Action before motivation

Getting yourself motivated to take action doesn't work the way most people think it does. Here's how you can break the cycle and get started right now.
This article first appeared in the
edition of The Ongoing.

"Something has to change," Sarah told me as we polished off the last few bites of our tacos.

I didn't want to admit it, but deep down I knew she was right.

"I know, I know," I responded, "but I have no idea what to do."

So far, our emergency date night was going well. At the last minute, Sarah had called a family friend to come and watch our daughter, before dragging me out of the house to grab Mexican food. And to talk.

We talked about the constant rollercoaster of emotions I had been stuck riding for the past few months. We debated what could be causing it. We finished our tacos, then kept talking while we walked the neighbourhood for over an hour.

We both agreed on one thing - I had to do something. Anything, really. Everything else would follow from there.

So the next morning, I jumped into action. I told my boss and colleagues I'd be taking the next two weeks off work, to try and clear my head. I didn't mention why, although in hindsight I'm sure that was pretty damn obvious to anyone around me.

I bought myself the time and the headspace I needed to uncover the next action, even though I had no clue what that would be.

Don't just sit there, do something.

Most of us have led ourselves to believe that we can only begin doing something after we're motivated to get started. That motivation only appears after we become inspired by something. We might be inspired by others who have lost weight by avoiding Mexican restaurants, which motivates us to lose weight ourselves, which hopefully leads to the conscious decision to eat fewer tacos.

That motivation cycle occurs in a sort of chain reaction, kind of like this:

The issue with motivation, though, isn't that we aren't motivated to make changes. It's that we start off believing that being motivated has to happen first - before we can take action. It's so easy to get stuck waiting for the right idea to strike because you think that's what you need to get moving again.

But when you're neck deep in an existential shitstorm of self-doubt and uncertainty, finding that inspiration to make a change is nearly impossible. It's hard to think clearly enough to do the laundry, let alone make important life decisions. Everything feels meaningless - you begin to assume you're just screwed, and there's nothing you can do about it.

So what can you do? First of all, stop trying to work out how to get your motivation back. It ain't gonna work. Don't ask yourself big questions, like what you want out of life - there just aren't enough tacos in the world to answer that one.

Here's the thing: You don't need to find divine inspiration to start feeling motivated. In fact, you don't even need to be inspired at all to begin taking action. Instead of waiting for inspiration to come to us, we can create inspiration by starting with action.

That's because motivation isn't just a straight-line path. Your actions - no matter how small and insignificant they might feel - generate emotional reactions and inspiration, which then motivates you to take the next action. It's an endless loop of action, inspiration, motivation, and more action, meaning you can jump in at any stage you like:

So when you're fresh out of fucks to give, and you're hurting for the inspiration you need to make important changes in your life, then start by doing something - anything, really - then use your reaction to start motivating yourself.

That something can be the smallest possible action toward something else. It could be grabbing tacos with someone who cares about you. It could be as simple as buying yourself some time to decide on the next action, like me. Really, it can be anything.

Losing touch with your friends because you're spending so much time working? Start simple - text one of them right now and set up a coffee date. Tired of wasting time on useless meetings at work? Skip one of them, just once, and see what happens. Hurting yourself by chasing false dreams, and have no idea what you should be doing next? Ditch the kid and eat tacos (just kidding).

Small actions lead to big changes.

Even if you think your plan is airtight, things will change along the way. Chances are you'll end up somewhere entirely different from what you thought.

Take this newsletter, for example. I started writing back in August of 2016 - my first email went out to 8 people, tops. The first few articles I wrote were complete and utter crap, but the action of getting my thoughts, worries, and struggles down on paper helped inspire more ideas and motivated me to keep writing. That motivation was enough to publish another article, then another. Some of them, people liked. Others still haven't even been read. But I'm still writing, because I enjoy it, and each time I hit Publish I'm inspired to write even more.

Now I'm planning out my first online course, about finding the hidden joy in burnout. I'll be honest - the idea of creating an entire course scares the shit out of me. I've never thought of myself as a writer - I have no idea if I can even do it, let alone if other people will be interested enough to buy it. But, if you'd told me that night two years ago that I'd have a thriving newsletter and be planning a book, I probably would have choked on a taco. But, by taking action one step at a time, that's where I've ended up.

Motivation starts with action

You don't need to wait until you burn out, though, to whip up enough motivation to get off the couch and make a change. Just doing something is often enough to get the snowball rolling. It doesn't matter if that something puts you on the right path or not. What's more important is that you're moving.

Instead of spending your time focusing on the many ways you could fail, or how you have no idea what's coming next, you start to realise that merely acting is what inspires you and keeps you moving forward. Every step suddenly becomes a step in the right direction.

And once you realise that, you're unstoppable. Tacos or no tacos.