How to stay motivated when you’d rather be elsewhere

Self-motivation is the factor that separates the most successful from the mediocre. More than skill or talent, the ability to start a task and keep at it even when you’d rather not is often the key factor that determines those who reach the top of their field. However, knowing this fact is not enough. No one functions at 100% each day. We are all human and we all have limits on how much of an unpleasant task we can perform before our interest wanes. Unfortunately, important tasks tend to come with some degree of unpleasantness. They either take a long time, require careful application of skill, collaboration with others you’d rather avoid or a combination of all three. This can create conditions where a person would rather not start a task because they feel the effort required is not worth the initial reward.

What do you do when you find yourself showing up at work but not being able to push yourself to complete tasks? As it turns out, quite a lot.

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The lights are on (ii)

Last week, I wrote about a vexing problem for many knowledge workers: Disengagement from work. Sometimes, despite your most well-meaning efforts, you zone out from work because you have either failed to find value in what you do or the work no longer challenges you. If you currently find yourself in this scenario, all is not lost. There are some steps you can take to re-engage with what you do.

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The lights are on (i)

“Well I should have thought that being bored stiff for three quarters of the time was an excellent preparation for working life.”

Sir Humphrey Appleby (From Yes, Prime Minister)

No matter what line of work you are in, it is essential that you are able to see some value in what you do. Those who do not, quickly become disengaged. Disengaged workers aren’t productive. They come to work not because they want to but because they have to. They are more likely to show up and zone out. Someone I worked with once joked about team members who logged on to the weekly staff meeting, muted their mics and continued watching tv series. I find that a perfect working definition of a disengaged worker. For them, the weekly meeting had become something to be endured but not to be engaged with.

Broadly speaking, I’d say workers disengage because of two reasons:

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Rest before work kills you

A popular misconception about personal productivity is that productive people are effective because they jump from one task to another without losing their stride. Many people have an image of a productivity guru armed with a to-do list that crosses off one task after the other 24/7. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The most productive people achieve what they do because they acknowledge they can’t produce the same output 24 hours a day. They take time out to rest.

Recently, I read a novel where the Protagonist, a high-flying Lawyer for a big firm is able to close a very important deal by working for 2 days without sleep and surviving on a diet of coffee. Such behaviour is destructive. Productivity is about taking control of your schedule so you can have enough time to rest at the end of the day. If you are pulling all-nighters every week and can’t go home at a decent hour because you are always at the office finishing some last minute important task, it is more likely you have failed to prioritise tasks.

Worker asleep at their desk
How many times has this happened to you?
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Self-discipline is what turns plans into reality

Self-discipline icon

“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”

Scottish Proverb

Everyone is an expert at wishing for exactly what they want. The student who refuses to study until a day to the exam wishes for an A. The man who refuses to exercise wishes for a muscular figure. Some people go a step further to write down what they wish for. It’s called a New years’ resolution. After that, nothing changes because nothing happens.

For most people, what stops them from acting on their plans is not a lack of interest or a willingness to change. It is a lack of self-discipline. It takes great mental power to be able to say “No” to lying down at home instead of going to the gym.

A definition of self-discipline
Self-Discipline
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It is OK to quit

X icon

Have you ever thought about quitting something? Before the thought crosses your mind, no I am not quitting this blog. Every day, people face a great deal of pressure. I have heard expressions like winners never quit and you are not a loser until you quit trying. Quotes like that may be good for motivation but telling a person to never quit may turn out to be bad advice.

Don't quit
Might be bad advice
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Why do you want to achieve that goal?

A big question mark with the word "why" written many times in it

Happy New Year. This is that time when many people create a to-do list for the first two weeks of the year. I have written earlier about why New year’s resolutions are generally a bad idea for most people. Instead of creating a resolution, I advocate writing a personal development plan for the year. It takes longer but is more actionable than resolutions and you will achieve better results.

The question "why?" written four times
Today’s question

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Motivation is best found within

The word "motivation" handwritten

Many people feel they would achieve more of their goals if they could only stay motivated long enough to work on them. Motivation, they say, is that silent factor that determines how productive they are. The problem with that kind of thinking is that it is easy to procrastinate on important tasks because you are waiting to feel motivated. A classic example of this fallacy is the all popular “writer’s block.” The thinking goes, the most successful writers are able to somehow find inspiration all the time and that is why they are able to churn great works of literature. The truth is successful writers are successful because they do not wait for their muse to tickle them. They wake up everyday and commit to writing for a few hours even if what they turn out is trash.

What do you need to stay motivated
A good question

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