“Just 30 minutes,” I told myself.
I didn’t feel ready to start work yet, so I gave myself permission to catch up on my favorite websites first. But not too much, because there was work to do.
When the timer went off, I was in the middle of something interesting, so I reset the timer for another half hour without thinking.
As the timer neared zero, now for the second time, I felt a growing sense of dread. He didn’t want to procrastinate all morning, but then again, he had already lost an hour. It would be easier to switch gears and start in the afternoon, I rationalized. And then I turned off the timer with a compulsive flick of my finger, acting before my brain had time to register the decision.
Getting stuck in a cycle of inaction
Setting goals and making plans, whether short-term or long-term, are inherently optimistic endeavors. You may not be motivated right now, but act on the assumption that inspiration will strike when it’s time to start.
Unfortunately, when it comes time for action, you usually feel the same as before. And instead of dealing with uncomfortable emotions and getting started, look for whatever distractions are nearby.
To appease your guilt, you promise yourself that at some point in the near future, you will fix yourself (half believing your own lie and half knowing that you will once again find a way out).
The limiting belief that gets us stuck
Is it possible to break this cycle? If so, how do you become the kind of person who progresses even when you don’t feel like it? After all, procrastination has been linked to lower self-perceived health status and, for many, can lead to a lower quality of life.
As someone who has wrestled with this question for over a decade and seen others do the same, I have come to the conclusion that what really keeps people stuck is not a lack of intelligence or an unwillingness to try, but more rather a particular faulty belief about human nature.
What is that belief? In a nutshell, it’s the idea that you can reliably depend on motivation to drive action.
Why can’t you wait for motivation
Like most enduring falsehoods, there is a kernel of truth to the idea that motivation precedes action.
Our brain is really good at holding on to vivid memories. Each of us can remember a few times in our lives when we felt exceptionally motivated and then did a ton of work. We long to return to that state of effortless flow.
And it is not entirely illogical to imagine that the world works this way. If motivation is like fuel, you certainly won’t get anywhere on an empty tank, or so it is thought.
But here’s a deeper truth that I’ve discovered over a lifetime of observation: Almost no one, maybe no one, is bursting with motivation to do the kind of meaningful work that requires real effort. The exceptions I’ve seen are few and far between.
Don’t get me wrong; we have a lot of high-level motivation about the abstract idea of making progress, but when the rubber meets the road and it’s time to act, suddenly there are a dozen other things we’d rather be doing.
The idea that we need motivation to make progress on our goals is not only inconsistent with observed reality, but its effect also moves us away from progress in several ways:
Reinforces the feeling of helplessness.. If this mysterious force we call motivation is not available, there is little we can do about it. Our progress in life therefore depends on the whims of an unreliable emotion. We can only wait on it, or try to cultivate it.
It pushes our efforts in the wrong direction.. If motivation is the key, then finding ways to motivate yourself becomes the secret knowledge you must possess. I’ve seen myself and others waste countless hours studying the psychology of motivation or procrastination instead of actually making progress toward our goals.
The only path to progress
Now for the big reveal.
If you want to progress in life, even when you don’t feel like it, there is only one way, and that is to act before you feel ready.
Before his ducks are lined up, before his plan is perfectly laid out, before he feels comfortable and secure, he moves.
Are you disappointed with this simple advice? Did you expect some information that would instantly take the awkwardness out of taking action, making it as easy as reaching for your phone or making a plan for future action?
If so, that’s your clue. You have been waiting to progress until conditions are perfect. You have been searching for the secret key to unlock the motivation you think you must possess first.
Here’s the real secret: action creates motivation, not the other way around.
If you want to progress, and I know you do, because you’ve read this far, the only way is to be brave and take those small initial steps with no guarantee of how it will all end.
You may think to yourself, “This is too hard. How could I go on like this? But if you can stand your ground, amazing things will begin to happen. Your action will make you stronger. You will be motivated by your progress and wanting more. You will start to trust yourself again. You will have greater clarity and a renewed sense of optimism.
And not just any action; you must do the real thing.
If you want to be healthier, for example, don’t search for a fitness app or the best pair of walking shoes or the best trails in your area, just open your front door and go for a walk.
Apply this simple and timeless wisdom to any area of your life where you feel stuck and enjoy the amazing gift of progress.