The Key to Self-Motivation: How to Make Yourself Be Responsible When You Don’t Want To

I’m self-employed. I have been for more than 16 years. That takes a certain amount of discipline, and it has given some people the impression that I have things pretty well figured out. Some have wondered how I do it.

In 2017, I wrote the following message to a family member who asked for advice for how to get things done when you don’t want to do them. Although my perspective on the “failures” I mention has evolved, as the new year begins, the message resonates.

What do I do to make myself do things I don’t want to do?

Mostly I think about the hurt I’ll be in if I don’t do whatever thing I don’t want to do.

It takes time to get to a point where that actually works. And it doesn’t always. But first you have to experience the pain. Then you have to figure out what caused you that pain. Then you have to notice when you are about to do what it is that caused you pain — that is, see it coming.

When you see the pain coming, you need to talk yourself into not doing whatever causes the pain. Sometimes that requires a real wrestling match. But if you stop and stop and stop and don’t do anything at all until you can agree to the shitty thing that ultimately leads to your happiness, then you will get to have the good feeling that comes from going for a run, doing all the dishes at one time, folding laundry before it becomes a wrinkled mess, going to work . . . And when you can collect a significant number of good outcomes, it becomes easier to keep doing the right thing. The trouble then is complacency. You forget what the hurt is, or you forget how bad the hurt is.

Still, for me it’s the stopping before doing something that makes a difference. So I don’t want to do the dishes. I don’t walk away and do something else. I stand there and look at them and think about how much I really hate doing dishes, especially at night, and especially when it’s cold out and when I’m tired. I stand there until I can turn my thoughts to how much better I will feel if I just do them all and get them out of the way. Then I will have clean dishes for making dinner and I will have a clean kitchen and I won’t have this shitty chore hanging over my head.

If I stand there long enough and don’t let myself off the hook, I will start the chore. If I’m really feeling like I don’t want to do it, I start with easy things that make a big impact. Like the pots and pans that I know I will need the next day. Once I have soapy water and my hands are already wet, it’s easier to keep going. Sometimes I stop before I am done, but I will always at least do one load, because I’m definitely not going to waste clean soapy water.

When I was in my twenties and living alone, I used to wait so long to do dishes that they would grow mold. I would have to throw out dishes because they were ruined. I might still do that if not for the fact that I have people counting on me. Being accountable to another person really goes a long way in keeping me doing what I don’t want to do.

Two things you should know about me: first, I am very easily motivated, especially by motivational speaker types, even though I never seek them out, and second, I slip easily into depression and negative thinking. So self-talk is a huge part of my quest for sanity and happiness.

These are things I think about, inspired by things I have read or heard along the way, that help me do what I know is right:

  • If you want to have clean clothes for work, then you want to do laundry
  • If you want to pay your bills, then you want to go to work
  • If you want to have groceries, then you want to go to the store
  • Walking past a sock on the floor and not picking it up is being lazy.
  • Change your mind and you change your life.
  • If you believe it, you can achieve it … if you do the work.
  • If people in a Nazi work camp could run 100 miles at gunpoint to save their lives, then I can run 1 mile. [No kidding, that’s how much I don’t like to run.]

After all my years on this earth, I’ve realized the keys to a happy life are respect and follow-through.

  • If you don’t respect yourself, no one else will either. If you don’t respect others, they won’t respect you. And without respect, you’re nothing.
  • Without follow-through you will never accomplish anything. It’s easy to start. It’s the finishing that counts.

To keep me motivated at work, I print out the nice comments I get from clients and tape them to my wall. I read them whenever I feel down.

I write to-do lists obsessively. If I have a big project (at home or at work), I write down all the steps so that I can cross off more stuff as I do it.

I also make deals with myself. I do this for almost everything. I make a deal that I will work on this one project for one hour before checking email. I make a deal that I will not have soda until I drink all 8 glasses of water. (That’s how I got myself to quit soda.) I make a deal that I will do the dishes from now until 8:30 and I will get done however much I get done. I am usually pretty good at keeping to the deals I have made.

I used to write in my journal every day or at least every week. When I would get into a rut, I would find myself writing the same thing, the same complaint, over and over again. I would get to the point where I had to make a change or I was going to go crazy. So I would make a deal: I couldn’t write in my journal again until I had done something to change whatever thing I was complaining about. It worked. I needed my journal because I was low on relationships. With that as my self-inflicted punishment, I would make a change. 

So that’s it. It’s all a mind game. But a lot of it has to do with getting older, having more responsibilities to yourself and others, and recognizing that the end result is worth doing whatever shitty thing it is you don’t want to do.

Describe in detail where you failed and where you succeeded from your current perspective.

Holy mackerel, that’s a long list. And it has changed significantly over the years.

When I was in my twenties and single I was very successful at handling my money. I was very disciplined about saving. I had a savings account and a 401(k) and contributed to both, and both had a substantial amount of money in them. That was a security issue. I had no dreams of being rich. I just didn’t want to have to work until the age of 75 in order to live.

Now that I have kids and a husband and many other responsibilities and draws on my time and money, that has gone to hell. I still have good intentions and know how to do it, but I can’t follow through. So that’s a failure.

Also when I was young and single, I exercised regularly. I biked, I went to the gym, I had free weights that I used at home. I did a 100-mile bike ride in 2005. Now, with kids, work, a dog, etc., I am lucky if I squeeze in a 20-minute workout before work. Failure number two.

From 2007 to 2014, my business was 100% solvent. After kids, that’s not so. My time is squeezed to the point that it has been very difficult to work enough hours to keep the business afloat. POP Editorial Services is currently on probation. If I am unable to make it work by June 2017, I will end my company after 10.5 years. Failure number three.

Of course, when I had money and time, I didn’t have a husband and two daughters, and those three people are the most important to me in the whole wide world. Those relationships are a work in progress, as is my whole life, so I can’t call them a success, but they are definitely a mitigating factor.

So what are my successes? I keep my house running. I get my kids to school and daycare every day. I’m married with no cracks in the relationship. I do the dishes when it’s my turn. POP is on probation but I’m working my butt off to keep it afloat; I refuse to let it die. I have written a book and had other professional successes, and that’s important to me. Although if POP goes under, it’s kind of a wash.

Other successes: I’m making an effort to fight the bad guy, as we say in this house. Trump is a megalomaniac, an autocrat, and a danger to our country. I do what I can to support my husband’s activism and to influence my government to keep Trump from accomplishing his goal of tearing down the republic. I believe it is that serious.

I have friends, too. That is a success.

So in place of time and money I have relationships. I would like to have all three, but the relationships are more important to my health and well-being.

I try not to regret things I have done. That’s not entirely possible — in fact, I fail miserably at that goal — but it does help to remember that just because you did something wrong yesterday doesn’t mean you have to keep making the same mistake. And as I’ve told you before, all those things I did in the past are what made me who I am today, for better or worse.

I don’t at all want you to think that I have things figured out. I don’t. My life is a work in progress. That’s the best I can do. I fail over and over again, but I keep going anyway. I don’t believe in wallowing. And maybe that’s why I have been able to appear to know what I’m doing.

I could go on, but I think I’ve said enough. I hope some of this is practical enough that you can actually use it. Fighting the fight — that’s the biggest thing. Because we’re all just muddling along. 

Like this blog? Find more insights and advice in the Updated and Revised Edition of Perfect Bound: How to Navigate the Book Publishing Process Like a Pro, now available on Amazon!

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