A Kick In The Pants

Each day I awake and think to myself “What should I accomplish today?” Lest you think that sounds noble, it is at times quite mundane. Accomplishing something could be as simple as clearing the growing shock of paperwork from my desk to something as complex as building a client strategy. The exercise of accomplishment matters more than what is accomplished. Like a daily habit one undertakes for positive end, accomplishing something lets me fall asleep at night in peace.

Most people I know in the professional world approach their days the same way. And many of them, like me, have bouts with indolence. We each deal with it in our own particular manner, propelled by the persistent theme of motivation; how being motivated is critical to success, why we must always be on top of it and why we cannot slide too far from its protective embrace. Yes, success typically is found by those motivated enough to do the work to find it. But the sub-message that the level of success one has is in clear proportion to the amount or quality of effort put in is a bit suspect. I know it’s almost sacrilegious to question the claim that those who work hardest find the most success. Look around, though. This axiom is shaky.

And so many good, hardworking people wonder why they sometimes get lazy and question their efforts. They fall into a nasty spiral where they feel unmotivated which makes someone who is accomplishment oriented feel they need get back on track without delay. Maybe motivation is not the problem. Maybe the problem is whether or not they want to accomplish the goal in the first place.

Yet lots of good, hardworking people seek to fix the problem through more motivation. The self-help/motivation industry is worth roughly $10 billion as of a few years ago. We Americans are particularly invested in its promises. As author Jonathan Black told CBS Sunday Morning in November 2014, when asked about Americans’ predilection for motivational material, “One is this sort of impulse we have to improve ourselves. And at the same time Americans are constantly disgruntled. We always want something better. We want a better husband or a wife or job or money or house. ‘We can do better and we don’t really like the way things are.'”

Our nation is predisposed to wanting more, and to believing that hard work is the avenue to get more. Which raises a big question for those who find themselves in a rut: Can you motivate yourself to get motivated? It depends. As Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson wrote in Psychology Today in June, 2011 the light version of motivational action is wishful thinking at best. If you strive to get yourself moving by merely thinking good thoughts and putting it “out there” you’ll likely be disappointed with the results. The fundamental truism at work is that motivation, like accomplishment, is a practice or habit. Like many practices or habits, the benefit comes from the practice itself over the goal attained. Motivation begets motivation. Accomplishment begets accomplishment. And within the regular activity that practice requires, the rightness of a goal can be tested. Laying back and waiting to solve what is causing your lack of motivation pulls you further away from finding the solution. Step back, yes, if needed but only temporarily. Pull back indefinitely and you may very well slip away entirely.

As for measuring the level of success based on effort, I find that unproductive. In fact, I have found that I am unable to fully appreciate what I have accomplished in present time. In retrospect, when I see my accomplishments, and failures, laid out in succession, I understand them to the fullest. I see the trail wrought by my practice, as unglamorous as it can be, and I can again fall asleep satisfied by a good day’s, and life’s, work.

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