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Motivation Mythology

It’s raining cats and dogs outside, which is fine because it’s conducive to writing, and after thinking a lot about motivation the last few days (hell, all my life), I just spent a few tens of minutes on Facebook procrastinating and apparently that’s what everybody else is thinking about too, on the Sunday afternoon before taxes are due. I see folks confessing they haven’t gotten their taxes done; I see students talking about how to focus on doing work instead of burying themselves in chocolate cake; I see people wondering how to keep going with something they feel like quitting on.

I know a thing or two about quitting. I quit ballet after realizing you didn’t get to wear tutus right off the bat, nor was it—apparently—okay to walk around on your toes in ballet flats, encouraging your other seven-year-old classmates to join you. I quit Suzuki violin lessons, which I had to take because the piano classes were full, and then I quit piano because it didn’t sound right playing on electric keyboards. And there was a dance class one summer that I almost completed, but for reasons I cannot recall, did not. And there was a friendship I got tired of feeling taken for granted in. And there was a crappy job managing a restaurant; I left my notice on my area director’s voicemail one day after a fourteen-hour shift, almost half unconscious, and with no job lined up, and still I felt a thousand pounds lift.

So the thing is, I’ve had practice quitting stuff. And yet I’ve also—somehow—managed to be successful at a number of things which one typically equates with “motivation” and “discipline.” To me, it seems like there is a hair-fine line between discipline and habit, and over the years I’ve stopped thinking of motivation (or inspiration) as something you wait to find, and instead think of it as something to practice. When my WW meeting members confessed they weren’t disciplined I’d always ask them: Do you brush your teeth regularly? Shower? Pay your rent? And what I meant to say was that clearly there are some things we find easy to discipline ourselves on (note I haven’t mentioned flossing...ahem…), and if that is true, then we already have the skill-set, we just need to apply it to the right things.

Writing, for one. I know that early on as a grad student, I thought the hard work I was doing was very romantic and it seemed like I was always inspired.  It helped that I worked full time so school was really the pleasurable part of my life. In particular, I had a ritual on Sundays: I would wake early, grab a bagel and sneak it into the Barnes and Noble at Webster Place and grab a table near the window. I’d spend the day reading and writing—seven, eight, nine hours. Then I’d pick up take-out on the way home and would spend the evening typing my drafts up. I always felt great about what I’d accomplished, and a sense of well being which was compounded by Chinese food, (which also compounded my thighs, eventually.)

By the time I hit my thesis stage, I was over the easy romanticism. This was work. I had to dig deep. I’d stay at home and write for hours, then read some works of fiction that inspired me when my energy flagged, then back to work. It was hard, and the pleasure was not as keen as the early days. I definitely had fallow periods after I finished grad school where I wasn’t working as diligently on my writing, but over time I started thinking of writing as “a practice.” I find that there are cycles to everything. Even with Pilates there are weeks where I am working out daily and loving every second, and then there are weeks where I only get three or four really good workouts in. Science actually defines “interest” as an emotion—you can, in fact, train your brain to actually enjoy something if you practice at it enough. Part of my enjoyment of exercise and of writing now involves the ritual of it—where I go, how I prepare, allotting certain time, and the memory of the last good experience all feed into my pleasurable anticipation, so even when I’m not in the mood, I know I probably will be once I get going.

Writing a book—from first draft to publishing, can take years. A large weight loss, a new exercise habit, eating healthy for life—it’s natural that energy and enthusiasm is going to flag after a while. I used to find this a lot with WW members who hit their goal weight, and thought that just seeing that number on the scale would be enough to keep them on track forever, only to realize that the losing of the weight was only half the journey. The scale does not shoot fireworks and throw a parade every day you maintain your weight. One success does not automatically imbue you with a life’s worth of motivation. You have to find other ways to reward and remind yourself that you’ve made strides, and you have to make a habit of reminding yourself.

I’m thinking about something author Henry Miller said to himself—actually wrote it out on a “Commandments” list for himself (which those smarty-pants scientists say is a great thing to do if you want to accomplish things). The list itself is full of fun contradictions, but the part that is sticking to my brain right now is the line: “When you can’t create, WORK.”  Some of my writing students complain they can’t write unless they “get inspired.” I believe that great writers learn their craft so well that they write when they are inspired and also when it feels like drudgery, and they get so good at it that we can’t tell where the inspiration ends and the work begins. I think the same holds for healthy people and most creatives. Some days you just want to eat well and hit the running path, and other days it’s work. Weight loss, exercise, creative projects—there is always going to be a point with any process where the passion ebbs and we must bridge the gap until the next inspiration comes along. I take heart in the fact that there is always going to be another moment of inspiration down the road. I’d rather think of inspiration/motivation as numerous pit stops and scenic overlooks, than as the bus I wait for. That way, if the bus is late, I can start walking.

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