How do you know when you’re feeling motivated? Think of an activity that draws you in — one that has the kind of shiny, sparkly lure that gets you moving automatically in its direction.
This article is about finding and fuelling that experience.
But first, let’s talk about what happens when you don’t have the luxury of ready-made motivation. What do you do to get yourself going when lethargy strikes? Do you have a technique? Or, like so many of us, do you resort to calling yourself “lazy” (or “idle” or “slack”) in a vain attempt to kick yourself into gear?
Let’s stop beating ourselves with the “lazy” stick
As far as everyday self-snubs go, “lazy” could be one of the most limiting. It echoes the voices of our frustrated parents. It harks back to long-gone moments when we fell short of expectations (“You should be doing X but you’re just too lazy!”). The word reeks of fundamental failure.
When we call ourselves “lazy” — even with the very best of intentions — we invite back that powerless state of feeling incapable of doing what’s “right.” This is an unproductive mindset to put ourselves in. At best, we’re encouraging a teenager-like rebellion: “Screw you, Mum. I’ll do what I want!” (which rarely really worked with Mum, and will be even less effective when it is we who is issuing the order). But most of the time we’re just compounding the damaging belief that we’re unable to take the actions we think we “should.”
“Should-ing” all over ourselves
“Lazy’s” greatest shortcoming, though, is that it the very concept is bit mythological. Lazy isn’t a real thing. People don’t fail to do things due to a lack of action. Quite the contrary. It takes effort to deny and avoid the crap out of something.
So, no. “Lazy” isn’t quite right. If we’re not doing whatever we think we “should,” then it usually comes down to one of these two reasons:
- We’re scared of the task — or we’re scared of failing when we try — meaning that we procrastinate or find ourselves paralysed by anxious indecision.
- We’re too busy doing something else that we value more highly.
It follows, then, that when we have a problem with motivation, what we actually “should” be doing is taking an adult look at our system of values and fears. In doing this, we can identify the glitch in our programming. Then we can rewire our thinking about the tasks we want to take on so that they inspire that sparkly, enticing motivation actually gets the job done.
I’d like to show you how.
What are values?
To give a concise definition of what I’m talking about here, values are the beliefs that we hold about the importance of things. So, if I value X, then that’s the same as saying, “I believe X to be important.” And that belief could be based on the idea that X is life-saving, productive or fun, or it could be because X was highly valued by my family, etc.
These kinds of belief determine our behaviour. The vast majority of the actions that we take are decided on unconsciously rather than consciously, and they’re based on our system of values. This means that willpower will only ever get us so far. If the unconscious mind has a different set of priorities to the conscious, then it’ll be sure to meet its own criteria in one way or another.
But none of this means that self-control is out of the question. We can influence the rules that the unconscious mind follows. It’s just that, in order to do that, we need to know what they are.
How do we know what we value?
There are a number of ways to access this information. Firstly, we need to look at the contrast between our intentions and our actions. If we get up in the morning and immediately start doing what we think we “should,” then there’s probably not much of an issue. However, if we think that “getting fit” is important, but instead of doing our planned yoga session on a Sunday morning, our day looks more like this:
- Wake up
- Start doing unnecessary chores
- Eat a big lunch that postpones exercise further
- Decide to watch a programme on Netflix
- Decide to watch “just one more” over and over again while berating ourselves for being so goddam lazy…
… then there’s probably an unconscious conflict at play.
So, does this mean that we value chores and Netflix more highly than getting fit? I’m not ruling it out. It’s possible. If not, though, there’s likely an anxiety-barrier holding us back (which, I should point out, doesn’t necessarily mean that we’d feel anxious because we can get very good at hiding that kind of information from ourselves). In either case, analysis our our values can help clear things up.
The process I’m about to show you will teach you how to identify any low-flying fears that could be standing in the way of your doing what you want. Then we’re going to look at how to add the all-important sparkly, zesty lure to the things that don’t come with ready-made motivation.
I’ve included a more comprehensive method of doing this in my book Fight. For this article, though, we’re just covering the essentials. Grab a pen and a piece of paper if you’d like to complete the task. But if you don’t have time for that, then feel free to just read though. You’ll get the idea.
Shining a light on your unconscious values system: a six-step process for generating motivation
STEP 1: CHOOSE YOUR FOCUS
Pick a task or goal to focus on (make sure it’s something you struggle to motivate yourself to do). Then, write it down at the top of a sheet of paper.
“Developing a new website for my business”
STEP 2: WHAT ARE YOUR VALUES IN THAT CONTEXT?
Write a list of things that you believe to be important about the doing of that task.
What’s important about “developing a new website for my business”?
“Getting the word out about my company”
“Acquiring new customers”
“Starting a conversation with a wider audience”
When you hit a blank and think you have everything, be sure to search for further answers. It’s normal to find that the more interesting values pop up after you push through a block or two.
You can coax more out by saying to yourself: “And, if I had A, B, C… (list all the values you’ve already come up with) what else would be important in this context?”
Write down everything that comes to mind.
If I had “getting the word out about my company,” “acquiring new customers,” and “starting a conversation with a wider audience,” what else would be important about “developing a new website for my business”?
“Making something that looks professional and cool”
“Building a beautiful brand”
“Communicating my sense of purpose effectively”
STEP 3: HIERARCHY OF IMPORTANCE
The next step is to order your values according to their level of importance. You need to do this because, very often, our most immediate answers are not the ones that the unconscious mind would deem the most crucial. The real motivators often lurk in the background.
Start by answering this question:
If you could only keep one of those values, which would you keep?
The rule here is to go with your gut instinct — that tangible emotional tug — to answer the question. Avoid responding with what you think “should” be your top priority.
Put the winning value in first place on a new list with a space below it. Then repeat the process to find values two, three, four, etc, leaving a blank space below each.
First place: Making something that looks professional and cool
Second place: Communicating my sense of purpose effectively
Third place: Starting a conversation with a wider audience
The values at the top of your list that will have the most sway when it comes to your unconsciously generated behaviour.
STEP 4: THE VALUE OF YOUR VALUES
Now, for each independent answer, ask yourself this question:
“And, whats important about that?”
When you do this, write down the exact wording that first goes through your mind. You can use the space that you left free under each value on your ordered list.
What’s important about “making something that looks professional and cool”?Answer:
Not looking like a clueless part-timer
What’s important about “communicating my sense of purpose effectively”?
Connecting with people who will truly benefit from what I have to offer
As with the examples I’ve given here, you’re likely to find that some of your answers will be stated in the positive (e.g. “Connecting with people who will truly benefit…”), and others in the negative (e.g. “Not looking like a clueless part-timer”). This is fine.
Towards or away?
Values come in two types: towards values and away-from values. What we’re talking about here is the difference between carrot and stick.
Towards values are about pleasure-based motivation. We find ourselves being carried (by our actions) towards the things that we believe will bring us joy.
Away-from values are about fear-based motivation. These get us moving away from the things that we believe could cause us some kind of pain or harm.
You can tell the difference between your towards and away-from values by looking at the language you’ve used. Negative language — i.e. statements that include words like “don’t”, “won’t”, or “so I’m not…” — indicate that your mind is thinking more about the stick than the carrot. But this doesn’t mean that there is no pleasure up for grabs in those areas, just that your awareness is being distracted by some kind of perceived threat. This is important information.
Take a look at your list and identify the away-from values by circling all the negative statements.
What this means
Take another look at our hypothetical “new website” example. The top value on the list was an away-from:
What’s important about “making something that looks professional and cool”?
*Not* looking like a clueless part-timer
So, when considering building a website for their business, this person’s mind’s top priority would be to avoid looking like an amateur. That would certainly be a good idea, but it’s not an particularly motivating thought. Who would want to jump out of bed and get started on a job that threatens this result if not done properly? Not me. Too much pressure. I’d rather watch some Netflix, thanks.
If we want to move freely in the direction of a task, we need to start reframing our away-from values to look less like pain and more like pleasure. The two final steps in the process will help you do this.
STEP 5: FACE THE FEAR
Firstly, you need to face the fear that your away-from values indicate.
Know that we can only be afraid of things that, on some level, we believe to be an actual possibility. If you’re afraid of spiders, for example, then that must mean that some part of you genuinely believes that spiders are dangerous. Otherwise, your body wouldn’t surge with adrenaline every time you see something with eight hairy legs.
The same goes for all the other, more personal kinds of fear that we entertain; the fear of failure, of letting people down, of being stupid or unlikable. We fear these things when we believe in them deep down.
So, the away-from value of “not looking like a clueless part-timer” would indicate that this person holds a limiting belief about being a bit of an amateur (e.g. “I don’t know enough,” “I’m not good enough” or “I’m a fake”). If their Imposter Syndrome didn’t feel real, the away-from thought wouldn’t occur to them first.
Take a look at all of the away-from statements that cropped up in your values list. What kind of limiting beliefs could they indicate? To get right to the heart of the problem, form these beliefs into identity statements — e.g. “I am X” or “I’m not Y” — and write them down.
How does it feel to see those ideas exposed? If doing this causes an emotional reaction of any kind, then you’ve hit on something important.
Now, here’s the really key point: these beliefs are nothing to worry about because belief and truth are different things. Our beliefs only *feel* like truth because they’re how we’ve chosen (or been taught) to view the world.
I’ll repeat that because it is seriously important:
Belief ≠ truth.
Limiting beliefs are just stories that we tell to make ourselves feel small.
So, if you’ve uncovered a horrible (and probably quite familiar) story about yourself during this process, then know that it is only that: a story.
Just like “I’m lazy” is a story.
Thoughts like, “I’m a fake,” “I don’t fit in,” “I’m a bad person,” “I’m a loser” and “I’m destined to be alone” are fictional. We can act in-line with these narratives, yes. And this means that there’ll pretty much always be some kind of behavioural “evidence” that we use against ourselves. But that doesn’t mean that the story is our lot in life. It’s not our truth.
By choosing to see these fears as personal perspective rather than reality, we can begin to look beyond the anxiety-barriers that prevent us from taking action. Awareness is the key. There are many ways to work on our negative beliefs, but sometimes, exposing the lie in that kind of thinking is all we need.
Ultimately, a limiting belief is only ever one possible perspective. And that means that there must be other, more empowering options up for grabs. The one we’re going to focus on here, of course, is the “towards” perspective.
Turning it towards
To flip the momentum, we need to ask ourselves this:
“If I were to view this task in terms of towards rather than away-from motivation, what would be the most enticing thing about it?”
By asking this question, we can condition our minds to focus on the carrot rather than the stick. We need to paint a vivid, affirmative (tasty and crunchy) mental image of the activity. It needs to highlight all of the positive motivating factors available. By this I mean all the potential ways in which doing that task will help us meet our needs rather than fuel our fears. This makes it infinitely easier to get ourselves moving in that direction.
So, for the website example, rather than thinking about avoiding a shoddy job, we could be conditioning our minds to think about these things:
- Enjoying playing with colour palettes and design options (fulfilling the needs for creativity and fun)
- Relishing the opportunity to express our sense of purpose so that we can connect with others (fulfilling our needs for authenticity and human interaction)
- Loving the challenge of learning something new (fulfilling the need for growth).
Or, instead of trying to motivate our “lazy” selves to get to the gym and stop being so fat, we could be looking forward to:
- Tracking our progress at the lifting rack (growth)
- Chatting with the friends we make there (connection)
- Feeling the improvements in our body as we get stronger and leaner (progress, physical health)
This sounds obvious but we don’t do it automatically. Ask someone why they’re dieting and they’ll talk about “losing weight.” Ask someone why they’re seeing a therapist and they’ll tell you that they want to “get rid of their anxiety.” We’re accustomed to focus on the problem rather than the solution. But doing so usually just makes the problem seem even bigger and harder to overcome. So, we need to apply a little effort and flip the coin.
STEP 6: PAINTING A TOWARDS PICTURE
Return to your list of values and consider each one in terms of towards motivation. If you’re completing this task on paper, then write these ideas down. You can also include in any new motivating factors that occur to you now. Add in anything that could help you to feel connected, or like you’re growing, learning, developing or contributing to something important while doing this task. These things contain the most sparkle.
But be careful. The idea is to breathe life into the rewards available in the doing of the task, not the reward at the end of its completion. You already know that you want the result (i.e. the super-cool website or washboard abs). Visualising the payoff is probably what you’ve been doing all along, and that image could be loaded with away-from information. To get your goal completed in the fastest and most enjoyable way — or to begin a sustainable longterm practice — you need to remind yourself of the carrots you’ll be eating while actually doing the thing.
Once you have your list, close your eyes and create a visualisation to represent this shiny, new and super-carroty version of the task at hand. Here, you want a snapshot that you can call to mind repeatedly to train your brain to think in this way. Make sure that you can see yourself in this image (having loads of fun, of course).
So, you might visualise yourself at the gym with all your favourite training partners, laughing and joking around. You might include something to symbolise your sense of improvement. Maybe something that reminds you of the specific movements that feel the best. Oh, and feel free to include that hot fitness instructor helping you with a stretch, as well as the delicious smoothies they serve in the cafe. Anything goes.
Make your visualisation as big and bright and vivid as it needs to be to feel the most engaging. Play with the size, colour and contrast of the mental picture to see what gets it to sing. Actually do this. I’ll wait.
Then, when you have the best image possible, focus on it for a little while as you take a few deep and energising breaths. Let your muscles release any physical resistance that your body might be holding. Straighten your spine, lift your chin, open your chest and shoulders and know that you can do this.
How does it feel now? Is there anything else that you need to add to your image before it really starts to lure you in? If so, add it. And then memorise this snapshot so you can make it habitual.
You may have found that your towards picture has already changed your sense of motivation. If so, brilliant! Stop faffing around on Medium and get started.
Note: To get going, actually stand up and walk in the required direction immediately. Don’t think about it. Just move. You need to get the ball rolling within seconds of feeling that subtle emotional tug. Once you’re moving, the motivation will take care of itself.
For the most “sticky” goals, however, a little repetition is required before you notice a new surge of inspiration. Just as with training a muscle, it’s the reps that make the difference when training your brain. Maybe you could commit to practising your visualisation every time you boil the kettle or while on your daily commute. Or, if those options don’t sound right for you, I’d suggest you set an alarm on your phone to remind yourself twice a day for the next two weeks. But you might not need to wait that long before you start to feel a little more motivated. The sparkle of shiny needs fulfilment can be a very seductive thing.
So, what do you think? Are you up to the challenge?
If so, please remember that this is not meant to generate turbo-charged productivity for 15-hour-long stretches every day of the week. That simply wouldn’t be healthy. Sometimes you have to relax, and sometimes Netflix genuinely will satisfy your needs more effectively than a HIIT session. And that’s OK.
So, go easy on yourself when you’re making this change. And please, please remember — on those days when you fall short of super-human — just don’t call yourself “lazy.”
If you found this article helpful, please give the applause button a few clicks to help spread the word. Thanks!
Read more like this in my book FIGHT: Win Freedom From Self-Sabotage.