On Motivation and Willpower

What do you think of when you hear the word willpower?

I tend to think of great men and women, leaders, entrepreneurs, bodybuilders. People who have advanced so far with their skill sets that they appear almost preternaturally gifted, but no, they are that good because they worked at it, toiled for endless hours of endlessly repeating practice until they attained unsurpassed heights of accomplishment and prowess. I think of the classical composer who writes and performs the most sublime works of musical art. I think of the painter who creates images that seem to leap from the canvas, so alive and passionate, the sort of realism that is more than real, bursting with passion and ingenuity and depth. I think of the writers who produce book after book after book of fascinating prose, characters brought to such life that they can move you to tears as you fall in love with them again and again, stories that interweave such intricate complexity and intrigue that you are continuously guessing or gasping with shock even as you realize that you should have seen this coming.

It’s a lovely image, isn’t it? Inspiring, even. And I’m going to be rather self-depracatingly honest here.

I am so not one of these people.

Willpower is not one of my strengths. I struggle daily, even hourly, to find and maintain motivation. I am distractable. I am so distractable! I will come up with ideas for project after project that barely even see the glimmer of the first few hours of work, as my mind moves onto the next thing before the prior thing has even quite formed inside my head. Oh, there are so many things I’ve thought about making, even made tentative plans of action for, that have not seen the light of day because I got distracted by the next shiny, new thing that popped into my head!

Over the years, I’ve been acutely aware of this weakness in my character. For the longest time, I just succumbed to it with no real attempt to change myself. But recently– well, in the past few years– I’ve decided that I really do need to make progress, not only in my work and projects, but in myself as a person.

Will, I’ve realized, is more than just a determination to do something. The freedom of choice, the will to do something even if you don’t feel like it, the decision to go against the flow of your emotions and feelings, your tiredness, your environment, your upbringing, all of it– that ability to choose is the core of free will. To determine to follow a particular path, despite the currents pressing against you on all sides and urging you to go a different direction, is the ultimate embrace of personal power.

The will to act is in my hands. That is my power.

The above is an affirmation I wrote down sometime last year. I have it taped to my printer beside my computer, where I can look at it and repeat it to myself throughout the day. Sometimes it’ll give me just that little bit of added boost to energize my actions.

Now, affirmations are all well and good, but what about actually doing what you set out to do? It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Just choose. Just decide to do it. In practice, it’s not that easy. Our minds, our bodies, can be powerful drains on motivation. When we don’t feel like doing something, actually buckling down to do it anyway can be almost physically painful! It’s like every cell in your body resists it, flares up and whines and shouts and throws a temper tantrum. I don’t want to! Even if you toil your way through that, it can deeply effect the quality of your work. I’ve scrapped entire day’s worth of work when muscling my way through that mentality, because it was just bad.


That’s where the art of self-motivating comes in. In a sense, I see the act of stirring up motivation as a sort of brain-tricking technique. Not self-deception, but more like sparking interest, gently pulling my thoughts in a particular direction without strong-arming them. Working with the flow, rather than against it. Like psychological Aikido.

Stream-of-Consciousness Writing

Probably one of the best ways I’ve found to stir up motivation in myself is to write. And I don’t mean writing essays like this, or fiction or poetry. I mean stream-of-consciousness writing. In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron talks about a practical daily exercise she calls “Morning Pages.” Her suggestion is that every morning, in a notebook, you write three pages of pure stream-of-consciousness. The words themselves, the grammar and spelling, even the topics are completely unimportant here. You just write what comes into your mind. If you think about needing to do the laundry, you write that you need to do the laundry. If you think about your project, you write about that. If you think about the meaning of life, you write about the meaning of life.  Now, I admit to changing the exercise a bit for myself, as I prefer typing to handwriting (it’s much easier for me to slip into stream-of-consciousness mode that way), and I’ll sometimes only do one page rather than three, depending on how quickly it gets me in the “zone.” I’ve adapted it somewhat to fit my personality and my motivation needs.

When I open my Morning Pages document, I start writing off the top of my head. Often, I’ve barely even begun to drink my first cup of coffee, which means that my ramblings are usually quite indecipherable at first! I write first about the things that just float unbidden into my mind. Amusingly, I write quite a bit about coffee in these pages, mostly because my sleep-addled mind tends to hone in on its need for caffeine. I’ll write about basic mundane things, everyday tasks like cleaning the house, doing the laundry, planning dinner. I’ll often write about my emotional currents. If I’m feeling angry or depressed, I’ll just let it all out there. I often go back and delete those words if they get too dark, just because it’s like a form of banishing. I’ll write about my hopes and dreams, about memories, about friendships and family, about my physical health. Sometimes I write a lot about these things, other days I don’t write anything along these lines, because my mind is already starting to focus itself. The point is to get all of that mental flotsam and jetsum out, to give it air and let it breathe as you release it.

Shifting Focus

Once I’ve done my stream-of-consciousness writing, I will begin to gently shift the flow of my thoughts. I’ll start by stating my intent. All right, I’ll say, now I’m going to start writing about my projects and goals for the day. And, still continuing with this unstructured writing technique, I’ll begin writing down various thoughts that occur to me about those projects and goals. I’ve often been surprised about what rises to the surface when I do this. Inspiration just flares to life at times, and I come up with ideas and fresh ways of doing things all the time. And, what’s more, as my mind hones in on a particular project, motivation soars. Often, I will stop writing in the middle of a sentence just to go get started on one of the projects I’m writing about, because I have a sudden, irresistible urge to get going on it!

Daily Checklists

Another trick I use for stirring up motivation is the daily checklist. You know, I used to cringe at the thought of checklists! It always reminded me of when I was a child, and my mother would write up long lists of chores for me to complete daily and weekly, with a box next to each item for checking off as I completed them. I loathed those checklists– what child wouldn’t?

But these days, I’ve found that the act of writing out a list of goals for the day, and clicking that check box when I’ve completed each task, brings me an odd sort of satsifaction. For awhile, I handwrote the lists, but a year or so ago I went on a Google hunt and found a nice little desktop app to download– Wunderlist.  It lets you easily build and edit lists, allows you to set reminders on a calendar, and gives a cute little chime when you check something off. And you can click to see your completed tasks so you can gloat (I mean celebrate) over your accomplishments. That chime when I click a checkbox for a completed task gives me a happy little shiver. It feels so good to go back and see all that has been accomplished in a day, even if not everything has been completed. Progress made.

Off days

Sometimes, though, despite all this psyching up, you just can’t stir up motivation, just can’t grit your teeth and power through, just can’t seem to finish everything on your list.

Guess what.

That’s okay.

It’s okay to have an off day. It’s okay to have low points, to not get as much done as usual.

Dealing With Chronic Illness

Some years ago, I became very ill to the point of hospitalization. After a major surgery and a month recovering in a rehab facility, since I couldn’t go back home to the resort I was employed by, being unable to even walk a few steps unassisted, I finally recovered enough to go back to my life. But, I couldn’t go back to that life. My body just physically couldn’t do it anymore.

I won’t detail the struggles of the next several years in this post, though I may go into it in another essay. But suffice to say that, health-wise, I have not been the same since. I have good days and bad days. My good days now aren’t even as good as my mediocre days before all of this, and my bad days… well, they knock me flat on my back. On my really bad days, I have difficulty even getting out of bed, walking across the room, sitting up for extended periods of time.

This makes accomplishing things a tricky business indeed.

I have learned through this that I have a cycle. I will go several weeks where I am able to charge full speed ahead, working my derrier off on multiple projects, finishing paintings and stories left and right, diligently attacking my site upkeep and art-related social media pages and blog posting and print shop updates and commission promotions. Then, I crash. I will spend anywhere from a couple days to a few weeks being completely and utterly unable to do art, or much of anything at all. I’ll still do some posting here and there, if I can come up with material for it, but my energy levels are usually abyssal.

But then, my health improves enough for me to begin the creative cycle anew, and start working at rebuilding my motivation.

As a creative, as an artist and a writer, these downward-turning health cycles can be truly disheartening. I get through them by reminding myself daily that this is temporary, that soon I’ll be back to drawing and painting and writing, back to making progress on my goals and dreams, back to inspiration and productivity and accomplishment. When I feel I’m able, I will sit down and start writing again about my goals, about my projects, about the things that I want to do. I begin putting together lists again. I stir up the motivation, and I buckle down and begin anew.

Some is More Than None

And then there are the days when I do work on things, but not as much as I would like. Maybe I’m not down-and-out, but I’m not feeling at 100%. Sometimes I just get distracted or even legitimately lazy. I do a little bit of work and stop. I don’t complete all of my goals. But I complete a lot of them. Or even some of them. That’s more than none of them! I’m still accomplishing things. And tomorrow is a new day, a new chance to strive for better things, for greater achievements.

That’s an encouraging thought, isn’t it?

At the end of those days, the days when you finish some but not all, try looking through your lists and goals and ask yourself a few questions.

  • Did I try to do too much in one day? It’s good to plan for certain goals, but sometimes it’s easy to underestimate the time for completion of those goals. Don’t sabotage yourself by overloading your list. Yes, it’s good to push your limits, but if you push them too much it can be very easy to set yourself up for failure, which leads to discouragement and apathy.
  • How much time should I devote to each task? Estimate per item and add it up. It may take some trial and error to figure out your working speed. Using a stopwatch is a good way to go about determining this. Also remember that some days you may work more quickly than others. Sometimes you’ll run into problems, have to redo things, even start over from scratch. But your intent should be to work out an average time of completion. That will help you figure out how much you can take on each day without overloading.
  • Are any of these tasks things which will take more than one day to complete? Decide on an amount of time to devote to them each day. I began awhile back to commit to daily drawing and painting goals. To begin with, I tried to “trick” my brain by determining to do twenty minutes of art per day. The idea was that once twenty minutes had passed, I would already be immersed in the project and keep going. After a while, I decided to change that to three hours a day. I know, it’s quite a jump, but I’ve found that it’s oddly easier to commit to that than it is to commit to twenty minutes. Why? I suppose it has something to do with mindset– twenty minutes “feels” less important, less real, less accomplished, than three hours. However, instead of tackling all three hours at once, I focus on one hour at a time. I complete one hour, check it off my list, get up to move around and stretch a bit, and then sit down for the next hour. I set a timer for these sessions, and sometimes I’ll go a bit past the time, but not by much. It’s good for the circulation to get up and move around a bit every hour anyway! Of course, your mileage for timeclock strategies may vary. If committing to twenty minutes or three hours or six hours works for you, do it! If taking a short break every hour or every half hour or every two hours works for you, do it!
  • Do I need to get started earlier in the day? Go to bed earlier in the night? Shift my working schedule? Confession time: I’m a night owl. I also have some pretty bad insomnia at times. Which means that if I’m not careful, I can stay up half the night and then sleep far, far later than I really intend. When I worked at the resort in California, I was all over the clock– sometimes working early shifts at seven a.m., other times working night shift and getting off at ten or eleven or later. I suppose that, to an extent, this sort of erratic scheduling stuck, and so I tend to be pretty inconsistent with timing my routines. It’s pretty obvious how that can cut into productivity, though, especially since erratic circadian rythms can exact a price in energy and health. That’s one thing I actually do want to work on improving this year. I really do prefer to finish my work before dinner and have the evening free. 
  • Do I need to switch around the order in which I do some things? Sometimes I find it easier to shift from writing to art, than I do going from art to writing, for instance. Especially when I start off writing in my Morning Pages document, which gets the words flowing. For instance, I started writing this blog post directly after my morning writing, and I’ll be moving on to my art afterwards.
  • What should be my cutoff time so that I don’t end up habitually burning the midnight oil and eating into my limited energy reserves? This is perhaps less about productivity and accomplishment, and more about personal health and well-being. About balance. Sometimes it can be so, so easy, when you’re really on a roll, to work nonstop all day. Remember, there are other things that need your attention. Your home, your family, your health. Take some time to exercise, to clean the house, to spend time with your kids or spouse, to watch your favorite television program, to read a book. Get a hobby that allows you some creative expression without the pressure of to-do lists and career goals and other ambitions– just for fun! Do some gardening or take up knitting, learn to play the piano or violin, build houses in The Sims. One of my favorite hobbies is roleplaying; not the tabletop sort but the kind of roleplaying where you write from the perspective of one character and build a story with another writer. Remember to live. Do something for the sheer joy of it.

So, you see, building willpower and motivation isn’t the insurmountable task it sometimes appears to be. By approaching projects with a combination of organization and cognitive focusing techniques and breaking them into smaller, achievable goals, you can achieve amazing things. One step at a time is key.

finding your willpower
The will to act is in my hands. That is my power.

As I draw this essay to a close, I would like to pose a question to my readers. What do you do to self-motivate? What helps you find the strength and willpower to accomplish the things you set out to do? Come tell me in the comments; I’d love to hear from you!

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