless motivation; you do them because you want to be doing them. It’s harder to summon motivation for extrinsically rewarding activities, things you want not to do but to have done. When the source of the motivation lies in the outcome and not the activity, the challenge is getting the current you to care about future yous enough to invest in them. This skill is essential, because much of what makes life worth living requires such investment.
So what can you do to find, cultivate, and use motivation to live a better life?
Focus on positive motivation.
Motivation can be positive or negative, can come from good things you want to move toward or bad things you want to move away from. A life with more positive motivation than negative is more open, engaging, interesting, and fun.
Use inspiration to get motivation.
To create positive motivation, cultivate inspiration. Focus on what inspires you, and use this as your motive force: from inspiration to enthusiasm to motivation. Be moved, then get moving.
Live a passionate life.
Use passion as a wellspring of inspiration. Find and cultivate passions, build your life around them, and then give yourself to them fully.
Have an internal, not an external, locus of motivation.
Passion and inspiration are internal. Motivation can be internal or external, but for most it’s external: motivation yields to whatever forces are most powerful, and society pushes and pulls awfully hard. Don’t let others choose what motivates you; internalize your motivation. Don’t wait for the wind; get your oars in the water.
Live more want-to and less have-to.
It’s much easier to be motivated about what you have chosen to do than what others have chosen for you. Must and should are the enemies of motivation. No one gets to choose everything they do, but the more you can choose, the more motivation you’ll have. This need not be selfish, but should be self-selected and self-directed.
Let your whys drive your whats and hows.
Why bother? Because you care. Focus on what you value, what matters to you. Remember your extrinsic motivation, the ways your actions will bring you and others happiness and meaning. Let the reward draw you toward it. This gives you direction, focus, and clarity of purpose, through goals that motivate you.
Play to your strengths.
Another enemy of motivation is fear of failure. It’s easier to get motivated about things you’re good at, things you expect to succeed at. So set goals that utilize your talents. Don’t be afraid to think big and challenge yourself, but play to your strengths. This will increase your self-esteem and give you the confidence to invest in yourself and your dreams.
Find inspiration in the uninspiring.
As I said, intrinsically motivating activities provide effortless motivation. So look for ways to make extrinsically motivating activities intrinsically motivating. Intrinsic motivation is high when you find the activity interesting, when it arouses your curiosity, and when you lose yourself in the moment. Fortunately, these aren’t characteristics of some activities and not others, they are states of mind. So it’s within your power to imbue inspiration into anything you do. Approach the activity with the curiosity of a beginner’s mind. Engage fully in the present, and immerse yourself in the flow of the activity. See every action as a chance to learn, a chance to express yourself, and a chance to make the world better. These states of mind are beneficial for any activity, but especially ones that don’t already motivate you.
When you can’t get motivated, get disciplined.
Motivation is a welcome friend who visits too rarely and leaves too soon. Don’t rely on motivation, don’t force every daily you to recommit to your goals. Instead, commit even when you don’t feel like it; honor the commitment you’ve already made to yourself. This is the best way to turn a desired change into a habit. Be intolerant of apathy, and view your talents as gifts from the universe, not to be squandered. Re-examine your motivation periodically to confirm that you’re on the right path, but don’t do it every time, that just gives you an excuse to be lazy whenever motivation is low.
When you can’t get disciplined, just get started.
Action often precedes motivation. If you’re having trouble taking the first step, just take it. Commit to one hour. Or if you can’t, then commit to one minute. You might become motivated by your progress, or you might lose yourself in the activity and forget why you were so reluctant to start. If you can’t find motivation, get momentum.