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I’ve stopped trying to motivate myself. It’s an experiment right now—an idea I’m chasing to the extreme. This is my first report from the field.
Fill in the blank:
Without motivation, I will… _________________________________
Ask yourself. Ask your friends.
I know that, in my role, I’m supposed to be some kind of Chief Motivation Officer. I don’t see it, though. I believe that motivation is largely a red herring. Still, I understand why it’s tempting to say, “I can’t quit you.”
The fear, I believe, is that we’ll do nothing and contribute nothing. Or, even more frightening, we’ll be nothing. That’s pretty scary, I guess.
The initial period of letting go may even confirm your fears. However, if your motivation is low, will that be because you stopped hammering on the GO button? Or because you needed a fucking vacation?
My experiment started when I noticed how often I’d whip myself into some heightened state. Turning up the stress before every moderately hard task is like drinking a hundred mini-espressos every day. When caffeine tickles your neurons, it relays the “go” signal to the adrenal glands—each resting, like a jaunty chapeau, atop a kidney. Adrenaline is released into your bloodstream and you are now ready to fight, fly, or feel anxious at work.
In the picture above, you can see how your capillaries suddenly shrink. That’s blood pressure in action. Heightened stress puts the squeeze on your red blood vessels. However, since your vascular system doesn’t differentiate between real and the manufactured threat, the whole thing can get kind of messy. Stress is stress.
Michael Jordan remains famous for being able to manufacture insults and indignities. It’s what he used to motivate himself into elevated performance. At what cost, though? I wish I could ask him.
I stopped motivating myself just to see what would happen. I should clarify something, though. I didn’t say that I no longer have any motivation. I’ve got plenty—everyone does. The difference is that I’ve switched roles, from manager to surfer. Motivation brings the set and I surf the waves. So far? It’s been terrific. 10/10. Would recommend.
If you’re interested in dipping your toes in the water of my little experiment, I have a few preliminary suggestions:
Orient to meaning
There have been three different ideas posited to be core drives in humans. One is happiness. One is status. And the final one is meaning—an idea beautifully expressed by Viktor Frankl. I’m with that guy. But choose whatever feels most salient.
How do we get to our core principles? It’s work. I think that it starts with sketching out what you believe in—and then taking those ideas for a test drive. See where your predictions are off—and adjust as you go. Look for what truly means something to you.
Motivation already lives within the meaningful; you don’t have to bring any extra.
Pay attention to your biorhythms (natural waves of energy)
The body moves in cycles. Circadian rhythms. Your pulse and respiration. Hunger and satiety. Peak energy and peak fatigue. There’s even a predictable call and response in exercise, those are the rhythms of directed stress and cellular adaptation. All of these waves are influenced by your mental state. You are free to just observe them or—better yet—feel them.
Develop skills to match small levels of motivation
Motivation is like your leg strength on a long bike ride. It will vary. A range of skills is like having a gear to match whatever your legs are putting out. You can still go uphill in the wrong gear—it’s just not recommended. So, choose little gears for small reserves and big, honking gears for massive reserves. Keep the pace but adjust adjust the resistance to match what you’ve got.
Be aware of your environment(s)
Your biorhythms are not just influenced by your internal state but also by your setting. That’s why I don’t recommend leaving the lights on at night or using an air raid siren as email notification. What other influences might you eliminate?
This takes time
I’ve invested a lot of time and effort into shifting my lifestyle into one where I can more readily surf my waves of motivation and interest. I don’t have to motivate myself to do much anymore because I’ve designed for meaning. I like doing what I do. I even like the hard parts. I’m more and more like a kid on the monkey bars. The effort required is incidental. I’m just stoked to be doing what I’m doing.