Better Living

How to Make Progress When You Lack Motivation

Taking small, actionable steps is key to creating real motivation
BY Mike Donghia TIMEAugust 28, 2022 PRINT

“Just 30 minutes,” I told myself.

I didn’t feel ready to start work yet, so I gave myself permission to catch up with my favorite websites first. But not too long, because there was work to do.

When the timer chimed I was in the middle of something interesting, so I reset the timer for another half-hour without a thought.

As the timer moved closer to zero, now for the second time, I felt a growing sense of dread. I didn’t want to procrastinate the whole morning away, but then again, I had already wasted an hour. It would be easier to switch gears and get started in the afternoon, I rationalized. And so I turned the timer off with a compulsive swipe of my finger—acting before my brain even had time to register the decision.

Getting Caught in a Cycle of Inaction

Creating goals and making plans, whether they be in the short term or long term, are inherently optimistic endeavors. You might have zero motivation now, but you act on the assumption that inspiration will appear when it’s time to start.

Unfortunately, when the time for action arrives, you usually feel the same as you did before. And rather than deal with the uncomfortable emotions and getting started, you seek out whatever distraction is close at hand.

To appease your guilt, you promise yourself that at some point in the near future, you will get your act together (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 makes progress even when you don’t feel like it? After all, procrastination has been linked to lower self-rated health status and, for many, can lead to a lower quality of life.

As someone who’s wrestled with this question for more than a decade, and watched others do the same, I’ve come to the conclusion that the thing that really keeps people trapped is not a lack of intelligence or an unwillingness to try, but rather a particular faulty belief about human nature.

What’s that belief? Put simply, it’s the idea that you can reliably depend on motivation to drive action.

Why You Can’t Wait for Motivation

Like most enduring falsehoods, there’s a shred of truth to the idea that motivation precedes action.

Our brain is really good at latching onto vivid memories. Each of us can recall a few times in our lives when we felt exceptionally motivated and then got a ton of work done. We long to return to that effortless state of flow.

And it isn’t entirely illogical to imagine that the world works this way. If motivation is like fuel, you certainly won’t get anywhere with an empty tank—or so the thinking goes.

But here’s a deeper truth I’ve discovered over a lifetime of observation: Hardly anyone, maybe nobody, is consistently brimming 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 plenty of high-level motivation about the abstract idea of making progress, but when the rubber meets the road, and it’s time for action, there are suddenly 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 making progress in several ways:

It reinforces a feeling of helplessness. If this mysterious force we call motivation isn’t available, there’s 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 have witnessed myself and others waste countless hours studying the psychology of motivation or procrastination, in place of actually making progress toward our goals.

The Only Path to Progress

Now, for the big reveal.

If you want to make progress in life, even when you don’t feel like it, there is only one path, and that is to take action before you feel ready.

Before your ducks are in a row, before your plan is perfectly mapped out, before you feel comfortable and certain—you move.

Are you disappointed in this simple advice? Were you expecting some insight that would instantly remove the discomfort of taking action, making it as easy as reaching for your phone or making a plan to act sometime in the future?

If so, that is your clue. You’ve been waiting around to make progress until the conditions are perfect. You’ve been searching for the secret key to unlock the motivation that you think must possess first.

Here’s the real secret: Action creates motivation, not the other way around.

If you want to make progress, and I know you do, because you’ve read this far, the only way is to be courageous and take those initial small steps without any guarantee of how it will all end up.

You may think to yourself: “This is too hard. How could I ever keep this up?” But if you can hold fast, amazing things will begin to happen. Your action will make you stronger. You will be motivated by your progress and hungry for more. You will begin to trust yourself again. You will have greater clarity and a renewed sense of optimism.

And not just any action will do; you must do the real thing.

If you want to be healthier, for example, don’t research a fitness app or the best pair of walking shoes or the best trails in your area—simply open the front door and go for a walk.

Apply this simple, timeless wisdom in any area of your life where you feel stuck and enjoy the surprising gift of progress.

Mike Donghia
Mike (and his wife, Mollie) blog at This Evergreen Home where they share their experience with living simply, intentionally, and relationally in this modern world. You can follow along by subscribing to their twice-weekly newsletter.
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