I’ve written about motivation a bunch of times before here on Zen Habits, but the more I learn about it, the more I realize that motivation isn’t that complicated.
Sure, there are numerous tips that can help, numerous tactics and strategies I’ve used with success. But it really all boils down to two things.
And those two things are so deceptively simple that you might decide to stop reading after I name them: 1) make things enjoyable and 2) use positive public pressure. But read on for more on how to use those two things to motivate yourself for any goal.
It’s Motivation, Not Discipline
First let’s back up a little bit. A number of readers have emailed me about sticking to their goals — anything from exercise and eating right to being organized and productive to creating new habits — and have said they simply lack the discipline to stick with things for very long.
But what is discipline, really? It’s mostly an illusion, in my experience.
When people say that someone has “discipline”, as I’ve written about before, they really mean he has the motivation to stick to something.
In a previous post I used the example of someone in the military, a typical case of somone who is said to have discipline. This military man might get up super early, fix his bed neatly, go on an early-morning run, do a bunch of other exercises, and generally do a disciplined job throughout the day.
But is that just because he’s disciplined? I think it’s mostly because he’s in a situation where there’s public pressure (both positive and negative) to do all of the things listed above. If he doesn’t do them, he might get yelled at or demerited or look bad in front of his peers. If he does do them, he’s an exemplary soldier.
There’s also the fact that after awhile, these things become pleasurable for him. He gets a sense of satisfaction out of staying in shape and keeping things neat. He enjoys the early morning. He feels good about being conscientious about his job.
So in the end, it’s not some vague quality (“discipline”) that allows him to stick to these habits, but rather the two secrets of motivation: positive public pressure and enjoyment.
What I Learned From My Experiences
Over the last few years, I’ve been experimenting with achieving various goals — from waking early to exercising to eliminating my debt and living frugally and simply and more. And what I’ve learned has repeatedly taught me that these two key motivation principles are all you need.
I’ve learned other things as well, but the more I stick to my goals, the more I realize that it’s these two themes that keep repeatedly surfacing. It’s almost eerie, actually. Just a few goals as illustration:
- Marathon. Right now I’m training for my third marathon, in Honolulu this December. As I’ve stuck with the toughest marathon plan I’ve ever undertaken (last week my longer runs were 12 and 20 miles, and this week I’m doing 2 runs of 14 miles), I’ve marveled at my ability to keep at it. But it’s not hard to figure out why: I’ve publicly committed to doing this marathon — on this blog, on Twitter, and on Train For Humanity, where I’m raising money for humanitarian causes through my training (sponsor me here!). In addition to that, I’m really enjoying all the running!
- Blogging. I’ve now been blogging for almost two years (I started in January 2007), making Zen Habits one of the longest-running projects I’ve ever stuck with. I’ve worked on many projects before, but they are usually completed within a year, if not within a few weeks or months. Anything longer is usually intimidating to me. But it hasn’t taken discipline to stick with blogging, not at all. It’s something I really enjoy, and there’s the added bonus of positive public pressure (that’s you, the readers) that has motivated me to stick with it.
- Writing a book. A couple months ago, I finished the manuscript for my book, The Power of Less, that’s coming out at the end of this year. I will admit that I had some trouble writing this book, with the demands of publishing a blog (two blogs actually), training for my second marathon in March, and preparing for my wedding in June. I wasn’t always following my own advice (although in my defense I learned to segregate the different goals so I only concentrated on one at a time). But I did get the book done with both forms of motivation — pressure from my publisher to turn in the manuscript, and the enjoyment I got from writing the book once I was able to clear away distractions and focus on the writing.
I could go into many more examples of how I used these two forms of motivation, but you get the idea. Now let’s take a look at each one and how you can use them to your advantage.
Positive Public Pressure
While pressure is often seen as a bad thing (“I’m under too much pressure!”), if used properly it can actually be a good thing. It’s important that pressure not be applied in too negative a way and too high an intensity. Keep things positive and at a manageable intensity, and things will move along nicely.
Some examples of how to use positive public pressure to motivate yourself:
- Tell all your co-workers you’re going to achieve a goal (“No sugary snacks this week!” or “I’m going to keep my email inbox completely empty”) and report to them regularly on your progress.
- Email your family and friends and tell them about your goal and ask them to keep you accountable. Email them regular updates, and tell them about your progress when you see them.
- Post your goal on your blog and post regular updates. It’s important that you not just post the goal but also stay accountable with the updates. Encourage people to ask you about your goal if you don’t report your progress.
- Join an online forum related to your goal — I’ve done this when I quit smoking and also when I started running. Introduce yourself, make friends, tell them about your goal, ask for help when you need it, and report your successes and failures.
- Write a regular column in a publication on your goal. I did this when I ran my first marathon, for my local newspaper. It created a lot of positive public pressure — everywhere I went, people would say, “Hey, you’re that marathon guy! How’s the running going?” Of course, not everyone can write a column for a newspaper, but you could do it for a group blog or a newsletter or some other type of publication.
- Post your goal and a chart of your progress up in your office or other public place.
- Post pictures of yourself each day. One guy did this and created a video of his progress — it was amazing to watch.
You get the idea. I’m sure you can come up with some ideas of your own.
Enjoy Your Goal Activity
You can motivate yourself to do something you don’t like to do, using positive public pressure as motivation. But if you really don’t enjoy it, you’ll only be able to keep it up for so long. And even if you could do it for months and years … is that something you’d want to do? If you don’t enjoy it, why do it for very long?
But, you might say, what if it’s something I really want to achieve but I don’t enjoy it? There are ways to find enjoyment in most things — the key is to focus on the enjoyable parts. Focus on the positive.
Here are some ways to use this motivational principle to your advantage:
- Having trouble motivating yourself to write for your blog? Look for topics that excite you. If you find things that you’re passionate about, writing becomes easy.
- Having trouble with a dissertation for graduate school? Maybe you’re not as passionate about the topic as you thought you were. Re-examine your dissertation topic and see if you can either re-energize yourself about it or find a new topic you can get excited about.
- Having a hard time exercising? Find exercise that’s fun for you. If you don’t like running, try soccer or basketball or rowing. If you don’t like to lift weights, try doing some primal workouts where you flip logs and jump through tires. Go hiking. Walk with friends and talk the whole time.
- Is eating healthy a challenge for you? Find healthy foods you love. Experiment with new recipes and have fun testing them out.
- Is training for a marathon tough? Learn to enjoy the quiet of the early morning, the contemplative nature of running, or the beautiful nature that surrounds you. Or play some songs that pump you up. Or listen to interesting audiobooks as you run.
Find the enjoyable parts of any activity, and focus on those. In time, you can really learn to love something. Or, switch to something you love more and stick to that.
These two principles, especially when used together, can be powerful motivators. In fact, in most cases, they’re all the motivation I ever need.