By Brooke Carson, MSW, LCSW

Most people intuitively know that motivation is critical for emotional wellbeing. This is especially true when we are struggling to find the motivation to do something in particular, or struggling with motivation in general. There’s a common phrase associated with motivation that you may have heard: “Motivation is not something you have. It’s something you do.” That sounds great and it’s meant to! But it really helps to unpack what that really means- the different aspects that are involved in motivation- to start the “do”ing.

The Gymnast

One fundamentally important reality about motivation captured in the “not something you have” concept is that it is not a personality trait or even a current state of myself. This is important because it means that there’s nothing that I have to already “be” to demonstrate motivation.  I can wake up Saturday morning and demonstrate as much or more motivation as the Olympic gymnast next door.

I wont be able to do a parallel bar routine unless I practice extensively and, as will be discussed below, I can practice demonstrating motivation and get good at it. However, even on any given “Day One- fresh off my couch”, I can demonstrate as much or more motivation as my gymnast neighbor. That is a really good thing to think about. It is empowering. I fully have the option of demonstrating motivation at any time. There’s nothing else that I have to be or to acquire or develop or wait for. It’s fully possible at all times.

Another important part of the phrase, captured in the “It’s something you do” part, is the fact that it is something YOU do. While finding support systems in people, places and things is important to motivation, at it’s most fundamental aspect, motivation is something that nothing outside of me can do for me.This is important because many people avoid action by telling themselves that they need to wait for some external circumstance to “motivate” them. “I’m waiting to apply for jobs, until I find some opportunities that really inspire me.”  “I’m waiting to date until someone really attracts me to doing so.” “I’m waiting to leave the house until there’s some activity option that draws me out.” “I’m waiting to go to the gym until my friend can come with me.”

What about inspiration?

But I need inspiration! This is absolutely true. We need something to help us counteract the inertia of doing nothing/staying in the same state/not challenging myself, which has the comfort of not requiring change or risk. Occasionally something does come along from the environment, some great opportunity that we immediately connect to. But those are fairly rare experiences for most people. And, even when something great comes along, we can still find ourselves not doing it! In the most basic way, I am the only one who can inspire me to get off the couch and cross the room or do anything else. I can have a band of cheerleading friends and family show up at my door listing the reasons, telling me I can do it, and offering me a ride and I still might not do it.

Although it’s important to repeat that having support people is a very important assist for motivation, inspiring myself means ultimately doing these things- listing the reasons and telling myself I can do it-for myself.

“Listing the reasons” is about connecting my possible efforts to a one or more of my values and leaning into the importance of those values. Reminding myself in a very active and deliberate way that I value being hard working, being financially secure, having structure, collaborating with others, having a sense of purpose etc can help me gain the momentum to apply for jobs. Reminding myself that I value connection, stimulation, communication, and support will help me as I am driving to a new meet up group.

This part of inspiring myself might also take the form of deliberately remembering past times when I was active in ways that allowed me to experience these values in my life. Remembering myself working with a team and having a daily structure with a sense of purpose can inspire me to check out the job cites. Remembering past fun times with friends or times when I felt connected to a group can help me walk into my first book club meeting. This might also involve using a mantra, mental picture or theme song to symbolize my experience of being engaged with my values. Similarly, telling myself, “I can do it” can involve reminding myself of specific times that I did it in the past, including through the use of mental images or phrases that remind me of these times.

Building momentum is essential

Another part of motivation that ultimately only I can do is “giving myself a ride.” By this, I mean that I have to utilize energy to get started and keep up momentum. One pitfall that people can fall into is to tell themselves that they don’t have enough energy. There are several aspects to this. It is true that, if I am struggling with motivation, I may not feel very energetic. However, not feeling very energetic does not mean that I can’t do something or that I have to or should wait for more energy.

In other words, not feeling energy or feeling tired is not information that I “can’t “do something or that it will be an uphill battle unless I wait to store up more energy. If I tell myself that I’m “too tired”, it is going to make it much more difficult to get started and I’m less likely to do so because I’ve given myself permission not to. I can also lean into feeling tired and empower my tiredness, as if it is a force bigger than me or that controls me or “holds” me back. This is going to greatly increase my perception of feeling tired.

People can also limit their energy by viewing it as something that must be conserved or saved, as if there is a limited supply that comes to us. While it is true that there are some biological limiting factors to energy, for the most part utilizing energy generates energy. People often experience the sense of a “lack” of energy as being the strongest at the beginning of doing the task, until we “get over the hump” and gain momentum.

While sleep and nutrition and other aspects of physical well-being are important to our energy levels, we mainly generate energy by changing our perception of our energy and expending energy to create momentum. Another part of “giving myself a ride” is validating/reinforcing/”fueling” my efforts. At the end of the day, I am also the only person who can validate myself. I might get a huge outpouring of cheer-leading- “great job!!!!” from others, but not give it any value.

Treat yourself!

When we struggle with motivation, we certainly want to check in about how we are doing in rewarding our efforts. We can sometimes use some tangible/treat myself rewards to help, but the most powerful form of reward is validating myself by telling myself that I did a good job and that what I did was of value. Some people struggle with this because of minimizing the importance of their own efforts. “All I did was…” This is often because we are comparing ourselves to other people; “Who cares if I cleaned my room or went to the store?-Everyone else can do that easily.” We can also compare ourselves to a past version of ourselves- “So what if I walked around the block?- I used to be able to run 3 miles.”

We can ask ourselves- What would we do to help a person learn to walk again after an injury? “That step you just took was pathetic- You used to run three miles” or “Everyone else can walk.” We intuitively realize that these comparisons would make no sense and that doing realistic justice to the person’s situation requires viewing the person’s efforts and challenges in a unique way.

A cousin to the “Motivation is something you do” phrase is the mantra- “Just do it”, aka The Nike Principle. This is really great because it captures another really important part of motivation- the fact that there’s always a ‘”jumping off” part to it. By this I mean that we can never fully produce guaranteed reasons why we should do something. We can’t say for sure that filling out applications will lead to a job. Even if we can say for sure that doing the dishes is necessary because they won’t come clean by themselves, who’s to say that exactly now is the time to do them? At some point we have to make that leap.

Some people avoid doing things because they don’t know what the outcome will be. We can tell ourselves that not acting is neutral or conservative even when it is otherwise obvious that not acting is not neutral and has default consequences. With the unknown aspect of many of our goal directed behaviors- Will it work?, Will it produce something good? Will I succeed? comes fear that always accompanies things that are unknown.

We are often trying to avoid fear of the unknown/lack of guarantees when we have difficulty with motivation. Accepting some fear in the process and accepting the need to jump into the pool of the unknown is an important part of motivation and helps us to “just do it.”

Learning by Doing

Another powerful part of the “do” in “motivation is something you do” is the fact that we learn by doing. Doing/trying is the only way that we have to find out exactly what the payoffs can be to various behaviors/or modified versions of behaviors.

We can inspire ourselves to attend a meet up group, reminding ourselves of the values we will support by going and reminding ourselves that we have and can do similar things. We can summon up the energy and practice willingness to accept the fear and take the risk. But the only way we will learn about if it works for us, what kind of good it produces, if and how we can succeed, etc. is by doing/experiencing it. Experience is how we find out more about those payoffs and if and how we can get them.  If we struggle with motivation, we should ask ourselves if we are going around making tries and gathering experiences to find out about what I might get for myself and how to do it.

If I’m not trying things and letting myself have new experiences, I may be totally unaware of many of the options out there, including different “versions” of myself. I may not know that there’s a version of myself that enjoys working outside in my garden, that can work in an office or that can have long conversations in a book club.

In fact, we learn motivation by doing. By activating myself and trying things, I learn the general aspects of motivation- that I can generate energy, that I can do things that I didn’t know I could do, that I can find out about previously unseen rewards/benefits/enjoyable aspects and that I have a powerful impact on what I get to experience in the world and myself.

Those are powerful things that only I can teach myself!