dirtSimple.orgwhat stands in the way, becomes the way
Why You Can’t Get Motivated

Why You Can’t Get Motivated

When I’m motivated, things get done sooner, I feel better, and I even make more money.  So in the past year, I’ve been making it my business (literally!) to understand as much as I can about how motivation works…  especially my motivation!

And over time, I’ve found that different things work better for different situations, and discovered a few interesting subtleties about why they work – or don’t!

For example, I recently read the book Stumbling On Happiness, which presents an amazing amount of research about just how incredibly inadequate and deceptive our brains are when it comes to predicting what will make us happy.

The book explains that how we feel about future events is heavily influenced by, among other things:

  • How you feel when you do the thinking, and
  • How much detail you imagine, as well as
  • What details you imagine!

The Devil In The Details

For example, the author explains that we tend to imagine far-future events with much less detail than near-future events, and thus we are less likely to notice negative details until that future becomes nearer.  Which, of course, is one reason we all decide to exercise…  tomorrow.

Of course, I already teach in my workshops that the specific details you imagine make a lot of difference to your motivation.  That’s because the two most common mistakes people make when imagining the things they want, are:

  • Thinking about not having what they want, and
  • Thinking about what they “have to do” to get what they want

For example, if you want a nice new car, there are two ways you can react when you see somebody else with a car like the one you want.  You can either think, “I wish I had one of those” (and feel bad)  or you can think, “Wow, it would be really cool to have one of those!” (and feel good!)

This is a very subtle difference, but an incredibly important one.  Unfortunately, the difference is often so subtle…

We don’t even notice what we’re doing wrong!

The difference, you see, is not in the words, but in your presuppositions.

In one case, you are presupposing the way things are – you don’t have the car, and you don’t like that.  In the other, you are presupposing the way you’d like things to be – you do have the car, and you like it!

Is it any wonder that these thoughts feel different?

And which feeling do you think is more likely to lead to you taking action?

I’ll give you a hint: it’s not the “don’t have what I want” feeling!

What are negative feelings for, anyway?

When you feel like you don’t have (and can’t get) something you want or need, you probably feel sad.  But have you ever wondered why?

Sadness is a protective feeling that limits your tendency to act.  This is so you will conserve resources.  If your ancestors had ever said, “we don’t have enough food”, and then decided to celebrate by dancing and singing and eating everything they had left, well, you probably wouldn’t be around today!

Evolution, in other words, has set us up to be unhappy – and therefore inactive – whenever we feel like we can’t get what we want.

The problem, however, is that humans can imagine all kinds of things we want and don’t seem to be able to get!

What Anticipation Is For

Luckily, evolution also provided us with a different emotion, designed to make us take action.  It’s called anticipation. and it’s what you feel when you believe something desirable is almost within reach.

We have many words for anticipation, including desire, passion, and the thrill of the chase.  But whatever you call it, it’s the single most-motivating positive emotion there is.

That’s because evolution, in its blind and mindless way, has stumbled on a concept we humans know as triage.

Triage is an idea that originated with military medics, who observed that:

  • Some soldiers will die, no matter what you do to save them,
  • Other soldiers’ injuries, although painful, are unlikely to kill them for some time, but…
  • For a third group of soliders, immediate action will make the difference to whether they live or die

This being the case, it is better for the medics to focus all their attention on the third group, since it is immediate action that makes the difference.  The ones who will die anyway, are therefore left to die, and the ones in the middle can be treated later.

But what these medics didn’t realize is…

Our Feelings Already Work The Same Way!

We have little motivation to pursue what we believe we can’t have.  But paradoxically, we also have little motivation or excitement about what we can have any time we want!

Instead, anticipation prompts us to go after what is just beyond our immediate reach – but still visible.  If you doubt this, just think of how flirting and “playing hard to get” work!

Courtship in humans (as in other animals) works by sending mixed signals about availability.  It works best when there is enough positive signal to suggest success is possible, but enough negative signal that some effort must be expended to achieve that success!

Thus, anticipation is created, to give us the motivation to expend the effort that makes the difference between failure and success.  (Interestingly, this also has ramifications for people who are already in intimate relationships and would like to keep the passion going… but more about that at another time.)

Anyway, the point is that anticipation makes us take action to close the gap between where we are, and where we want to be.  Therefore, if you want to have motivation, you must…

Create Anticipation With Your Thoughts

So, in my workshops (like Seven Days to Live Your Dreams), I’ve been teaching people to “create mouth-watering goals”, specifically to activate this anticipation response.

But, sometimes people have trouble doing this.  It’s really not that hard to envision your goals in a very positive way, so the real problem isn’t as much the positive envisioning part, as it is realizing when you also have some negative thoughts going on!

So, in the workshops and the Code of Owners, I also teach that “If it feels bad, you’re doing it wrong.  Think about it differently.”

See, if you’re thinking about a goal and it makes you feel bad, you’re definitely not doing “anticipation”.  You’re doing, “don’t/can’t have it”, and your motivation gets blocked.

Which leads me to the top three kinds of ways that people mess themselves up and block their motivation:

Category 1: Paralysis From The Past

For most people, this is the biggie.  Something happened to them at a very young age that solidly anchored a negative state as a major part of their conscious identity.

Take me, for example.  I had two feelings like this that used to make me procrastinate a lot: one of despair/helplessness, and one of resignation at “having to” do things.  (Which, as it turned out, was actually a suppressed feeling of anger/rebellion and “you can’t make me”.)

I got rid of these feelings using the technique I teach in my Procrastination Cure workshop, and since then I’ve been largely a different person.  I’ve taught the same technique to many other people, and gotten them past all kinds of “past-paralysis” blocks, including fears, guilts, angers, and so on.

But what all these feelings have in common is that, even though they seem to be about what’s happening now, they’re actually about things that happened in the past.  That means that once you get rid of them, they don’t come back.  After all, they were never being caused by what was actually happening!

But there is another kind of feeling that can come back…

Category 2: Conflicts In The Present

“Zapping” a feeling with the elimination technique is only temporary, if the feeling is actually being caused by your current judgment of a situation.

This is a subtle thing to determine, however, because this usually shows in the magnitude of the emotion.  (Also, people who don’t have much experience with the feeling elimination technique tend to think that all their feelings are “real”.)

A “past paralysis” emotion is often completely debilitating and extremely difficult to fight – but goes away quickly and permanently when the elimination technique is used.  A “present conflict” emotion, however, isn’t much affected by the elimination technique, and keeps coming back.

Suppose, for example, that you’re putting off working on a project because you don’t believe you know what you’re doing.  If it’s because of a “past paralysis”, you might be experiencing a strong fear of inadequacy or ridicule.  Maybe you feel guilty about not knowing what you should, or despair that you will ever finish it in time.  But whatever the feeling, it will be strong and you will work hard to avoid it.

However, if it’s a “present conflict”, then you are more likely feeling a more vague sense of discomfort or unease about the project.  Maybe you worry a bit about whether you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, or whether there’s enough time.  Perhaps you wish you hadn’t taken it on, because there are other things you’d rather be doing.  And so on.

Because these conflicting feelings are based on actual present facts (e.g., what you do or don’t know, how much time you have, etc.) rather than on beliefs arising from traumatic memories (e.g., I’m a klutz/loser/failure), there is no body-memory to be dissolved via the feeling technique.

Resolving Present Conflicts

Unfortunately, we mostly respond to these present conflicts by trying to suppress our feelings.  But this doesn’t resolve the conflict.  Not in our minds, and not in reality!

So, just as the key to conflict resolution between people is to understand what both sides want, the key to resolving inner conflicts is to pay attention to what you’re really feeling.

Specifically, to find out what your feelings want.

See, the little feelings you get that warn you about conflicts, are a little like the warning lights in your car.  They tell you that something is wrong, but not necessarily what.  And the appropriate response is not to cover up the warning light, but to investigate what’s causing it!

And as I’ve been finding out recently, it’s as easy as…

Asking Your Feelings What They Want!


In my last few workshops and coaching groups, I’ve been teaching my own super-streamlined version of a technique I learned from the book Core Transformation.  I’ll have more to say about it in a future article, but the basic idea consists of nothing more than asking your feelings what they want, and then following a chain of “so that?” questions to re-establish a connection with a fully positive feeling.

And, once you get to that feeling, it’s easy to reverse the process and set up a presupposition of success – that is, to create anticipation and other positive feelings.  And, as a side benefit, the process often creates a greater “sense of self” – more unity and wholeness of being.

With one of my clients, I spent about 30 minutes going through this process with him, and he then went on to quit smoking so quickly and easily that he forgot to mention it the next time I asked about his recent accomplishments!

See, before the discussion, he was dreading it, didn’t think he could do it, etc.  But after we resolved his conflicts, he went ahead and did it pretty much immediately.  And when I asked him a few weeks later about how he was doing, he told me about all the things he was still trying to accomplish, but didn’t mention the smoking.

So I asked him about it specifically, and then he was like, “oh, yes, I did that too.  I just did the things we talked about” (to eliminate the conflicts with his other needs, like for taking work breaks and socializing and having something to do with his hands).

And this was something that before, he didn’t think he could do and didn’t know how to get started on.  Which brings us to…

Category 3: Doubts About The Future

The third sort of way that people mess up their motivation is just by feeling bad while they think about the future.

Sometimes, this is just a matter of thinking about the wrong thing, as I mentioned earlier.  Thinking about not having what they want, or thinking about what they think they need to do to get what they want.

But after reading Stumbling On Happiness, I realized that there’s another way for this to happen, even if you’re trying to think about things the right way…

You see, if you’re feeling somethinganything! – now, it colors how you view future events in your imagination.

So if you’re feeling down, and you try to imagine some spectacular achievement of your goals, you’ll have two problems.

First, you’ll have difficulty remembering or imagining good things, because your memory (and therefore imagination) are state-specific.  Recall for things associated with your current feelings is easier than recall for things that are not.

Second, even if you do recall or imagine a desirable future…

Your feelings about it will be mixed!

In other words, your feelings will be a blend of your normal positive response, and your current negative state, reducing your effectiveness and likelihood of taking action.

What I find really interesting about this, is that I had sort of noticed this effect when doing things by myself, but not when working with people on-on-one or in groups.

And after giving it some more thought, I realized it’s because when I get somebody else motivated, I always do things that have the side effect of “cleansing their mental palate” of any negative feelings, either before I direct their attention to the positive, or as a side effect of how I direct their attention.

But when I’m feeling down myself, I don’t always do the same things – which has made my results somewhat erratic at times.  It may also explain why some of my students get much more consistent results on their own than others, even though everyone gets more uniform results when I interact with them.

Indeed, if I understand the effect correctly, it also explains why it’s much easier to be a coach or “self-help guru” to someone else, than it is to…

Motivate Yourself!

So I’ve been experimenting this week with some “palate cleansing” techniques.  My wife is out of town most of this week, and I work at home.  That means I’ve had almost no face-to-face human contact with anyone for the last few days, and my mood had been sliding rapidly downhill…  taking my motivation along with it.

But the good thing about that is, it’s what drew my attention to the “mixed feelings” effect in the first place!  And, the fact that my mood continues to need propping up has actually been a fantastic thing, because it’s allowed me to experiment more effeciently and effectively.

See, it’s really hard to test motivation techniques if you’re already motivated!  You have no idea whether the thing really works, unless you can start from a position of being thoroughly unmotivated.  And I prefer not to teach things I haven’t tried myself.

Experimenting on other people isn’t all that useful, anyway, for the simple reason that a confident, motivated person can (and probably will) induce a positive mood just by interacting with you!  So testing a technique on one of my clients doesn’t help, because all I’m really testing is my ability to connect with them and influence their mood to match my own.

So the real test is always, does a technique work for me when I’m not already motivated?

Motivation and Commitment

Now, my experiments aren’t entirely finished yet, but I’ve already identified a few very solid techniques, and am beginning to get an intuitive grasp of how to create others.  I plan to put one of the techniques in my online/telephone workshop this weekend, and another in the next issue of the “Life Without Struggle” newsletter.

Of course, to get in the workshop or get the newsletter, you have to be a member of the Owners’ Circle, and it’s not cheap.  That’s a feature, not a bug, because it means that rarely does anybody join just for the heck of it.

That benefits me personally in two ways: 1) it means that I don’t need as many members in order to get to the point where I can do this stuff for a living instead of effectively working two jobs, and 2) it means I have an audience that’s highly motivated to understand and use what I’m telling them about, so I don’t have to focus as much on convincing them to act, as they’ve already made a fairly substantial commitment to change just by opening their wallet and slapping down the plastic.  They just want to know what to do and when to do it, which makes things a lot easier for me than if I still needed to convince them to change, too!

In contrast, if you look at some of the most heavily-commented articles on my blog, you’ll find that a disproportionate number of comments are from people whose main purpose in posting is to massage their own egos, either by tearing me or others down, building themselves up, or even by sucking up to me!

I usually don’t bother replying to these kind of comments, although I do try to reply to what seem like genuine requests for help, and to thank those who supply useful links and interesting references.  (If you’ve posted either sort of comment, and I missed it, my apologies.)

Anyway, my personal observation is that self-improvement groups with too low a barrier to entry invariably suffer in quality, due to the entry of people who are just there to stroke their own egos, not to help or be helped.

The Root of All Money

Now some folks would argue that choosing money as the barrier to entry benefits rich people or countries at the expense of poorer ones, but this leaves out an important variable, which is of course the motivation of the service provider… i.e., me.

See, my motivation in doing all this is not – and never was – to save the world.  I started writing about my efforts and experiences so that I could sort out my thoughts and get somewhere in my own life.  That it helps a lot of other people is just a pleasant side effect, not the main purpose.

If all I was doing was trying to help people, it’d be something I did on occasion as the mood struck, not something I’d be doing as a second job with structure and deadlines – which incidentally are far more demanding on me than most of the ones I encounter in my other job, while producing a small fraction of the revenue!

I’m doing all this as a second job, because I’d like to get to a point where I’m making a comfortable living that’s independent of any single client or employer, with complete control over my schedule.  That’s my ultimate goal.

And the point of saying all this is not to say, “boo hoo, poor me, give me money” – rather, it’s to challenge you with this question:

Are you really going after your goals?

See, for me, the hardest two things in creating this “second job” were 1) learning to be okay with asking people to pay me money for what I do, and 2) learning to be okay with having it be easy to make a profit.  (E.g. by charging enough, having simple enough delivery mechanisms, not being an ultra-perfectionist, etc. etc.)

Learning these two things was really hard because it meant going against a lifetime of training to “not be selfish”.  But the truth of the matter is, the only way to actually help people is to be “selfish” – to think that you matter.  That you can make a difference.  This is fundamentally a “selfish” and “arrogant” point of view.

Frankly, if you do anything that matters in this world, there will be people who don’t like you, and tell you so.  Look at what happened with Kathy Sierra, whose only crime was to write books that explained technical topics in an entertaining way.  For this, she gets such hate and spite?

So, if you plan to do anything meaningful with your life, be prepared for opposition.  In fact, be grateful for it, as it’s a sign you’re doing something that actually matters!

Which reminds me…  in another book I read recently, The Pathway, there was an interesting set of concepts that they called:

  • The Unrealistic Expectation,
  • The Essential Pain, and
  • The Earned Reward

No Pain, No Gain

The “unrealistic expectation” is basically whatever way in which you’re trying to have your cake and eat it, too.  For example, if you’re trying to make a living at something and you want people to also always like you personally, that’s an unrealistic expectation.  Sometimes making a living and being liked will be in conflict (e.g. when people want things for free), and sometimes, people will just dislike you no matter what you do.

And the “essential pain” is the true price of whatever it is you want.  In my case, the essential pains for getting a business going were learning to ask people for money, and to stop judging my products and services based on what I thought of them.  Until I was willing to go through these essential pains, I was not going to get anywhere.

Similarly, for the young man who quit smoking a few weeks ago, the essential pains were things like finding other ways to take breaks, and dealing with short-term withdrawal pains.  Until he chose to truly understand and accept these pains, his vague hope to quit smoking was not going anywhere.

And of course the “earned reward” is what we get when we “accept the essential pain” – or as I’ve been calling it in the past, “face the truth and make a decision; choose what matters most.”

But the earned reward is usually sweeter than we think.  By learning to ask for money, for example, I also changed my sense of self-worth.  When we pay the true price of what we want, we gain a little something more:

An Extra Helping of Soul

When you face the thing you fear, you become more brave.  When you do the thing you think you can’t, you become more capable.  Your sense of self changes, and you become more.

I think I’ve always known this on an instinctive level, because in every major life decision, I’ve tended to ask myself, “Which is the path of greater growth?  What course of action will require me to be a bigger and better person?”  Usually, it’s not the easy path, but the challenging one.

The one that’s just slightly… out of reach.

Think about it.


P.S. If you want to be where the growth is happening, join the circle as a full member.  It’s not going to magically change your life instantly, but as with everything else, what you get out of it is what you put into it.  If you show up and you get involved – that is, you help yourself – then I will help you.  And nobody who has gotten my help, has failed to make significant changes.

Join the discussion


Stay In Touch

Follow our feeds or subscribe to get new articles by email on these topics:

  • RSS
  • RSS
  • RSS


Get Unstuck, FAST

Cover photo of "A Minute To Unlimit You" by PJ Eby
Skip to toolbar