Daily Effort Generates Motivation
For at least a couple of years before committing to daily practice, I lamented: Where does motivation come from? How do people do it? I had colleagues who worked as hard as I did as college instructors, but they still managed to raise children, publish manuscripts, and jam in bands, while I orchestrated my day around how quickly I could get myself back to the sofa for a nap.
Eventually, I learned that motivation — at least self-motivation, motivating yourself to practice your craft even if no one else expects you to or holds you accountable — comes from the most aggravating source: action.
It’s the troubling paradox of trying to get hired for a job that requires you to have experience in that job, but you need the job before you can get the experience, and round-and-round you go.
Unless there’s exterior pressure for you to get your work done — a boss, a stern friend, a classroom of students waiting for you — you have to motivate yourself. To do that, you simply get to work.
“But that’s the problem,” you’re saying to me, “I don’t want to get to work, so how do I motivate myself to get to work?”
I don’t remember who first said this to me this way, but it rang loud and true:
ACTION PRECEDES MOTIVATION.
Yup. You get motivated to work after you start working. How bassackwards is that? If you don’t feel like sketching, in fact, you’d rather mow the lawn with fingernail clippers, you will feel like sketching once you get started.
It’s as true as it is aggravating.
Make yourself physically walk to your craft, pick up a tool, and make five minutes’ worth of effort. Ninety-nine percent of the time, you’ll stay there as long as the day’s obligations allow. In the rare instance you truly detest being there, leave after five minutes and call it a day. (See also J.)
Based on my experience with writing daily, I almost always want to continue after five minutes and wonder why I resisted it so much.
Even weirder, I often feel most satisfied and do my best work on these days of resistance. I suspect, after watching thousands of students engage with the writing process and studying my own process, many of the days we resist our craft are the days we’re on the verge of something new, something challenging that we haven’t done before, and some part of our brain knows that and wants to keep it all safe and simple.
When I’ve pushed myself through malaise and pulled students through resistance, the work sometimes takes a leap in complexity and strength. That kind of work takes more effort and energy; the mind and body want to conserve energy and protect you from the rigors of growth and art.
Not that this leap in ability happens every time or even needs to. The annoying truth is that to get motivated to work on your craft, you must get up and go work on your craft.