How to Spark Motivation When it Wanes

“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing poorly.” C.K. Chesterton

In the quest to attain success, motivation is not just part of the battle. It is the battle. Without motivation, nothing gets started . Without getting started, nothing gets finished. 

But how does one gain and maintain motivation to get started and reach the finish line?

Many people beat themselves up when they do not get the results they desire. Literally, they beat themselves up. Some people fear failure so much that they ‘kick their own ass’ with negative self-talk. When consumed by negativity, the lack of confidence that follows can be debilitating. 

Other folks start out with an unbridled confidence and fiery passion. These people are typically ambitious, which is a nice thing, but they often still struggle to generate momentum. Others dream about the future and cling to hope, but never actually do anything. 

A select few people find just the right mix of vision, action, and patience. These are the people who set the example for the rest of us. They are the folks who tend to find success on their own terms.

Which path are you on?

Build Your System

To optimize results, you must create your own customized system. This sounds useful, right? Maybe it is even obvious. But it is definitely, not easy. In addition to our own internal thoughts and ideals, there are countless external  voices that distract from what is most important in life. 

Staying focused is challenging because there are no step-by-step directions to follow. and it will always take time. But there is good news. Those who develop the type of patience and diligence we are talking about here will gain an edge over the competition.

The Challenge of Mindset

Unfortunately, most schools overtly encourage people to do what they are told, rather than to create. Do your assignments well and you will gain approval from others in the form of a grade. Follow the directions, and you will succeed. When students deviate from what is asked of them, they may not pass the class. But life is less clear. There is no rubric.

This realization can be disconcerting when we enter the stage in life where we are expected to show maturity. Building your own system and lifestyle actually requires a different mindset. This is especially true if you want to maximize your progress and tailor your lifestyle to your interests and priorities. 

For insight on what this mindset, we turn to someone who is undeniably, massively successful.

Self-Motivation on Steroids

In late 2020, the world-famous entertainer, Jerry Seinfeld did a series of interviews to promote his new book. He spoke in detail about his style of personal and creative development. The insight he shared is valuable to just about anyone who wants to master any skill.

When you listen to Seinfeld discuss his success, you may sense that he sounds more like his own personal military-grade drill sergeant than a creative professional.1 Seinfeld’s habits appear to be so ingrained in his day-to-day life that samples of his blood may contain evidence of actual self-discipline enzymes.

Successful people like Seinfeld will tell you that mastering the craft of being a comedian was a process of consistent and productive action. 

The Check-Box Method

One technique that Seinfeld is said to use is as old as paper itself. 

Seinfeld is said to use a simple wall calendar and check the box for each day that he completes his habit of writing material for his comedy career. Some days very little material comes from his sessions but on other days, he strikes gold. Seinfeld attributes his success to this constant, daily discipline.

“Don’t break the chain” is his mantra. But like many of us, and countless celebrities, he also speaks of how he has combated feelings of depression, at times. People who push hard for great fame and fortune, often speak of themes of unhappiness, and searching for meaning. 

But what happens if the chain gets broken? How will you bounce back?

The ‘Grind it Out’ Method

Many people in my generation (Millennials) speak of the importance of ‘grinding.’ They may speak of a need to “get on that grind,” or say they have been “grinding.” Loosely translated, this means ‘trying hard,’ if you happen to be unaware. 

Unfortunately, this has become a catch phrase, reminiscent of previous generations’ equally obnoxious moniker—”keep your nose to the grindstone.” The thinking behind ‘grinding’ is that if we “keep working hard,” then good things will come.

If it were so simple, more people would undoubtedly do it.

It is true that hard work is a necessary precursor to success. It is also true that in some situations, perseverance is needed. However, any red-headed roofer who works in the sunny, summer heat will tell you that hard work is not the full story. Manual labor is the ultimate “grind,” yet it is rarely a path toward the type of future success that most people crave. 

The "Grind" of Hard Work

If success merely means a more lucrative job,  hard work may be all you need to get promoted. But hard work alone is rarely a path toward an early retirement with a lifetime supply of luxury and your very own expensive estate on a beach with an infinity pool and lots of sunshine (or whatever you are into).

We must choose a target and hit it. “Grinding” alone is not enough to maintain motivation and achieve fulfillment.

The Self-Alignment Method

The dynamic nature of the variables involved in the success picture are what makes achievement so challenging. Besides succumbing to distractions, people also tend to choose certain desires to obsess over, often at the expense of the broader picture. 

The prior two methods (check-box and ‘grind-it-out’) each have notable downsides. Fortunately, personal alignment could be considered the “just right” approach because it prioritizes balance.

Without seeking balance, too much emphasis inevitably goes onto the wrong things. Think of the mindlessness and short-sightedness of political hyper partisans. Extremism and obsessing over the wrong things will get us nowhere.

We must stay grounded in objective truth and remain realistic.

What Can We Do?

The only way to know what will bring real progress to your life is to know what you want. We should make a conscious effort to know ourselves and our motivations, rather than to resort to premature conclusions. This can only help us navigate the inevitable changes that life brings.

The system you create for yourself should be based on your own interests, strengths, and should have the capacity to generate enough traction to build momentum. Perfection is never the answer. Action-steps, and the patience of a balanced approach is always a better bet.

Build Momentum in the Right Places

What motivates an aspiring lawyer to read through numerous examples of legal cases in law school? How about for an aspiring accountant who somehow finds the energy to solve endless math equations and learn dry concepts relating to theories of money? 

The work you engage in should be enjoyable(ish), but also challenging. If the work does not meet both criteria, you should ask, why? This question should be explored in some depth. 

This emphasis on an intrinsic focus to examine your unique underlying motivations is more sustainable than allowing extrinsic factors to dictate your path.

When Motivation Wanes

“Be not afraid of going slowly; be afraid only of standing still.” – Chinese proverb

Despite knowing about the importance of the tool of motivation, it still eludes many. No matter who you are, motivation will at least ebb and flow, if not wane altogether. This can happen quickly. Fortunately, the reasons for the unreliability of motivation are understandable, even somewhat predictable. 

Waning Motivation.

There are at least 2 reasons why motivation can be stifled prematurely by external factors. First, we may find that the level of progress we expected is not being reached. This is actually quite common. It is challenging enough to trek forward on a journey toward a desired outcome without the demoralizing feeling of making lackluster progress.

A second reason for a deficiency of motivation could be because we are not actually as interested in the outcome as we may think. Sometimes we desire something for reasons that are disconnected from our true nature or set of values. 

Where there is no momentum, there can be no progress. If you are not gaining traction, it may be time to do something else. There is no need to feel shame. 

Find Joy

Although the road toward building your own lifestyle is messy, it is also intensely rewarding. Ask any child about the reward involved in creating something. It turns out that this child-like joy can be useful as an adult.

The Bottom Line

In order to take the right action steps, we need to feel that we are making traction. Sustained effort over a long period of time is the ultimate way to achieve anything that is worthy of our precious time and energy. This is why we must dive deep and direct focus responsibly. 

If you do not achieve momentum, it may be time to go back to the drawing board. Be forgiving of yourself. It is normal to lose motivation or interest in something and we should examine why this is the case. Success is just as much a process of reflection and discovery as it is a cycle of achievement. 

By taking these approaches into account, we can maximize the chances of success in the long run.

Further Reading

1 Jerry’s interview with legendary podcast host Tim Ferriss is one example of an insightful, long-form listening choice. If you are interested in Jerry’s comedy, he has a book called, “Is This Anything?” The book is a collection of jokes he has written over the years on his legal pad.
2 This post on captures some great insight on why “doing the thing,” provides lots of power.

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