The motivating factor

10:30 PM. You know you should be doing something productive, but instead you browse Amazon for black pleated chiffon midi skirts.

11:45. You’ve moved on to blue-light blocker computer glasses. It’s time to get to work now, but you’re tired. Starting it now would be a waste. Better to wait until the morning, when you’ll have more energy.

As you go to bed two hours later, something’s tugging at your mind, but you can’t pinpoint what it is. Shame? Guilt? Depression? It’s pretty small, though, whatever it is, so you choose to ignore it.

Morning arrives. After checking and replying to your urgent emails, then reading your not urgent ones, then re-reading ones you’ve already read because you weren’t paying attention the first time, you realize it’s time to get ready for work.

Around 6 PM, that feeling from last night returns, only now it’s stronger. You know you really should do that thing you were supposed to do last night, for real this time. You’ll make sure of it.

After dinner, you’re ready to get started.

Instead, though, you find yourself, as if on autopilot, clicking on Facebook, reading status updates of people you barely know.

“What’s wrong with me?” you think. “Why can’t I be more productive?”

Now the nagging feeling of guilt has turned to full-on self-loathing. “I’ll never amount to anything,” you think bitterly. And the cycle repeats.

Sound familiar?

Day after day, this would happen to me when it came to writing fiction. Not every day, though. For a while I’d get on a roll, where I did exactly what I knew I should be doing, for multiple days in a row. Then something would slip—one day I truly would be too busy to write—and it’d be back to Point A. My motivation depleted, I’d have to start all over again to rebuild it.

I hadn’t always struggled with motivation. In school, I was super-productive, often running on five hours or less of sleep a night to get everything done. This was true not only in high school, when I wasn’t distracted by social media and my Internet was too slow to warrant an appealing alternative to work, but also in college and grad school.

What had changed?

I’d always attributed it to the structure and deadlines that school provided me with. Post school, anything not work-related, that had no set schedule or deadline—namely, my fiction writing—had fallen to the wayside.

But then I dug a little deeper.

Was it really just the lack of structure? Or was something else missing?

And I realized that in school, my true motivating factor was not the deadline itself, but rather the fear of letting someone else down. Even in my writing workshops, where we didn’t receive grades for our work, I couldn’t stand the thought of turning in a subpar story that would be painful for my classmates and teacher to read, or worse, no story at all.

Now that nobody cared whether or not I turned in a story, the motivation factor was gone.

After all, literary magazines have deadlines, but unlike in a workshop, you don’t get a visceral, immediate reaction. It’s often months before you get any response at all, and when you do it’s only a simple yes or no, not a detailed analysis of your dialogue, pacing and character development.

So maybe it wasn’t that I was inherently lazy or unproductive or unmotivated.

Maybe I simply needed a new motivating factor, one that didn’t depend on the approval (or avoiding the disapproval) of others.

Of course, on a practical level, my mindset made no sense. Even the Stephen Kings and James Pattersons of the world, who do have readers who are super eager for their next book and will be disappointed if the book doesn’t live up to their expectations, were once non-famous, balancing fiction writing with their day jobs, and nobody cared if they stuck to a regular writing schedule or wrote something crappy that day. In order for me to get to that point, I’d have to go through that lonely phase where there was nobody to hold me accountable.

But in order to fuel myself to write everyday and look forward to it, I’d need something besides logic.

So my new motivating factor is to write in order to avoid the nagging sense of guilt that comes from not writing and to replace it with the surge of good feelings that come after my writing sessions, the sense of fulfillment and purpose I get from working toward my long-term goals. I’ve also found that starting as soon as I am able to, rather than delaying, helps create momentum and reduces the chance that I’ll find some excuse to get out of it.

So the next time you find yourself lacking motivation, ask yourself, “What fueled me in the past?” If the answer is no longer applicable to your current circumstances, then find one that will serve you in the present.

The start that stops

“It’s the start that stops most people.”

This quote applies to just about every situation.

Take jogging, for instance. Before I’ve even made it two blocks, I’m already gasping for air, sore in all sorts of places, ready to turn around and go home.

Or reading a book. Two pages in, and my patience is wearing thin. Can’t the author get to the good part already, the one that’s supposed to be “transformative” or “haunting” or “unlike anything you’ll read this year”?

But two hours into jogging, the euphoria sets in and although my body may be tired, the ache fades to the background like white noise.

Several hundred pages into Moby Dick or House of Leaves, I’ve broken through several dimensions and everything, even the air around me, feels somehow altered.

For those of us in creative endeavors (writing, acting, painting, etc.) or starting our own business, or both, the period of acclimation is more protracted and painful, the reward more distant—not mere hours or weeks, but months, even years.

Progress can be slower than the flow of traffic on a gridlocked freeway at 6 PM—in other words, non-existent.

Some days it feels like I’m actually moving backwards. I’ll look at what I’ve written that day and think, “Man, my fourth graders write better than that.”

But this idea of regression is largely illusory, and even if it were true, so what? Many millionaires, even billionaires, have experienced bankruptcy at some point in their life, a failed business venture. Just about every successful writer/actor/musician has had a flop, in many cases a mortifying one.

So did the flops and bankruptcies, the bad writing days, cancel out the successful ones? If we were to apply that same logic to other situations, why do the laundry? Why wash the dishes?

The truth is, meaningful progress always involves some degree of pain, frustration, even humiliation. As a kid, I didn’t get this. I watched all the Endless Summer movies, fantasized about being a pro surfer, rented a surfboard for the first time, got up, fell within two seconds, and decided surfing wasn’t for me. Besides, the movies didn’t show all the paddling to get to the waves, which was super annoying.

Since then, I have learned how to manage my expectations. Still, in my first graduate creative writing class, I wrote an “experimental” piece that was largely inspired by my newfound discovery that I could fit blocks of text into different shapes. I was hurt when my classmates seemed puzzled by my display of “abstract art.”

As I read more deeply and dedicated more hours to my writing, though, my stories went places I could have never imagined and writing, which was once painful (and can still be, when I’ve gotten “out of shape”), led to hypnotic states where the words took on a mind of their own, kind of like the way it feels like you’ll never get out of the traffic and suddenly you’re home.

So yes, the starting is always going to suck a bit, but that just makes the not stopping, the pushing through, all the more rewarding.