How to be Unmotivated…And Still Succeed

Last week, I started by talking about my nasty habit of looking at successful people and hating myself for not being like them.

Now, being a psych grad, I could tell you that this is an example of upward social comparison – comparing yourself to other people who are better off than you.

I can also tell you that for a small minority of people, this encourages them to work on themselves to achieve more. But, for the vast majority of people, it just makes them feel like human garbage.

Hi, I’m in the latter group.

I could explain the theory, but for the longest time, I had no idea what to do about it. It’s real easy to get stuck in a cycle of aspiration, imposter syndrome, failure, self-hatred, rinse, repeat.

I got so hung up on waiting for motivation to shake me out of a mental slumber that I couldn’t really see my way forward.

I’ve read countless blogs, tried to implement countless advice, but it until recently, nothing’s worked. I’ve finally made some consistent, measurable headway on my goals, and I thought I’d share what’s working.

I can’t promise it will work for you, but if you find anything that helps even a little bit, I’m living up to the promise of this website.

Short-term, Small, Daily Goals Executed Early in the Morning

I would usually break these tactics into their own sections, but it only works because they work together. In this case, splitting them up doesn’t make sense.

I’m going to illustrate the point with a long-winded story. Be prepared.

This year, one of my goals is to run a 10K. I’ve already signed up for a race on July 17th. But, as someone who hasn’t run a 5K or more than about 100m before last year, this goal is pretty daunting.

Living in snowy, icy Canada, training (at least outdoors) is restricted to a particular season (unless you have a death wish).  I got out a few times in March, but I was more out of shape than I thought. And sucking down freezing cold air while your muscles seize is not a good way to start anything.

Excuses become really easy to justify.

There’s a little snow on the ground? The Sneakers will remain in the closet today, thank you.

As time went on, anxiety about the time ticking down to July 17th made me go into avoidance mode. Any effort I had put in in early March quickly diminished, and the thought of having to start at square one made me feel like flipping a table.

At this point in the story, I think you get that I was completely unmotivated and ready to give the hell up.

Instead, I wracked my brain for a way to get going again.

I stopped thinking about the big goal of the 10k. I even stopped thinking about each step that would get me there. I focused on 1 short term goal: running every day for 7 days.

I also decided to do this first thing in the morning when my willpower is at its highest. I didn’t give myself a chance to think. I just left my running gear out ready to go. And I accepted that putting it on would be the first thing I would do.

My motivation didn’t change at all. Every day before I left, I would tell myself how much I hated myself for issuing this challenge. And I would stay mad pretty much until my running program said, “1 minute remaining”.

But when I got home, I felt so accomplished. I was untouchable.

It was easy to convince myself to keep putting up with it when the end was in sight. I only have to do this for 6 more days, 5 more days, 4, more days, 3 more days…

And pretty soon it was done.

I was astonished how much my endurance improved in just those 7 days. It gave me the confidence to keep working at it. Now, I’m on the 3rd week in a row of running Monday to Friday.

Every part of this setup is important.

First, the goal is short term. Even if it hurts, you can see the finish line within spitting distance. You can do anything you hate for at least a week.

Second, it’s small. I ran intervals from 5-10 minute, with plenty of walking breaks. And the whole thing was no longer than 30 minutes. This made it palatable, even when I was feeling my worst.

Third, I did it every day. I didn’t give myself the opportunity to stop and let the excuse train run off the rails. Every morning, I knew what was expected.

Fourth, it was bright and early. If you give yourself time to breathe, to eat, to get in another head space, working on a goal isn’t going to happen. Do the most important things as soon as you get out of bed.

The Five Second Rule

In the middle of this challenge, I started listening to an audiobook: the Five Second Rule by Mel Robbins.

Now, before you click out of this, because you think I’m a sellout who is making bank promoting this book, don’t. Mel Robbins does not know or care who I am. I actually came to a few realizations reading her book.

The first realization inspired this post: motivation is a myth.

When you stop waiting for motivation, and recognize that desire to do anything with long-term benefits is not built into human DNA, it’s a game-changer. 4 years in psychology did provide me with this insight, but for some reason, it made more sense coming from Mel. Go figure.

Take a breath. Accept that you will never feel motivated to do anything. Reaching your goals is only going to come from shear force.

The second realization was about starting rituals.

You need something to disrupt your instinctive thought processes, so the the executive functioning part of your brain can take over.

It’s a pretty simple process.

We all get those thoughts: “maybe I should do that thing…”.

But almost immediately, excuses start to build. All you need to do to win over the excuses is count: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. (Note, counting 1-5 may just make you want to say 6. It needs to have an endpoint).

Counting is simple, but it’s enough to drown out the crap. It gives you the space in your mind to make the decision to act. Now you’re up and making your way to do that thing you know you’re supposed to be doing.

It sounds weird, dumb, and self-helpy, but just try it. It works.

The Takeaway

Once you use these techniques to get started, you gain the two most important things you can have: confidence in your ability to do what you say you’re going to do, and momentum. Once you have those two things, the rest of your day will get easier.  

Don’t overwhelm yourself. Pick one little goal to work on first-thing tomorrow. Give yourself a set amount of time (under 7 days) to do it every day. When you open your eyes and feel the excuses creeping into your mind, use the five second rule to give yourself a push to stick to it.

Not sure what to aim for?

Hell, getting up on time is a perfect first goal if that’s something you struggle with.

Now I want to hear from you! What goals are you struggling with? Have you used any of these techniques before?

Let me know in the comments!

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