This Is the Best Advice on Motivation I Have Ever Read

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Photo: Mike Kemp/Getty Images

Look, there are days when not even the most well-intentioned advice from the latest motivational science will do. (This is coming from a person who, before writing this post, sat for several moments staring dumbly at a freshly opened Google doc, which was blank but for the half-written word, “Motiv.” Great start!) You can take a nap, or a walk, if your schedule allows it. You can try bribing yourself or squeezing your most important work into the apparently limited amount of time when your brain is ready for it.

Still. Some days, the motivation just doesn’t happen. No matter how great or fulfilling your job is, sometimes your enthusiasm for it will inevitably wane. And here we get to another piece of advice — but, sincerely, this is the only motivational advice anyone has ever needed: You don’t have to feel like getting something done in order to actually get it done.

This idea — that your emotions about doing something must fall in line in order for you to actually do the thing — is what much of the existing motivational advice is based on, and yet it’s not entirely true, as psychology writer Oliver Burkeman wrote in his (fantastic) book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. He writes:

Who says you need to wait until you ‘feel like’ doing something in order to start doing it? The problem, from this perspective, isn’t that you don’t feel motivated; it’s that you imagine you need to feel motivated. … If you can regard your thoughts and emotions about whatever you’re procrastinating on as passing weather, you’ll realise that your reluctance about working isn’t something that needs to be eradicated or transformed into positivity. You can coexist with it. You can note the procrastinatory feelings and work anyway.

It is at once the most obvious and the most insightful advice I’ve ever read on getting motivated; I remember it often, and now, dear Science of Us reader, I pass it on to you. Burkeman himself has referenced his own advice at least two other times besides in his book, once in a 2012 article in Psychology Today and more recently for the site 99U. Both times, he quotes Shoma Morita, a Japanese psychiatrist, to drive the point home. “Is it accurate to assume that we must ‘overcome’ fear to jump off the high dive at the pool, or increase our confidence before we ask someone out for a date?” Morita said. “If it was, most of us would still be waiting to do these things.”