Bullish: How to Motivate Yourself to Be Motivated

Bullish previously appeared weekly on our sister site The Gloss (here’s an archive). The column will focus on helping women get and make the most of their careers.

Sam Harris, author of  “The Moral Landscape”, has been metaphysically riling his readers lately by insisting that free will doesn’t exist:

Yes, choices, efforts, intentions, reasoning, and other mental processes influence our behavior—but they are themselves part of a stream of causes which precede conscious awareness and over which we exert no ultimate control. My choices matter, but I cannot choose what I choose. And if it ever appears that I do—for instance, when going back and forth between two options—I do not choose to choose what I choose. There’s a regress here that always ends in darkness.

This passage particularly struck me because I had been contemplating the idea of infinite regress since two weeks ago, when a commenter asked how one gets motivated to get motivated (you just motivate yourself to get motivated to get motivated, right?)

Actually, what CBCB said, in response to Bullish: How To Go To There (Your First Steps To Making It Big), was:

I guess I can’t imagine someone reading this article, deciding to go pitch some ideas and develop multiple income streams, and then waking up the next day and doing it– much less making a habit out of it. It seems there are certain personality traits at play here, more than there are specific actions that simply hadn’t dawned on me. So how do I become the kind of person who would read this article and take action?

I was actually a bit flummoxed when I read this. The column is called “Bullish” — I assumed that only people willing to do bullish things would read it. But obviously, people often read advice and, at best, file it away for later, as evinced by the many people who have shelves of diet books and yet are following none of them. And when you click on a blog post, you obviously have only so much information ahead of time about what advice will be proposed: perhaps you were expecting something more do-able. I am reminded of Adriana Lima’s amazing post-pregnancy weight loss, which she said was “easy” — she just stuck to an all-protein diet with boxing and jumping rope every day. Because if there’s something we all want to do after pushing a human out of our ladyparts, it’s jumping rope. (I think what she meant by “easy” was something more like “straightforward.”) So, I get that.

And while the comment didn’t mention the word “motivation,” it seems that the “personality traits at play” in pitching projects, making up your own opportunities, and cultivating multiple income streams (all in the column) are all qualities fundamentally animated by and springing from motivation. That is, very few of us are naturally comfortable with pitching things to strangers in positions of power; those of us who do this have been motivated to become that way, or motivated enough that our drive simply overrode our discomfort, the same way you ignore hunger when you’re trying to get laid.

So, how do you become more like that (if you want to)?

I have three answers: Disgust, Fear, and Revenge.

No, really. My personal answer is disgust. I polled some other successful ladies and came up with fear and revenge. Awesome.

Lest you object that it would be unhealthy in some way to be motivated primarily by negative emotions, I aver: actually, there are thousands of behaviors we regularly avoid due to fear and disgust, and we barely have to think about them. How come you never shit on the floor? Because that’s disgusting, of course, and you don’t even have to think about it; it just doesn’t even occur to you to save yourself a walk to the bathroom and go right where you are because your brain rejects disgusting options before they even occur to you.

Let me jump back to Sam Harris for a second:

The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously demonstrated that activity in the brain’s motor regions can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move. Another lab recently used fMRI data to show that some “conscious” decisions can be predicted up to 10 seconds before they enter awareness (long before the preparatory motor activity detected by Libet). Clearly, findings of this kind are difficult to reconcile with the sense that one is the conscious source of one’s actions.

Oops, no free will — thanks, neuroscience!

The reason I introduce this here is that the vast majority of action in your brain is at a subconscious level; think about the incredible amount of visual, auditory, and tactile stimulation your brain decides isn’t worthy of your attention. (When’s the last time you thought about the way the back of your knee feels? And yet your brain receives and processes every bit of that information.) When you’ve decided that something — be it laziness, not owning a house by the time you’re 35, being just another employee with just another job, etc. — is disgusting, it drops off the radar of possibility, just as (I hope) it no longer occurs to you to eat anything that might come out of your nose.

I started to think about the motivational possibilities of disgust when I kept coming across those “I lost 100+ pounds!” stories in women’s magazines, complete with a grainy shot of an obese person on the beach and a well-lit shot of a lean person who has capped off her weight loss with a spray tan.

In every single one of those stories I have ever read, the person says some version of “I didn’t realize how large I had gotten” or “I kept gaining weight but it didn’t bother me” — “UNTIL I hit 350″ or “UNTIL I saw this picture of myself” or “UNTIL I couldn’t ride the ride at Disneyworld with my kid.” The person hits some breaking point and almost invariably expresses disgust — finally, things have gone too far. Some people just hit that point … sooner. (As always, I’m not saying everybody has to be thin; I’m just saying that it makes a fine example of a commonly-held goal.)

I once read of a study that said that successful weight loss maintainers don’t reach a goal weight and then just magically stay there forever — they do fluctuate, but in much smaller cycles. Rather than being disgusted when they are 50 pounds over their goal weight, they are disgusted at 7 pounds, and there’s no option for them but to do something about it.

Back to business — in Bullish Life: How to Reduce Your Stress Level Immediately, I talked about mapping out a worst-case scenario to reduce your anxiety about failure. But if you have the opposite problem — you are already inefficaciously lax — then the opposite prescription might prove helpful. If you don’t reach outside of a boring 9-to-5 job that you hate, what is the worst-case scenario? Imagine it … are you sure it isn’t even worse than that?

And then: what is the likely scenario that will proceed from continuing on the path you are on now? Waking up every morning and going to a job you hate until you are in your sixties? Or, having kids without having set up a freelance career or business first? Or, watching other people start successful fashion lines, knowing that you could’ve done it at least as well? Or just a boring, average life lived at a lower income and freedom level than you would like?

How bad would that be? Is it downright disgusting, so much so that it’s a completely unacceptable option? Good.

I think you can get a little more disgusted by the things you don’t want, and then run that program on autopilot while you pursue the things you do want.

I was thinking about disgust as a motivating emotion and decided to ask the two most successful ladies I know — “The Entrepreneur” and “The Author” — how they developed the personality traits that lead them to actually go out and do amazing things. I didn’t mention disgust and tried not to muddy the waters before I received a response.

I shall paraphrase:

The Entrepreneur: “What the fuck else would I do, live in a trailer park? I do everything I do out of fear for what would happen if I don’t.”

The Author: “Everything I’ve ever done I’ve done out of revenge.” She then told me a horrific story about being bullied in school. And surely, she has shown her tormentors (these days, your tormentors always seem to find you on Facebook) who ultimately won that contest.

All three of us, I might add, are pretty happy people. Because avoiding disgust, building a huge and safe buffer between yourself and a source of fear, and achieving revenge (in a way that doesn’t actually hurt anyone) are pretty excellent ways to be happy.

So, can those who want to change themselves really become more motivated, more likely to actually shoot off an email to a CEO or an editor or a conference organizer with an amazing and enticing suggestion about what they have to offer? I think so. (See Bullish: F*ck Corporate Personality Tests and Take Control of Your Personality.)

Despite the problem of infinite regress — to get motivated, you have to motivate yourself to be motivated, and to do that, you have to motivate yourself to motivate yourself blah blah naptime — some problems actually regress into more modest and achievable actions the further back you go. Think of the biggest, hardest thing you’ve ever done — there’s a good chance that you took the first step without knowing how long and hard the process would be. Losing 100 pounds takes a lot of willpower, but throwing out the Breyer’s in your freezer isn’t that hard.

So, a simple way to start:

Think of the biggest thing you want. It’s okay right now if it’s pretty nebulous, like starting a business (but you don’t know what business), or never having to work again (somehow).

Then think of what happens if you never achieve that. Make a list right now on your computer of about five bad things that would happen if you don’t pursue your goals.

Then imagine (really close your eyes and visualize) what might happen if those five bad things happen. Things could certainly slide into total fucking shit, no? How unacceptable is that to you? Add that to the file on your computer. Maybe with some arrows indicating causality!

Now, put those terrible, undesired consequences in the same mental category as shitting on the floor or living in a cardboard box: options that no longer receive your consideration.

That’s it. A little mental exercise to build your capacity for action. (You might enjoy Bullish Life: Breaking Free from Terrible Situations, in which I discuss a related idea — being kind to your future self, by getting her out of these messes we’ve now judged unacceptable.)

It also helps, of course, to surround yourself with people who share your high standards. Just as it’s hard to stay sober when your friends drink every night, it’s hard to avoid the unacceptable when surrounded by unhappy people who aren’t taking action in their lives. The world has six billion people in it; surely, some people you haven’t even met yet are just as worthy of your friendship as some of the people who are currently taking up your time keeping you where you are.

Of course, if I really had the one ultimate secret that would allow everyone to get motivated to get motivated, I’d be a billionaire within the month. For a weekly column, I’ve given it my best shot — three women’s motivational techniques, some adoption of which would likely be helpful to those who wish some change in their lives.

It’s like a 401K of motivation — you do need some principal, but you only need to be a little bit motivated now to channel that into greater and greater realms of motivation later.


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    • Eve

      Honestly, you know how I’ve been motivating myself to keep working on my novel? The thought of money. Because ideas about Art and Creativity and Storytelling and Truth are all nice when it’s NOT three in the morning and I’ve got five more pages to get through tonight and I’m getting bored with my own conceptual cleverness, but for all those other times, the thought of having enough financial resources to do whatever I want is way more motivating.

    • Melissa

      You know what my secret was? I used, as a teen/very young woman, to be mortally afraid of becoming someone like my aunt – a passive, whiny woman. Then I moved out, and over the years, this motivation waned, and with it my motivation and the need to pull myself together as thoroughly as I can, every single day. And, sure enough I started to resemble her in a few respects. Seems I need to find another negative model to be disgusted with. Gosh, I’m a bad person.

    • Jennifer Dziura

      Melissa, maybe you could rent “Mommy Dearest”?

      I don’t think there’s a damn thing wrong with motivating yourself by avoiding awful things, whether it’s the spectre of poverty or of becoming a petulant doormat.

      And Eve, I’m not sure the novels are generally all that lucrative, but I wish you the best! I’ve never been into demonizing money; you can choose to do excellent (even morally excellent) things with it.


    • Megan

      Jen — this is exactly the post I’ve been waiting for from you. I want so much to be as motivated as I need to be to kick ass in all the ways you’ve been describing for us, but again, how to go to there. Simple, easy tips you can go back to, again and again, for getting your butt mentally back in gear. Thanks!

      I also love that your column has an interactive element to it — conversations in the comments lead to ideas for new posts, etc.

    • Tahra

      I have to agree with this article, being disgusted or unhappy about something has always motivated me the most. If your unhappy about your situation and do nothing what will that do for you nothing but continuing to remain in that state. I think happiness is so crucial in life, you only get one life so live it to the fullest and enjoy it, and if your unhappy examine why and change it. I loved the article. Jen you are right along my thinking.

    • mai

      Hi Jen,

      I had just started mulling over this idea recently. I began thinking that other women were skinnier and took better care of themselves because they were more insecure than me. To them it was impossible to be overweight and still accepted in society (because it is soo disgusting). I think you’re more right and that it doesn’t have to be about security vs insecurity it’s more that you draw a line in the sand and say ‘no, too much’.

      I’m reading the back-catalogue of your articles now, I love them, thanks!

    • Lady Blue

      You are so right. Although I’m motivated by the potential fulfillment of expressing my creativity and the idea of influencing others there’s also a huge element of fear and a feeling of “there’s no other option” driving me. If I don’t actually become the entrepreneur that I envision, I don’t think I could live with the disappointment, and yes, the disgust.

      Man, when it comes to being motivated… you’ve just gotta do it. Fuck fear, get out of your head, get into the present moment and make some moves. And if you don’t know what you’re doing, then you’ll learn on the way. Simple as that.
      Man, when it comes to being motivated… you’ve just gotta do it. Get out of your head, get into the present moment and make some moves. And if you don’t know what you’re doing, then you’ll learn on the way. Simple as that.

    • motivation master`

      excellent article, thanks for the good work!

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    • Grace

      I honestly have a hard time trying to stay motivated and be productive. It’s really a great struggle for me before but I’m getting over it now, thanks to all of you who write great tips about it. I actually came across a video that talks about how to stay motivated when you are stuck in a rut and it’s a video from Marie Forleo. http://marieforleo.com/2012/02/how-to-get-motivated/

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    • Suzie Saw

      I think it’s also crucial to believe you *can* make changes – you might be surprised at how often you’re telling yourself that you can’t do something or other. I’m really starting to notice how often friends almost reflexively rebuff suggestions that might resolve whatever they’re struggling against.

      It takes a certain mental switch from “that would be nice, but I can’t” to “actually perhaps I could? How might I?”… recently, in my case, triggered by cognitive behavioural therapy plus a revelatory moment at an Aphex Twin concert that went something like:

      “Wooohh I love lasers! I want my own art space big enough to have LOTS of lasers! Not having that space sucks a bit. Maybe I COULD get that funding from the council…”

      The subsequent fantasy about how I’d do this community art project IF I ACTUALLY COULD made me realise that the steps to really producing the thing in the material world were numerous but, individually, each quite small.

      I now understood that, providing I didn’t dick about or accidentally insult someone important, I CAN achieve lasers. Or at least that I could if I tried.

      Now I just have to memorise your article about reducing stress, so I can do it without burning myself out again (learning not to do this currently feels like Step One in achieving everything else).

    • Nizar Yassine

      THANKS!! A variant of this idea has somehow crossed my mind at times, and I was often given the idea that “the ones who can achieve are the ones who are afraid of failure”, but I kept thinking that something that negative couldn’t be a healthy motivation. As soon as you started your argumentation, I couldn’t have any more doubts about it. Not only is your insight very precise, but also very practical. I’ve read countless articles about motivation, and tried EVERY advice possible, including the least likely ones, with poor results. Enlightening article.

    • Gary Coxe

      Good Write and Read. So true, It all starts to ‘you’ being happy. Are you happy with the way things are? -> Find that inspiration/motivation and you’re on track. Life is simple yet complicated, it’s full of lessons and it’s beautiful!


      Gary Coxe
      Life Strategist – Speaker

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