Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Sustained Motivation

Do you ever feel really super inspired to go out and do all the things that you need/want to do that will help you to better be the person that you need/want to be, but then when the time actually comes to do those things the inspiration has run dry and you don't do them? ...ok, I'll admit that that was a really vague and nebulous question. Please disregard it. Rather than posing a question, let me illustrate what I mean by showing a few examples from my life, and then get to the real question later.

I have a hard time keeping myself motivated. Please consider the following two scenarios:

Scenario 1
Sometimes I'll be sitting in class and we'll be having a fantastic discussion about rhetoric or composition instruction or really anything to do with what I'm studying, and I'll feel this rush of adrenaline deep within me, and my heart will start beating faster as I think about all the individual research that I want to do to further my own understanding of the topics we're talking about. And then thinking about all that research makes me really happy because I take my excitement about the subject material as confirmation that what I'm studying and the direction I'm taking my life really is what I want and need. But then when the time rolls around when I should go into the library and do research, or work on one of the dozen pet projects that I have laying around, or even just do the base-line, required homework for the classes I'm taking, all that motivation that I felt during class evaporates and the only thing I want to do is sit around and watch episodes of mind-numbing and unenlightening TV shows like The West Wing or Once Upon a Time.

Scenario 2
Sometimes I'll be sitting in Sacrament Meeting and I'll be feeling great and super pumped about the things I'm going to do differently so that I can live closer to the Holy Ghost and better live up to the covenants I've made. Usually this motivation inspires me to set goals like going to bed earlier and getting up earlier so that I can exercise and read my scripture before I set out for the rest of the day, or making a conscious effort to go out of my way to serve other people and be kind to them, or to go to the temple with greater frequency. But then my alarm goes off at 6:30am and I decide that I'm too tired and I'll read my scriptures and exercise later. Or I'll think to myself, "I should really go to the temple today," and I'll think of dozens of other "more important" things that I should do instead of going to the temple. That motivation that I felt as I sat in church and listened to someone bear their testimony is all but gone in that moment when said motivation would spark me into action.

This kind of thing happens to me all the time. I look back at my life and I can think of dozens of experiences that I've had when this motivation that I'm talking about has hit me hard and I feel like I'm turning my life around. It's hit me while having countless conversations in the carrels with Tara and Jarron and Carolyn and Drew and Angela and Paige and Shannon and Becca and all my other grad school friends as we talk about anything and everything from rhetoric to dating to social/political issues to classroom issues to inane small talk. Somewhere in there I almost always feel that spark ignite in me that drives me to want to be better and work harder in many different areas of my life. It happens when I'm sitting quietly in the temple reflecting about my life and where I am in comparison to where I want to be. It happened numerous times while sitting Meridith's office talking about the class we were teaching and invariably started talking about how we're going to save the world from itself via composition education in the university classroom. It happens when I'm in the shower thinking about the day ahead of me. It happens while I'm talking to my parents about many varied things. It happens while I'm driving to and from Bluffdale with Maurianne. It almost always happens every time I get together with my family and I look at the awesome people that they are. But nearly all of these motivating times happen to me when I'm not in a place to take advantage of the surge of emotion and drive. By the time I'm in a situation where I have the time and means of actually doing the work that should be associated with this passion and motivation, all desire and yearning to do great things and be great myself has dried up and I'm nothing but a dried husk of laziness and discomfort. I'm not sure I'm totally describing my frustration here, but I think this is about as good as I can get for now.

Anyway, living this way is utterly infuriating.

All of this reminds me of the first day of my Shakespeare class a couple years back. Richard Duerden, my professor, said these words that have stuck with me and that are constantly ringing in my head:

Talent is desire to practice;
Genius is willingness to work.

I love that idea so much. I agree with it whole-heartedly. I yearn for it. So why the devil can I not actually sustain those moments of motivation so that they become the drive to me actually laboring diligently in my work, broadly defined?

So I now pose this question to any and all who happen to read this, admittedly overlong, rant about my frustrations with life:

How do you maintain and sustain motivation in your life?
What do you do to keep working and pushing yourself even when you really, really don't want to?
What are your secrets in this department?

Ok, that was three questions; please forgive me.

This is something that I've struggled with for awhile, so I'm open to any and all suggestions that anyone might have. If you don't feel comfortable leaving a public comment here on my blog, feel free to email me with any thoughts that you have on this subject at sam.dunn(at)


  1. Two thoughts came quickly to mind (which is funny, since I am exactly, and I mean EXACTLY, like you in this respect.

    1. Accountability. When you are required to be held accountable for something, it gets done. So make yourself accountable. To a friend, to a parent, to God, to yourself, to a chart, or something.

    2. Focus on others. I find that the things I truly push to the max for are things that are for others in some way (wanting a professor to not just THINK that I'm smart or capable, but to KNOW it, for example). Or, for a less self-involved example, when somebody I really love needs help or support or something, I tend to do everything I can for them. (Which explains why I sit through so many little league games, when I really don't like baseball all that much.) If your actions have some outside purpose, and if they better the lives of others in some way, I think you'll be more likely to follow through.

    Anyway. I'm giving advice I should be taking, so take it with a grain of salt. :)

  2. Also, please pretend I finished the parenthetical remark in my first sentence. Thanks. ;)

  3. I really enjoyed this post Sam, because I can completely relate, and it feels really good to know that even impressive people like you can understand those feelings.

    I get them without fail every single Sunday. (I believe it's the Spirit working on you. I had a Religion teacher say that that was one of the ways to recognize the spirit, if you felt inspired and motivated.) As I think about the upcoming week I feel so inspired, so ready to do everything God wants me to do, to be (in my case) a good wife/mother/homemaker. But then, it's Sunday. Colt is at home and able to help me with the girls, and I don't want to break the Sabbath by digging in and cleaning and organizing like I need to. I have to wait, and by the next morning, I'm lucky if I feel even a shadow of the same motivation.

    My answer tends to be to write it down. I'm a planner and list-maker. If I can confirm all of my feelings in the moments that I have them, and then organize them into a clear and concise plan, I am more likely to follow through. Obviously, I also pray to keep that strong spirit with me. I know that as I push myself past that initial inclination to ignore my previous confirmation, I can receive even great blessings and motivations from the Spirit. I've definitely experienced that in my life. I have learned to stop thinking about it, and just do it. Once you're past the first barricade it's incredible the spiritual high you receive from your follow through.

    Okay, that was longer than I had planned. But I hope it helps. If nothing else, you can know you're not alone and I appreciate your sharing! :)

  4. This is something that I've finally been able to better at just since last year and the beginning of this year. Except I was spending my life paralyzed by fear of failure. So I didn't even really try. I felt those same feelings of wanting to be better but then not acting on them when the time came.
    I finally just really really really truly and sincerely desired to change. And the Lord showed me what I needed to do and this time instead of not acting I tried. And I've been trying and trying ever since. Sometimes I get lazy and then I'm usually humbled by something happening and I try again. I think the main thing is to keep trying even if you fail or you fall back into old habits.

  5. A good post, and I'd love to comment on it.

    Since desires determine our actions, I find it strange how, in the above post, there seems to be a conflict of desires (psychological conflict sounds pretty cool, but I couldn't find a cool way to fit it into that sentence). Hit "Ctrl + F" and then type in "want" in the box, and pay attention to what follows the word.

    And to be honest, everybody feels like this once in a while. It's part of human nature to feel lazy, self-interested, and unmotivated. And this is why I think that one of the real tests of mortality is about getting outside of ourselves. Real motivation comes by doing things for other people. Notice that when you're thinking about other people you're most motivated: you say that you're most motivated when you're talking and thinking about "save[ing] the world from itself via composition education," etc. But if all we want to do is learn just to have knowledge for ourselves then our education is a waste of time. Just knowing a bunch of stuff is useless if that "stuff" isn't put to use. And being "put to use" signifies and implies doing things for other people--serving (or in your own words "saving") the world.

    So here's the question: what do we really want? Obviously you really don't want to just sit back and watch "episodes of mind-numbing and unenlightening TV shows" or else you wouldn't have written an entire post about how you really _don't_ want to watch so much stuff.

    So what do we really want? That's a question for everyone to figure out for themselves, but I believe, when we think about it, that we'll ultimately come to the same answer, though our paths to that answer may be a bit different. (For example, we all want to be happy, and happiness comes by doing things for other people, but one of my friends will get more joy out of making computer programs for other people, while I may get more joy out of teaching methods of effective communication to other people. To each his or her own [at least, sort of.])

    Anyway, there's a lot to say about this subject, but I think I need to stop. Thanks for the post.

  6. I totally understand. I have this problem, and I often think of what I heard a writer say once. He was talking about writing, but it totally applies to life: 10% of writing is pure, enlightening inspiration. The other 90% is mind-numbing, teeth-clenching, hair-pulling torture. But you have to hold to that inspiration to remember why the 90% of drudgery is worth it. I don't think life is necessarily 90% drudgery, but there are times that it feels like it. This is what helps me (but it doesn't mean these things apply to you):
    1. Obstinacy. Sometimes feeling like someone doesn't think I can do something is enough to make me feel like I have to prove it to them. Most of the time the reality is no one thinks that, but the feigned obstinacy is a great motivator for me.
    2. Location. If I have a plan to go to the temple or work out, or something else, I can't go home first. I have to go straight there from work (you could go straight from school). If I do that, I don't have the chance to sit down and realize how exhausted I am from the day.
    3. Hunker down with earphones. Most of the time, it doesn't matter what the music is, but it gives me something to distract the bored part of my mind so I can focus.
    4. Write down distractions. I recently read something that when you're working on something, it helps to write down every time you get distracted, like checking email or Facebook, going to Hulu or Netflix, etc. If you write it down, you're more aware of how often you are distracted and are making yourself think about it before you do it. It seems to work so far.
    5. Like writing, sometimes it take sheer grit. I have to convince myself that NOTHING will stop me from finishing one more section of a paper (or something I'm editing), and I set little goals, like if I finish 10 more pages, I can go explore Pinterest or something. You just have to make sure you get back on task.
    6. Be realistic. We all have bursts of inspiration, but none of us is perfect, and we can't all work on pure inspiration and adrenaline all of the time. Don't be too hard on yourself if you're not as productive one day.
    7. Pray. It sounds cliche, but one of the great blessings of the Word of Wisdom is wisdom and treasures of knowledge—even hidden treasures. If you're obeying that law, you can ask the Lord for help in maintaining concentration and being productive, especially in gaining knowledge. It's helped me many times.

    Sorry, that's long, but those are things that tend to help me.

  7. We will talk or I will write a response later . . . after I finish Brian's paper.

    Until then: Sam, even if you're sometimes lazy (aka not working 100%), you still do a lot. You're a teacher and a student, a friend, a Mormon, a brother, a BLOGGER, etc. :) And all of those things take up time, thought, emotion, and energy.

    I keep a planner and when I mark down both what I plan to do and everything I end up doing--even if I don't finish everything I wanted to do, I can still see how much I did do and try to focus on that and then re-energize and re-focus for tomorrow. The power of the check mark is incredible. For me, at least. Being able to mark off all the things I did (including scripture, prayer, entering grades, etc.), even the smallest things, is motivating for me. Each day has its check marks, which vary in their importance and need, and I think it's critical to focus on the tasks of each day, rather than wallow in the tasks of forever (like I often do). Those check marks may sometimes include making time for West Wing, which, I argue often, is critical to my emotional "recoup." :)