Monday, April 18, 2016

The Best Motivational Advice

The world is awash in motivational advice. Often it is doled out by motivational speakers. If a pep talk was all you needed to be motivated then we would all be brimming with motivation.

A motivational speaker will stir up something in you. Upon listening to him you will want to go out and become a world beater. Most likely, the feeling will not last out the day. If it does survive the day it will definitely not last out the week. That's why you will think that you need to go listen to some more motivational speeches or to buy some motivational tapes.

This being the case one tends to doubt Melissa Dahl’s claim she has discovered the only piece of motivational advice that you need.

And yet, Dahl is entirely correct. Her motivational advice is defiantly the best. It is so good that it ought to put the motivational speakers out of business. It will not, because bad ideas die hard. Still, here it is:

You don’t have to feel like getting something done in order to actually get it done.

The motivational advice business is a con, a scam. It tells you that you need to attain to a certain state of mind, a desire to do something, before you actually set about to do it. In truth, Dahl points out, you do not have to think anything in particular or to feel anything in particular or to want anything in particular. Actions do not require a mental prelude.  You just need to do it… if necessary, on automatic pilot. Like brushing your teeth or making the morning coffee or opening the mail.

Dahl quotes Oliver Burkeman, author of a book she loves: The Antidote: Happiness for People who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. In Burkeman’s words:

Who says you need to wait until you ‘feel like’ doing something in order to start doing it? The problem, from this perspective, isn’t that you don’t feel motivated; it’s that you imagine you need to feel motivated. … If you can regard your thoughts and emotions about whatever you’re procrastinating on as passing weather, you’ll realise that your reluctance about working isn’t something that needs to be eradicated or transformed into positivity. You can coexist with it. You can note the procrastinatory feelings and work anyway.

If anyone convinces you that you need to wait to feel like doing something before you do it, the mental mechanism, all by itself, will cause you not to do it. It will cause you to procrastinate and it get deeply into your mind, thus further and further away from your work. It does not matter how reluctant you are to tackle a job, you need but start working on it… task by small task.

When the challenge involves jumping off of the high dive at the pool, the first thing you must do is assure yourself that there is water in the pool.  If there isn't any water in the poor the problem will not be motivation. Then, you need but jump… without thinking over the reasons why you might not want to jump.

Dahl quotes a Japanese psychiatrist on the salient point:

Shoma Morita, a Japanese psychiatrist, to drive the point home. “Is it accurate to assume that we must ‘overcome’ fear to jump off the high dive at the pool, or increase our confidence before we ask someone out for a date?” Morita said. “If it was, most of us would still be waiting to do these things.”


Ares Olympus said...

Melissa Dahl’s advice: You don’t have to feel like getting something done in order to actually get it done.

Yes, that does look too simple for the self-help industry to earn much of a return, but there must be more here. Are we allowed to look, or would that just be trying to avoid getting things done?

First we have to hope there is a return on investment. If you're living in a prison camp, and your morning task is to move rocks from the northside of the prison to the southside, and then in the afternoon your task is to move the rocks back to the northside, then we have an example where procrastination has a potentially higher return on investment, at least assuming you're not whipped if only half of the rocks are moved at noontime, although depending on the punishment for failure, you still might decide the costs of the punishment are lower than the psychological tasks of being a slave doing useless work at maximum efficiency.

And in general we can see in life there is more work that can be done than time to do it, especially if you're doing it for someone else's benefit, like trying to prove your loyalty, it's a destination you'll never reach, so there has to be some process of prioritization in action, so early actions have the least resistance, while working towards things that will make later actions easier.

But I admit all of that is more about things that take days, months and years, while procrastination is a problem of seconds and minutes, not even taking the first step towards some task you know you want to do.

So in that regards at least I can recommend a refinement to the advice. So if you don't "feel like" doing what needs doing, then you can negotiate with that resistance, and identify the smallest task you can that will move you towards your goal, and just commit to doing that, and then you'll feel the reward of that success and can do another one.

Actually I'm thinking of exercise at the moment, and its definite one of those "optional" tasks where you can literally procrastinate forever. And if you just use willpower to get your morning exercises done, you might succeed today, but fail tomorrow, because ultimately it doesn't matter, or you don't really know how it matters.

So I guess this leads to the question of what it means to "get it done", if your task doesn't have to be done, and has no fixed destination. Well, I guess commuting to work by bicycle has a fixed destination, and in fact that does definitely work for me, although some days I'd rather be lazy and drive or bus. AND that's a real problem - "get it done" is easier when you don't have choices how to get it done.

And we can ask: Is commuting about "getting to work in the least time possible" or "maximizing the benefit of the time it takes to get to work." Like I admit I never had the motivation to pay $50/month to a healthclub to get some exercise, even if I could work out muscles there that I don't even know I have, I'm just not convinced I'll miss this. I might be wrong.

Oh, and then there's the last extended advice. That fancy neuroscience stuff stays it takes 6-8 weeks to learn a new habit, so that's a good reason not to prejudge, and assume because something seems hard now, it'll always be hard. So whether propaganda, or truth, its nice when someone says "Don't worry, it'll get easier" and if they're wrong, you can still tell them "you were wrong" after 8 weeks of self-pity.

Sam L. said...

Take Larry The Cable Guy's advice: Git 'er done. On Nike's: Just Do It.

JPL17 said...

Stuart -- It's funny, because I overheard remarkably similar advice a couple months ago while riding in a hotel elevator in Memphis, TN. My reaction was similar to yours, in that I was immediately struck by how radically good I thought the advice was, especially considering its source.

The conversation was between 2 women, one who had just given a talk at a far-left feminist educators' conference being held in the same hotel where I was staying; and the other a woman who had just attended the talk, who was complimenting the woman speaker on her talk. As the elevator reached the speaker's floor, the attendee asked the speaker for quickie advice on how to maintain an exercise regimen.

The speaker exited and, as the elevator doors were closing, said she didn't have much to say, but probably the best advice she could give was, "Be sure to do it when you don't feel like it."

I thought this was among the best advice I've ever heard.

Texan99 said...

I use a fitness site, very handy for monitoring long-term progress and logging calories and so on. It's also a source of helpful attention and encouragement and advice. It's also a source of a huge amount of nonsense: every day I'm amazed by the number of newcomers who arrive and post essentially the same message: I'm tremendously overweight, and I need someone to give me motivation. Sometimes I try to persuade them that the trick is to set a calorie budget and stick to it for a few weeks. Then you'll see the weight drop, which will give you a big emotional charge and eventually will make you feel better about sticking to the discipline. But the motivation is never going to come from somewhere else to start with.

It's really all about delayed rewards, which is to say keeping your eye on a future ball. I'd never advocate living one's whole life about the future, but if you can't begin to master that basic task when appropriate, nothing much is ever going to work right.

Texan99 said...

I suspect I've never been clinically depressed in the sense of having a biologically determined mood disorder, but I've been so situationally oppressed that I felt almost incapable of functioning. The best thing I found to do was simply glom onto some concrete, useful task, like cleaning the floor. The purposeful movement seemed to kickstart me, somehow, so that even though I was still desperately miserable and felt my mainspring was missing, I still was able to keep going--and gradually that led to being able to fight my way out of the situation that was oppressing me. So the trick was to do something despite not feeling like doing anything at all.

priss rules said...

"Shoma Morita, a Japanese psychiatrist, to drive the point home. “Is it accurate to assume that we must ‘overcome’ fear to jump off the high dive at the pool, or increase our confidence before we ask someone out for a date?” Morita said. “If it was, most of us would still be waiting to do these things.”"

Given the utter sexual failure of Japanese men, many of whom are unmarried virgins, Morita might rethink his position.

Ares Olympus said...

Texan99, Thank you for your testimony for your struggles, "situationally oppressed" sounds like a good description.

Part of the struggle also can be self-pity where you can imagine you're the only one who feels stuck.

And I also think back to that childhood christmas story of Kris Kringle, "Put one foot in front of the other." Incrementalism can't do everything, but it can do a lot. From the stop-motion animated Christmas classic - Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Here's put One Foot in Front of the Other. Sung by the voice talents of Mickey Rooney and Keenan Wynn.