How (and When) to Motivate Yourself

I woke up this morning to pouring rain and temperatures in the low 40s. I had planned on going for an early bike ride in Central Park but now I wasn’t so sure. I like to get some exercise every day and given my commitments for the rest of the day, this was my only opportunity. But did I really want to get so wet and cold?

I decided to go for it, though I continued to question myself as I put on my biking clothes and got my bike out of the basement. I paused under the awning of our apartment building, as rain streamed down on either side of me.

A friend of mine, Chris, happened to be dashing home to avoid the rain and stopped under the awning for a second.

“Great day for a bike ride,” he said, before running on.

He’s right, I thought, this is dumb. I stayed under the awning for a few more minutes as I considered retreating into the warmth of my apartment.

Finally, knowing that I’d feel great after a good, hard ride, I got on my bike and took off, pedaling hard. The initial sting of the cold rain had me questioning myself again but I kept going.

Then, after less than five minutes, the rain stopped bothering me. And after a few more minutes, it felt kind of good. Invigorating. It turned out to be a great ride.

When I got back to the apartment building — drenched, a little muddy, and with a big smile on my face — one of my neighbors commented on how motivated and disciplined I was to be out on a day like that.

But he was wrong. My ride in the rain taught me a good lesson about motivation and discipline: we need it less than we think.

“I didn’t need to be motivated for long,” I laughed. “Just long enough to get outside.”

Because once I was already in the rain, it took no discipline to keep riding. Getting started was the hard part. Like getting into a cold pool. Once you’re in, it’s fine. It’s getting in that takes motivation.

In fact, when you think about it, we only need to be motivated for a few short moments. Between those moments, momentum or habit or unconscious focus takes over.

I write at least one post a week. Does that take discipline? Sure. But when I break it down, the hardest part — the part for which I need the discipline — is sitting down to write. I’ll find all sorts of things to distract me from starting. But if I can get myself to start a post, I don’t need much discipline to finish it.

Need willpower to work on something difficult? Ask yourself when you need that willpower the most. Received feedback that you should talk less in meetings? Figure out when are you most susceptible to blabbing on. Trying to maintain a commitment to yourself or someone else? Identify the times when you are most at risk of violating that commitment.

Then, whatever you do, don’t give up in the moments when you’re most vulnerable. Don’t give up the bike ride while standing under the awning watching it rain. Even when your friend tells you you’re crazy to go out.

In other words, never quit a diet while reading the dessert menu. It’s too tempting. That’s not the right time to second-guess your commitment. It’s precisely the time to use your willpower and discipline.

We waste a lot of time, energy, and focus second-guessing ourselves. Am I doing the right work? Is this project worthwhile? Is this employee going to work out? That moment-by-moment deliberation is a distraction at best and sabotage at worst. If you keep asking yourself whether a project is worth working on, you’ll reduce your effort on that project — who wants to spend time on something that might fail? — and doom its success.

On the other hand, it’s impossible to ignore those feelings of uncertainty. The solution? Schedule them. Create an established time to second-guess yourself, a time when you know your commitment won’t be weakened by the temptations of the moment. If you’re going to break the diet, do it when your need for willpower is at its lowest. Decide to decide the next day, maybe after a healthy breakfast or a little exercise, when you know your inclination to stick to your goals will be naturally high.

Then, if you decide to stay on the diet, commit fully and powerfully until the next scheduled time to deliberate. Knowing you have a planned pause allows you to focus and concentrate without hesitation until the established time to second guess yourself.

And if you do eventually decide to change your commitment, you’ll know it’s not from momentary weakness. It’ll be a strategic, rational, intentional decision.

What’s important is that your moment of choice is when you are in the right state of mind — when you need the least willpower — to make the best decision.

Which is why, sitting here at my computer, dry, comfortable, and having had a great ride today, I’ve decided to go out again tomorrow.