Jung's Sofa

Motivation is Overrated


Inspiration has a flippant sister named Motivation. Sometimes she comes around, sometimes she doesn’t, and really who can blame her sporadic appearances? She does receive all the blame for the things left undone…or at least her absence does.

I had motivation on my mind for the past couple of weeks. More accurately for the last nine weeks, five days, and ten hours…or since the start of this cold, sinusitis, allergies or whatever the name of that which stuffs my head. Colds are fine when I can lay in bed and watch endless Netflix series or read the stack of 2-be-reads that sit on my nightstand. But mostly I don’t have that kind of time. I’ve got things to do, volumes of marketing content to write, corresponding podcasts, video-casts, novels, and …well there is the gym-thing.

That’s what I call it—the gym-thing. I made a commitment to myself circa December 2014 that before I reached 50 (which is about six months away) that I would be in better shape than I was at 25. I’d like to say the reason is all health related, but let’s be honest…pure vanity drives me. And up until the arrival of some cold-like symptoms that I can best describe as The Crawl, (yep that will be a novel) I have been a dedicated gym rat. Had I solely relied on my vain motivations however…I’d be lost and out of shape.

Motivation: An inefficient step in the process

They say exercise takes Motivation. I say, they lie. Motivation is a bit overrated. Yes, yes, yes, in the beginning you must want to do something. That is called Inspiration. But since semi-graduating from childhood, I find that motivation—the emotional desire for reward—is not entirely necessary for achievement. In fact, motivation is often a distraction and a burden. A distraction because time is wasted searching or wishing for it. A burden because it adds a certain weight, another need or requirement, to the goal process. Worse, its absence draws us into a foggy landscape of despair in which we lament that elusive ingredient that, should it return, would make our dream come true.

Motivation is an inefficient step. It is not the secret to success, it is a weigh station that tests are true resolve. It sits counter to our will-power, a challenge upon its impish face, a smile of bold implication that without its grace, no thing is possible.

A rock requires no motivation to tumble down a hill. The stream waits for it not as it strolls along the banks. The trees do not contemplate reasons to grow. Motivation is a false proposition that masks procrastination. And therein lies the secret of achievement—movement.

Talking is exactly the same as doing…except it’s not.

They say that sharing your goals with others will provide motivation. That a public commitment creates the fuel for progress. The reason such a strategy might work is the consequences of failure will carry the stigma of public shame.

There is a loop-hole in such thinking, however. First, it assumes one cares about things like others opinions. Second, it assumes any one cares whether you reach or don’t reach your goal. Third, most of us fail far more than we succeed and thus we don’t make a habit of judging those we care for so harshly in their failures.

There is a fourth problem and this one is far more detrimental than the pretense of public shame.

We are cognitive creatures. Existentialist in nature. Experience lives in our heads. The most objective facts cannot often overcome our subjective nature. We can suspend disbelief, be absorbed by well-crafted unreality, and subscribe to feelings in the absence of facts.

Upset or angry, we can vent our feelings and find relief although nothing has outwardly changed in our situation. We can anticipate and find joy in events which have not yet arrived. We can pull free of the tar-pit of despair on a single gossamer strand of hope. We occupy space, but our lives are spent and experienced inside our own thoughts.

So when we tell others of our plan to reach some goal we release the burden of it. The proclamation itself, although without any substance and no more real than some far off future that has yet to arrive, it takes on its own reality. The goal, like that vented anger, dissipates in the wind and loses its power.

In fact, those who share goals too often are the least likely to achieve them because once released, they no longer carry the power to drive the proclaimer forward. In short, the words become the celebration, congratulations thrust upon the speaker for the idea of a goal rather than the achievement, and thus, the thing not yet been done becomes more a memory than an objective.

It doesn’t matter what you feel, just what you do

Imagine how much greater our production if we could only speak of our achievements instead of our plans. Imagine if all believed in Henry Ford’s wise words: You can’t build a reputation on what you plan to do. Imagine egos depleted of a FaceBook accolades power source. What if the only motivation was an understanding that our character is no more and no less than the sum of our actions?

Maslow-hierarchyMotivation is a feeling. An emotional fuel tied to very real requirements of survival. But in a (mostly) civilized world, survival is assured, and our goals progress quickly beyond the base needs to what Maslow called self-actualization. Maslow believed these things to be biological—hardwired within our psychological profile and thus no further motivation was required to strive for them. You needn’t search for a motivator because it remained in constant operation—each level a shift gear that requires we satisfy first before second, second before third and so on.

Habit: The Workhorse of Success

Motivation is a feeling not an action. Possessing motivation is not the same as obtaining a goal. There are millions of motivated people who accomplish nothing. Energy spent searching for such a parlor trick is energy wasted. Accomplishment and un-accomplishment both require choices. The things we do are a choice. The things we don’t do are a choice.

What motivates one thing over the next is irrelevant. All that can be seen is what is done. Completion is a singular object—the undone is infinite possibilities, each equal and possible because none occurred.

Habit, not motivation, is the key to success. Habit is the thousands of redundant, uninspiring steps that lead us to our goal. Habit is a solid, reliable partner. Motivation a manic-depressive detractor. Habit is easy. It does not share motivation’s prerequisite soul-searching. Habit is a repeatable series of movements, it is observable, the results undeniable. Motivation is an esoteric breeze with no source and no destination.

Habit does where motivation only dreams.

Breathing and other things you do well

The things we do best are those we do without conscious consideration. Children spend much time in contemplation of shoe tying and yet an adult fares much better at the task. The better typist spends little time searching the keyboard. The most powerful habit, breathing, is learned through a single slap of a baby’s buttocks. For the next seventy or so years they will need few, if any, reminders to breath in, breath out.

Breathing is a base need. Motivated by a simple desire to live. The process, however, requires action. The achievement reached only through the repetitive pushing and pulling of the diaphragm. Constant work that requires little mental effort.

Breathing is a habit.

So is success.

So is failure.

The things we do best, we do almost naturally…we do through habit.

The Funhouse Mirror

The Red Queen may have been speaking of motivation when she told Alice—

“It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”


People so often speak of motivation as a great thing. Perhaps its presence is wonderful. But it is like herding cats—what chance do we have of directing it? How can one expect to hold onto such a feral feline who serves no master?

Motivation provides us with a single choice—chase it.

Habit, who offers far better treatment, who offers loyalty, who never cries for attention, receives in exchange unjust criticism. More often chided for its bad attributes than celebrated for the good.

Unlike motivation, habit never judges and it never demands explanation—it simply does that which it has done before. A motivation cannot be trained, a habit requires only twenty-one days of repetition. And it will learn with equal zeal the good or the bad. And it will unlearn the same action in the same finite time frame. Motivation is unbalanced, it comes in degrees.

And yet we intellectually scorn habits. We view them as dark things. Robotic, uncreative, without the pleasure of cognitive passion. (Conduct a Google image search of “habit” and see that the majority of pictures suggest something “bad.”)

But habits are no more than a series of choices. Whether the choices are deemed good or bad is a burden carried by the actor. A habit will as happily carry a gym bag as it will a pack of smokes.

Motivation is a search for power over some objective. Habit is the power to reach that objective and to hold on to it.

Finishing where we started

My inspiration to go to the gym this year was vanity. The idea to look better than I did at twenty-five a wistful and easy to dismiss objective. Motivation easily evaporates for such a thing. No one expects me to be in that sort of shape. Forty-nine is not twenty-five. My wife will love and appreciate me in any shape. I have greater responsibilities than spending time in such a pursuit.

The list of rationalizations are endless—the motivation to go each day, the number of days to reach such a vain objective is singular. Motivation cannot off-set the weight of such a hefty bag of excuses.

Instead, I have relied on habit. The simple act of going more days than I don’t go. Today, I had both no motivation and good reason to stay at home. I went to the doctor—surely that is reason enough to skip a workout. And, really, skipping a day will do no harm.

Except it will.

Because I can easily start a not-going-to-the gym habit. And that scares me most. Habits are much stronger than motivation. They don’t judge and they do exactly what we train them to do.

The gym habit, like my writing habit, has taught me an important lesson. Sometimes the best days and the best work occurs exactly on the day we had the least motivation to show up…be it at the gym or the keyboard. The good stuff, the productive stuff, the moments that make a difference, they are scattered about like Easter eggs on an April lawn. The more often we wander across that green field, the more likely we are to grasp those prized discoveries.

So don’t search for motivation or lament its absence. Motivation is far overrated. Inventory your goals, draw out a path—no matter how long—and then create the habit to reach it. One minute, one day, one act at a time.

You’ll look back later and marvel how easy the goal was obtained. You’ll struggle to explain to others because while it wasn’t simple, it also wasn’t very complicated. And you’ll be pleasantly surprised to discover that the journey of a thousand miles really did start with that single step. And that most of those steps you gave very little thought.

As for my gym goal—it took me just seven months to become stronger and in better shape than I was at 25.

The secret—I have a much better gym habit these days.

Categories: Jung's Sofa

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4 replies »

  1. I really have formed a fantastic habit with this breathing thing. I’m pretty sure I have it down. lol

    Fascinating post! I do like the idea of people being more accountable and speaking more of accomplishments rather than boast of things “they’ll do.” And Ford is right, “You can’t build a reputation on what you plan to do.” But they’ll form a reputation of never finishing anything they say they’ll do . . .

    Also, The Crawl? Awesome name! We need it out and published. Soon. So get that habit of writing The Crawl going, will ya? (umm, but first The Creepers epic conclusion . . . because yes) 😉

  2. So, I’m a little late to this party. “Going through my inbox” is a habit I’m currently trying to cultivate…along with writing on a regular basis, blogging, and aiming for 8 hours of sleep a night. Ooh, and passing my classes. Also a good thing. That breathing thing, though, I think we have the market cornered there.

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