Motivation is a fickle mistress. Some days you wake up ready to go, eager to conquer your endless job list and other days it’s hard to see past the phone in front of your face.
Right now my life is busy. I have a full-time job. The kids have busy school lives, which means we have busy school lives. We bought a house that needs everything doing to it. I decided it would be a good time to start a blog.
A good friend of mine recently told me he had spent 4 hours reading the paper one Sunday. 4 hours. I can’t remember the last time I spent 4 hours doing anything that wasn’t a job of some description.
I’m not complaining, OK maybe I am just a little. The choices I made got me here and I stand by them, I’m just setting the scene. I’m a busy man.
The biggest task in front of me is the house, there is always something to do and the list of jobs feels endless. Overwhelmingly endless. I am also learning as I go, I am not a builder or a carpenter but I have set myself this challenge. The romantic in me pictures my kids telling their kids how Granddad built this house with his bare hands. Anyway, lets recap, an overwhelmingly long list coupled with inexperience/fear of failure is a recipe for a complete lack of motivation.
I’ll do that tomorrow.
What if I mess it up.
If I don’t try then I wont fail.
I’m so damn tired.
Is the 80’s bathroom really that bad? It’s not far off being back in fashion…..
My brain is really good at giving me lots of reasons not to do stuff.
Internal vs external
Motivation can be split into two types, intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is something you are internally motivated to do yourself. You like doing it, you want to get it done, you want to sit back and enjoy the finished thing. It’s something that is personally rewarding for you.
Extrinsic motivation is the opposite. You want to do something for someone else, to win a competition or to receive an award. You might be externally motivated to avoid a punishment of some sorts or a negative outcome.
My intrinsic motivation for working on the house had started to wane. Coming out of a 6-month renovation project with walls removed, steel beams installed and all 6 of us cooking, eating and ‘relaxing’ in a 14m² space had drained me. I needed to find something that would motivate me to carry on with the rest of the house.
I found 4 really good reasons.
I think I’m going to be sick
I know, I know. Big fat cliche.
I do believe that one of the reasons that our blended family is successful and not one of the 70% that fail (yup, 70%) is because we always consider the kids in almost everything we do.
It turns out that kids are a wonderful motivator.
There was a new spring in my step, ticks were put in boxes on various lists with reckless abandon, shit was getting done. I felt great, strutting around the house like some hunter-gather perfecting the shelter for his pre-historic family.
Turns out I was due a big fall. Turns out the kids don’t give two shits about the pullout shoe storage under the stairs I was building. My eldest stepdaughter recently said to me “I used to think this kitchen was massive. Now it just feels tiny”.
You know that space we spent nearly £30,000 and 6 months building and creating…..its tiny.
Well that told me.
I have found out that there is a problem with extrinsic motivators.
Take back your happy
If you are relying on external factors to motivate you, you risk giving up your control of being happy. Let me explain. At a very basic level survival motivates us. We need to eat, sleep, have shelter, be safe and feel secure. You might also say we are social creatures so social interaction forms a part of our survival and basic needs.
Outside of those survival motivators, everything else is ego and pleasure. We are motivated to do things to gain pleasure from it, read, watch films, improve our living space, play video games, argue on online forums, knit, horse ride you name it. Our hobbies bring us pleasure, therefore, we are motivated to do them.
Ego also motivates us. Working harder to earn more money to buy more stuff. Stuff that makes us better than next door. We spend more time on the house and garden to be better than next door. Fuck next door. (for clarity my neighbours are actually pretty great but my lawn is still better!). We are motivated to buy things that either bring us pleasure or are for stroking our ego, or both. They aren’t needed for survival but we sometimes go to great lengths to get them.
We also do stuff to get praise from others. Look what I did to make you happy! Aren’t I the best partner/dad/stepdad ever!!
Here comes the danger. When I was waking up early, working and “doing stuff for the kids”, I wanted them to acknowledge it. I wanted them to recognise my hard work and stroke my ego by telling me so.
Well done Dad, that looks great! No longer is the porch going to be piled mountain high with smelly shoes, no longer do I need to spend 5 minutes searching under the spider-infested staircase to find my missing shoe.
Instead I got a shrug and a groan of indifference.
A perfectly sensible and rational reaction from kids, particularly when one child would prefer to never wear shoes and the others are confused about why we can’t just leave them where we take them off.
But don’t they know I am doing this for them?
In a word no. I made that choice, I chose to motivate myself by “doing it for the kids”. The problem with doing it for someone else is when it morphs slightly from doing it for them to doing it for the praise from them.
When you do something for someone you are doing it intrinsically, the good feeling of doing something nice for someone. Doing something for the praise of others is extrinsic and based on vanity and ego. It’s a subtle distinction but worth pointing out. You should still do good things, the good deed should be its own reward.
When you don’t get the praise you want that motivated you to do the thing in the first place, you immediately wonder why you bothered doing it at all. “I wasted my whole Saturday doing this for nothing!”. I had lost sight of the fact that I had still achieved my goal. The house was closer to being done, we had somewhere to store our mountain of shoes.
But I still felt like a failure because my end goal was to get praise for it.
After reflecting on why I felt like that, it dawned on me that my motivation was wrong. I had given control of my satisfaction and my happiness from having completed something, over to someone else and wound up wanting my kids of all people, to give me recognition for it.
Stop asking for extra credit
The Stoic philosophers have plenty to say about this:
When you’ve done well and another has benefited by it, why like a fool do you look for a third thing on top—credit for the good deed or a favor in return?Marcus Aurelius
A man when he has done a good act, does not call out for others to come and see, but he goes on to another act, as a vine goes on to produce again the grapes in season.Marcus Aurelius
You need not look about for the reward of a just deed; a just deed in itself offers a still greater returnSeneca
You should only remind a man of what you have given him by giving him something else. We ought not even to tell others of our good deeds.Seneca
The Stoics are talking about good deeds of course, doing something for someone else, a completely selfless act. I am talking about more mundane deed’s but the sentiment is the same.
The job/task/goal/whatever should not be completed for praise. The act of doing it should be reason enough. Are you doing something selfless? Is it bringing you closer to your bigger life goals? Are you bettering yourself? Are you making life better for others around you who you care about?
If you can find no internal motivator for doing it, then you have to ask yourself – why are you doing it?
So why are you doing it?
There can be many reasons we feel compelled to do things outside of basic survival tasks. If they are aligned with our values and priorities then we can find internal reasons for motivation.
I have read those quotes before, some of them a few times and yet I still fell into the trap. Digging around for motivation to complete projects led me down a path that ended in my own frustration.
Now I can see it for what it is I have adjusted my thought process. I am still doing the same things, the job list is still the same but I now do them for reasons that end with me being proud and happy with a job well done. Not for needing any form of affirmation, like a puppy.
Take a look at the things that motivate you. Are you frustrated when the external factors you do things for, your kids, your parents, your partner don’t give you what you need? Take back control of your happiness by either refocusing on intrinsic motivators or if you cant find any then question why you are doing it in the first place.
Take back your happy.