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January 16th, 2020
This episode is dedicated to Shivam who asked a good question on Twitter. You can follow him on Twitter at @shivamnow. This episode is also part of a casual on going series by Tinkered Thinking. For Part’s I & II, check out Episodes 591 & 597
Motivation is a catch-22. It’s a sort of chicken and egg problem that people constantly seek to crack for a reliable answer in order to develop a robust strategy for getting things done.
We might summarize the issue by observing that while procrastinating and doing nothing, we have no motivation, and perhaps every once in a while a fleeting spike of motivation might pop by for a quick visit. But when we are actually doing something and making good headway, we feel plenty of motivation.
The question always goes something like: how do I get motivated when I don’t feel like getting started?
The answer to that question is already implicit in the observation about motivation, but it becomes even more salient if we attack it from an etymological point of view.
First, what exactly does it mean to be motivated? What exactly is motivation?
The dictionary gives us a fairly bland explanation, defining motivation as:
the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way
Bland as though it might seem, the answer to our original question is also clearly stated in the definition of motivation.
But let’s go a little deeper.
The definition lists reasons or a reason, but do we associated the word of motivation with reason? In the rational sense? Or is it more of a feeling? More of an emotion?
We always have plenty of reasons to do the things that we know need to be done, but despite those reasons we dally. While procrastinating, what we wait around for, what we chase in befuddled ways is a feeling, an emotion that fills us with a sense of drive. We imagine once we feel that, then we’ll actually get going.
If we regard motivation as a particular emotion, is there something about this connection that can further illuminate the riddle of motivation?
Look more closely at the words:
There’s a striking similarity between the two. They both have the exact same root of moti. Delving into the etymology of the word emotion reveals that emotion comes from the Latin emovere meaning “move out, remove, or agitate,” which comes from an assimilated form of the prefix ex meaning “out” plus movere which intuitively means “to move.” That root of the word emotion comes originally from the Proto-Indo European root meue, meaning – to push away.
And what about the word Motivation?
The word arrives in English by a slightly different route through old French, but before that it comes from the Medival Latin word motivus meaning ‘moving’, or ‘impelling’, from the Latin motus which just so happens to be the past participle of movere. The very same movere that we uncovered in the etymology of the word emotion.
At their root – at their core- both the words motivation and emotion refer to moving, or, more appropriately, motion.
The reason why we fail to feel motivation while we aren’t doing anything is precisely because we aren’t doing anything. We aren’t. . . moving.
But once we get moving, we slowly begin to feel more and more motivated because the emotions that arise from doing something are in part registering the fact that we’re actually doing something.
The key to motivation is to simply get started. Start anywhere, start small, start on a fun part, start on a mindless detail, but just get started.
The emotion of motivation arises from the motion of action.
It’s simply not the other way around, though that’s how we’ve come to think of it. And it might have something to do with a poet named Percy Shelley who once wrote this line:
“and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet.”
The entire concept of writer’s block as a cultural meme can be traced back to Percy, and perhaps right back to this very line of his.
Before this literary period, the concept of writer’s block didn’t even exist. This is an interesting thing to ponder and it begins to weave into other episodes of Tinkered Thinking, namely in this case episode 139 entitled Regretting Categorical Mistakes. Which essentially makes the point that it’s possible to make a category or a concept that has consequences on our behavior that are counter-productive.
Think about it for a moment, what if you had grown up in a world where the words and the concepts: procrastination, writer’s block, just simply didn’t exist? There’s a chance you’d be less likely to sit around and do nothing if you actually don’t have the ability to call it procrastination.
But Percy’s line is even more insidious. He’s comparing the original conceptions of the poet to what the poet actually writes. What’s really going on is that he’s obsessing about perfection. And this is a subject that ties together many of Tinkered Thinking’s 600+ episodes. Spending time trying to imagine the perfect plan, or the perfect execution is a waste of time because it’s simply impossible. Not only do we fail to take into account unforeseen variables that we uncover as we go, but our idea of what we are trying to bring to life changes as we progress.
Case in point. When the writing of this episode began, there was no plan to talk about writer’s block and Percy’s obsession with perfection, but upon writing it emerged as an explanation for the inactivity that we experience when there’s so much we’d rather see ourselves working on.
If we ask: what came first motivation or procrastination. The chicken and egg joke here actually has an instructive punch line.
The fact is motivation came first. We invented the idea of procrastination to stop our work. It then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy to keep from starting up again.
Think of it this way:
Do children ever procrastinate when it comes to starting their fun?
No, they are motivated because they are simply constantly in motion. It’s only when we are older and our curiosity has been severely hindered that we somehow find the concept of procrastination perversely useful.
But how do we kickstart our curiosity? It’s requires the exact same prescription that has often appeared on Tinkered Thinking for motivation, it requires a question.
If you don’t feel motivated, you simply haven’t asked yourself the right question.
The question is the Swiss army knife of curiosity and the key to the riddle of motivation. To go from zero to one, to go from doing nothing to doing just the smallest little thing, requires simply a good question.
Usually we have an annoying internal monologue that is berating us with a list of things we ought to be doing. But this doesn’t help.
Best to pick one of those things, and stoke some curiosity, by thinking about a detail that we haven’t yet addressed or figured out and asking a question about it.
We might get lucky and see it in a fresh light, seeing a new answer that we immediately feel the need to experiment with, to test, to implement, to see in real life.
The question can be as simple and innocent as “what if I just spent the next 2 or 3 minutes working on it?”
At the end of the day, we just need to start.
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