If You Want to Get Things Done, Forget Inspiration, Motivation and Willpower
I don’t know about you, but I am in awe of people who accomplish things. Be it about business, writing, parenting, exercising or even organising a wedding. I buy into success-porn and productivity hacks, and motivational quotes too.
We know that there is no shortcut to success and that you have to take the stairs, but we still would like to believe that at some point we will come across some advice that saves us time and effort.
Deep down we know this is not how it works, that success takes time, that we need to put in the work and show up.
Showing up seems incredibly hard some days.
By putting our faith in things that don’t serve our interests, we make showing up more difficult than it should be. We cherish notions and overromanticize concepts that have little to do with accomplishment. Instead of taking them as a bonus, when present, we rely on them.
The concepts of inspiration, motivation and willpower are more harmful to our success than we’d think. They are great ideas and when we are blessed with them, they can help us start and finish — but they are not the key to success.
It is possible — and according to successful people, it is common even — to get things done with forced enthusiasm, fake motivation and without willpower.
Inspiration Is A Distraction
You know that feeling when you suddenly have a brilliant idea? It’s a rush of energy that fills you to the brim and shines a new light on your creative project. You know how rare it is, so you cherish it. You can’t conjure up inspiration. It usually shows up unexpected, at times and in situations when you don’t even think about it — the best ideas come in the shower phenomenon is not at all uncommon. Because of this, waiting for inspiration is a waste of time. You can meet it halfway; you can create an environment or a mindset where you can get to it more easily; you can also start without it.
The real trouble with inspiration is that it can distract you from your current task.
Inspiration can get you started with something new, boost you, push you further, add some details, make your execution vivid and colourful. But if instead of doing the legwork you constantly look for inspiration, it can take your focus away. Ideas are great but they can bring up too many alternatives that might overwhelm you and give you choice overload. It can flash a new shiny object that you find more attractive to pursue than the task that you have been working on. Inspiration can make you question your primary choice if you don’t tame it. It might result in you abandoning a draft, killing the wrong darlings in your manuscript or changing your perspective completely regarding the point you want to deliver.
You need to treat inspiration carefully and you need discipline for that. It has a specific place in the process, and you need to make sure it stays where it belongs: to the ideation phase.
When you are brainstorming for ideas, when you are collecting material to work from inspiration is great. Get inspired, energise yourself, plunge into the abundance of options without filter and absorb everything. But be very wary about it when it starts to rage when you are supposed to do the lion-share of the creative process — the writing, the creation. Don’t allow random thoughts into the disciplined work phase. Sit down and work, don’t get distracted.
Motivation Is The Feeling Of “Just Did It.”
Motivation is often misunderstood. Because we want to misunderstand it.
There is a feeling when you are full of energy, you are bouncing with it and you can barely contain yourself to start doing something. When you feel invincible and powerful and you want to run or write or conquer the whole world. That’s how it feels to be motivated.
So great, right? But it’s very rarely happening to us in its pure sense. It would be amazing, but motivation rarely hits us and makes us want to do things. We attribute success to motivation, and this is where we are dead wrong.
Motivation comes after accomplishment.
If you ask anyone who runs, they will probably tell you the same story. That in most cases they are not motivated to go for a run. Especially when it’s cold and dark, when they are tired, when they feel miserable. But they do it anyway. And while they are already at it, letting go of wondering if they are motivated or not, just doing it mechanically, it starts to grow on them. By the time they complete the run, they are motivated. Not before.
Same thing about writing. In many cases, those writers who later write long books, publish articles daily, don’t feel like starting it. They do it anyway, and after they struggle through the first paragraph or the first 100 words, they get the hang of it. And when the daily task is finished, they are already motivated. Not before.
Motivation comes after the accomplishment, it’s not a pre-requisite to start something.
Willpower Will Make You Show Up If You Help It
It’s your willpower that will get things done for you. When you are not inspired or not motivated, it is persistence and grit. It is being disciplined that will take you from start to finish. Willpower is more important than motivation or inspiration, but you shouldn’t overestimate your willpower.
Some are more disciplined, and some are less, but it’s not the amount of willpower that defines the accomplishment, but how much you help yourself.
If you want willpower to work for you, you need to help yourself — by not relying on it at all.
We are pleasure-seeking, comfort-driven beings. We don’t like discomfort; we don’t like to exert energy. We love shortcuts and we love things that make us happy. Our brains are not wired to seek unnecessary accomplishment, success or self-actualisation — these are not needed for our survival. Eating, resting and having sex — yes. But getting up earlier to run 5k or write two more pages for our book — nope.
We are very resourceful when it comes to making up excuses why to not exercise, why to not write, why to not choose a salad over a slice of pizza.
Willpower works better if you limit your options and take away the possibility of not doing what you decided.
When it comes to dieting, the decision of reducing carbs is crucial. But to be successful with carrying it out, you’d better not put yourself through situations where you need to test your willpower. Not having biscuits, chocolate, ice cream and huge loaves of bread at home is half the battle won, for you don’t even need your willpower.
When it comes to writing, not starting to think whether you feel like it, but setting a timer first thing in the morning is taking out the uncertainty of the equation. When you don’t need to decide, it’s easier to do what you are supposed to.
Showing up can be hard, especially if you put your faith into notions that will eventually hinder you. You need to let go of ideas that will hold you back and trick yourself into doing it.
- You shouldn’t wait for inspiration. Start without it and meet it halfway.
- Don’t let your new ideas distract you from your work.
- Don’t wait for motivation. Motivation comes after.
- Support your willpower by cornering yourself into work.
- Limit your choices. Don’t choose the perfect setup. Just do it, imperfectly.
- Perfection is a myth, let it go.
- Start and finish. Finished is better than perfect.
- Procrastination is not resting. Rest when you need to.
- Keep challenging yourself. Set a deadline, define rewards and sanctions.
- Let go of fear. Fear stops you from achieving what you want.
Have a plan, stick to it, and just do it.
We have a strategic plan, it’s called ‘doing things’.
— Herb Kelleher.