Please Stop Looking for Motivation


I've seen cries from women "looking for" motivation come up time and time again in pretty much every type of online community you can think of. In health and fitness, these cries often go something like this: Ladies, I feel like a lump. Haven't worked out in over a week and ate all the cookies at our office party on Wednesday. Looking for motivation to get back at it. Help! In business and career communities, they're less on-the-nose but usually start with a long, vague story and end with any suggestions are welcome.

And a bunch of well-meaning, lovely people respond with messages of hope and kindness and encouragement and if-I-can-do-it-you-can-too stories, all of which are really, really nice and possibly do a great deal to cheer up the person who posted. But they don't fix the poster's motivation ‘challenge.’ Why? Because both examples come down to the same issue. I don't know WTF I actually want or why so I'll just ask you guys to avoid actually sorting out my own crapola and therefore keep putting off doing the thing. Motivation is an internal game, so no matter what other people suggest it doesn't actually matter that much in terms of getting shit done for real.

All About Desire

First, what the people and posts described above are actually referring to, and not in a bad way, is INSPIRATION. Not motivation. Inspiration is external. It refers to some feeling or idea or another coming from somewhere else - almost like it landed on you like rain or bird poop - that gets you thinking you might like to do, be, or have something different. It's about WHAT you want to do, be, or have.

Motivation comes from within. It's about WHY you want to do, be, or have the thing you decided to do, be, or have. And it's driven by DESIRE, not willpower or some shit like that.

Let's face it; there's not much we want more than to be comfortable. And change isn't comfortable. Even when the thing we're working towards is so much more awesome than where we are now, it's sometimes still super-hard to go after it. I get it. Say we're looking for motivation to do something like leave work on time or eat healthier or be more active. We're basically talking about making a pretty major behavioural change. Moving from somewhere meh to somewhere awesome for a particular reason or set of reasons.

To "be motivated" you basically have to want the results and/or benefits of the change more than you want things to stay the same. Said another way, you flat-out gotta desire the new behaviour more than the old. So it stands to reason that you first need to figure out WHY actually, deep-down, this new thing that you want to do, be, or have is so damn desirable to you in the first place.

"What's Your Why?"

People use this phrase all the time in business and life and while I find it a bit overused (thanks a lot Simon Sinek), it works well here. Understanding that motivation is not going to suddenly arrive and carry you to safety like the eagles in Lord of the Rings is step one of becoming motivated. Step two is understanding that you can quit wasting your time looking for motivation externally by looking internally and getting 100% clear about WHY you want to do, be, or have a thing. So in essence, the idea of needing motivation at all kind of disappears. TA DA!

Here are a few steps that may help you sort out your WHY. 

  1. Give yourself a clean break from external sources, at least temporarily. Don't pin stuff on Pinterest. No screen shots of feel-good quotes. No insta-scrolling. Try not to ask anyone or Google for "answers." Leave the rest of the world alone. Take your new-found time, because you will have a lot more now that you're offline, and do some internal digging.

  2. Ask yourself the big WHAT and HOW questions. What do you want to do, be, or have? Like, really, really, really? What do you dream about? How do you want to feel that's different than how you feel now? Write it all down, draw pictures, whatever. Just get it out of your head.

  3. Now ask yourself WHY you want to do, be, or have that stuff. *ALERT: because someone else thinks it's a good idea is not a valid WHY (see below). Keep asking why until you get to the real reason. It may not be the reason you thought it was. Below is an example of the process I'm describing. It sounds a lot like a conversation with a 3-year old, yes, but that's the idea. It's exhaustive.

    1. I want a new job. WHY?

    2. Because I want to do something that matters.WHY do you want to do something that matters?

    3. Because if I do something that matters I'll get noticed. WHY is being noticed important?

    4. It's like I don't exist now. Having my work noticed and valued will help me be more confident. WHY do you want to be more confident?

    5. Because when I'm confident I can stop playing small and go after what I want at work but also in other parts of my life. BINGO.


'Desired changes' that sound like they're yours but actually come from someone or somewhere else are basically the worst. I want to become a doctor because everyone says I'd be great at it. I want to start running and do a half-marathon this fall because all my girlfriends are doing it and they're hot. Interestingly, you may find yourself achieving these goals simply because you have too much "reputation" riding on them to back down. In that case however, you'll probably struggle with and hate the process as well as the results because you're doing the thing entirely for someone else's satisfaction, not yours. And then you realize you're living a life like David Byrne in that Talking Heads song.

But the most common outcome of pursuing change stemming from a desire that isn't really yours is not getting anywhere at all and then feeling like a failure or guilty for letting someone down. All of this thinking contributes to the self-fulfilling prophecy of "I can't..." or "I'm not the type of person who..." or "I'm lazy" which is, frankly, balls. You are AWESOME. 

Bottom-line: if they're not your goals and dreams, LEAVE THEM BE. Just because they work in someone else's head doesn't mean they work in yours, no matter how much you love or respect the source. Wanting to want something is NOT the same as wanting it.


So What Do I Do Now?

Now that you've discovered your why, you'll need to shift it from an idea into action if you want anything to actually change. Here's how:

  1. Rework your why into a statement of purpose. For example: I am going to pursue a new career so that I can get noticed, be more confident, and go after all the things I want in my life. Use this statement as the groundwork for kicking off the strategic planning process you need to develop to achieve your desired result.

  2. Remind yourself every day why you want to do, be, or have the thing. I know this sounds kinda woo-woo, but visualization works. Imagine yourself as already having succeeded. Get attached to that version of you. Love her madly, and keep her in mind when you don't feel like doing what it takes to make progress on a given day. Then do it anyway. Repeat your statement of purpose out loud as a reminder of your vision every morning and before you go to sleep.

  3. Change your language. Avoid saying stuff like "I must" or "I have to" or "I should" because ABC, which is all kinds of absolute and negative. Instead, say things like "I want" or "I choose" or "I am" because XYZ. Remember, you're going after something you want, something driven by your desire, and that's a good thing. Treat your desire with kindness.

I can feel it. Today I will catch that tail.

Keep in Mind

Motivation is a lot like happiness. It's not a destination. It's a feeling, a drive, an impulse, a MEANINGFUL REASON you connect to when you need a reminder of why it is you're trying to do, be, or have this new thing.

Speakers, nice quotes - they're often great but only in a short-term feel-good way. Even coaches like me don't really motivate people, and if we're honest and good we'll admit it. What we do do, however, is help people identify, connect with, and focus on their own reasons for change. And if that's something you'd like help with, I'm more than happy to start a conversation with you about it. 

So please remember that it's your story. You need to connect with your true reason. That's the one that'll keep you going when it feels like you can't.  Look within and keep your eyes on your own paper. You may be surprised what you end up writing.

*Original Post June 28, 2018. Edited for context April 13, 2019.