Einstein himself summed it up nicely when he said, “Nothing happens until something moves.” But going from ‘not moving’ to ‘moving’ can sometimes feel like an unbridgeable gulf. This week, we’ll cover five ways to nudge your mind or body into motion.
Tip #1: Rethink what “motivated” means. “Motivated” could mean pumped and ready for anything, or it could just mean a willingness to get up. The bar can feel way too high if you’re nestled all snug in your bed while visions of Tony Robbins dance in your head. So don’t despair—you don’t have to unleash anything, you just have to be willing to get started. Which brings us to…
Tip #2: Tackle some tiny things first to build momentum. If you have a big or particularly repellent task ahead of you, sometimes getting a running start can help. Get some small victories under your belt—clear the breakfast dishes, pay one bill, make one phone call. Just be sure your tiny tasks build momentum rather than sapping it. Checking your email may seem like a task to get out of the way, but often it sucks you into a vortex of distraction.
Tip #3: Start with the outside. Sometimes the best tiny things to start with are, counterintuitively, the most superficial. Take a shower. Put in your contacts. Shave. Put something on besides the t-shirt you slept in or your fuzzy Yoda slippers. Looking the part can nudge you toward feeling the part. By contrast, looking like you’re ready for a Netflix binge and a jar of marshmallow fluff licked straight from your fingers makes a productive day much less likely.
Tip #4: Talk to yourself with some compassion. Too often, we try to lambaste ourselves into getting motivated. “What the hell is wrong with me?” “This is so easy—why can’t I do this?” But imagine if someone else talked to you the same way. Would it motivate you? Or just make you hurt and resentful as well as unmotivated?
Try a little self-compassion instead. Talk to yourself as if you’d talk to a good friend. “Oh sweetie, you’re having a hard day. It’s tough to break out of a funk. Do you want to try taking a shower and see if that makes you feel better?” If it feels cheesy to call yourself sweetie, don’t. But do talk to yourself with understanding and patience.
Hard-core self-compassion practitioners even give themselves a hug, or stroke their face or arms as if a kind soul were comforting them. Your body can’t tell the difference—all it knows is that someone is offering a kind and soothing touch. Try it when nobody’s watching—you might be surprised.
Finally, the most important tip. Since this one is key, we’ll focus on it most extensively:
Tip #5: Put action before motivation. One of the biggest myths of the human psyche is that we have to feel like doing something before we do it. Not true. Think of all the things you do that you don’t want to: get out of bed on a rainy Monday, pay your taxes (well, unless you’re Donald Trump), call your cable company’s customer service line. But we do them anyway.
The same principle applies for things that aren’t so aversive, but are still hard: go to the gym, sit down to study, or clean your kitchen, but here’s the thing: you might think you have to psych yourself up before you can get started, but you actually don’t. Instead, you can go through the motions: put on your gym shoes, crack the textbook, unload the dishwasher, all without feeling like doing any of it. But guess what? Surprisingly often, getting started gathers momentum, which in turn changes your mood. In short, rather than waiting until you feel like getting started, just get started. Then, your mood (and motivation) will catch up.
Why does this work?
Increasingly, researchers are finding a distinction between what they call anticipatory pleasure and consummatory pleasure—the enjoyment of looking forward to something versus the enjoyment of doing something. And usually it’s a cycle—doing something rewarding makes us motivated to do it more.
But sometimes, the link between the two breaks down. One of the causes for the breakdown? Depression.
To illustrate, in a 2012 study out of Stanford, depressed and non-depressed participants began an experiment by reading 10 funny cartoons. But then, to see more cartoons, they had to work a little: specifically, by clicking on a square that jumped around on their computer screen.
What’s interesting is that the two groups—depressed and non-depressed—reported enjoying the cartoons equally. What differed is how much effort they were willing to exert to read more funny cartoons. In the non-depressed group, how much they liked the cartoons predicted how much effort they’d be willing to spend clicking on that jumping square]. But in the depressed group, the link between liking and motivation was broken.
Why? In depression, a cardinal symptom is called anhedonia, which is apathy or a lack of pleasure. And in the study, levels of anhedonia predicted motivation in the depressed participants. In other words, if their anticipatory pleasure was stunted, they couldn’t look forward to a reward and therefore were less willing to put in effort.
This makes sense. If we can’t imagine ourselves enjoying or being rewarded in some way—with a good grade, a clean house, a satisfying workout—we probably won’t be motivated to achieve it.
When you’re in a funk, go through those motions, even if your heart’s not in it.
But remember, even the depressed participants liked the funny cartoons. They could experience some enjoyment even if they couldn’t look forward to it or get motivated to work for it. Which brings us back to putting action before motivation. When you’re in a funk, go through those motions, even if your heart’s not in it. As you reap the reward of getting stuff done, your motivation will catch up and create a success spiral. Sure, it’s not the same as feeling ready to conquer the world, but it will move you forward, which is what matters in the end.
An important note: if your funk lasts longer than two weeks, or it starts getting in the way of living your life, it could be depression, which is serious but treatable. Search out a qualified therapist you like and trust or see your physician.
To wrap things up, sometimes going through the motions can be what gets you back in motion. So put tiny steps of action before motivation, preferably while talking to yourself nicely after having brushed your teeth. Motivation to conquer the world will catch up.