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To Be Motivated and Successful, First Forget How You Feel

To Be Motivated and Successful, First Forget How You Feel

You can’t make yourself feel happy or sad, nor can you send away whatever feelings do have, however hard you try. So waiting to do something until you feel “in the mood,” or basing your choice of actions on how you feel at the time, is to hand over control of your life to the varying state of your stomach, the effect of the weather, or the dizzying gyrations of your love life. Forget about your emotions. They’re no sensible basis for living well or pursuing a successful career.

Emotions are like the weather
In much writing on life, careers and personal growth, there’s an unspoken assumption that how you feel is what matters most. There are books and coaching approaches devoted to persuading people to focus on what’s going on inside their heads. Our society and media are obsessed with sentiments and emotions, giving them far too much importance. Maybe it’s because they seem more “democratic” and egalitarian. After all, anyone can feel, rich or poor: no amount of wealth increases your ability to register emotion. And emotions are pretty much evenly spread amongst people, unlike intelligence, which typically favors a small number—especially if they also have the motivation (and resources) to get a good education.

It’s not unusual for people to admit that they aren’t as bright as others (though they probably hope, secretly, that you will contradict them). But no one admits to being insensitive, unfeeling, or unemotional these days. We used to admire those who kept their cool in the face of tragedy or triumph. Now celebrities, politicians, and business moguls line up to bare their emotions for the camera and sob on some chat-show host’s shoulder. Are they really so sensitive? Or is it all publicity—manufactured evidence of a “human touch” to offset the general perception of them as grasping, egotistic, and devious?

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Here’s my viewpoint: Too much emphasis on emotion leaves you more or less helpless to influence your life.

You have little or no control over your emotions. You feel how you feel, whether it’s appropriate or not at the time. No one can stop emotions arising in the mind; nor can they produce them on demand. Like thoughts, emotions just happen. (Try it. Will yourself to feel happy or sad. It won’t work. You can pretend all you wish, but no genuine emotion will come as a result.) There’s no point congratulating yourself on some positive feeling; nor is there any benefit to be gained by suffering guilt for feelings that seem inappropriate or negative. In either case, you might as well pat yourself on the back when the sun shines and beat yourself up when it rains.

The only important facet of our emotions is whether we choose to act on them.
I may love the work I do or hate it, feel excited at the start of every day or sick at the sight of the office desk, but as long as these feelings stay in my head, they’re are irrelevant to anyone else. Whether I feel pessimistic or optimistic, the world has no interest—until I act on my emotions. It’s the action that matters. And if I try to excuse my actions or justify them because of my emotional state—as so many attorneys do when defending their clients—that is also irrelevant. So I felt angry when I split my neighbor’s head with an ax. So what? The only thing that matters is that I committed murder. Probably thousands, even millions, of people feel like splitting someone’s head with an ax every day. So long as they restrain themselves, that’s just fine.

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A great deal of ink is spilled on the topic of motivation—most of it to little purpose. That’s because no distinction is made between the two meanings of the word: having a reason for acting in a particular way, and feeling some desire to do it. Incentive schemes, for example, provide employees with a reason for working hard. But they are powerless to cause people the desire to get the cash. That part of motivation—the feeling part—is entirely subjective: someone who is short of funds will be far more interested that someone who feels quite flush, though the factual incentive is the same. As people become more prosperous, it takes greater and greater monetary incentives to have any effect at all. It’s too easy to look at the cash on offer and decide that having more time with the family, an easier life, or just an extra hour in bed is worth rather more.

In motivation, as in everything else, what matters is what you do. Since we are none of us compelled to act on our feelings, how we feel—positive or negative, ambitious or easy-going, avaricious or content—isn’t too important in itself. It doesn’t justify a bad action or lessen a good one, since we aren’t responsible for how we feel. Yet we are, all of us, totally responsible for our actions in this life, whether we like it or not. We can’t blame our parents for what we do, only for what they did in either setting us off on a good track or handing us a lousy background and crummy values. Even then, we don’t have to emulate them. It’s always down to us.

Spend time on what works
Don’t waste time and effort on navel-gazing and trying to control what is uncontrollable. It’s mostly a worthless substitute for sensible action. So long as people feel they’re doing something useful while they catalogue their emotions, they’ll remain stuck in introspection and blocked from the only useful thing to do: to take action to try to solve their problems in the real world. Don’t worry about how you feel. Work out what you need to do next and do it.

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There are plenty of excellent reasons for getting on with life as best we can. By amassing sufficient reasons for proceeding in a particular way, you can give yourself both a path to follow and the motivation (in the sense of “a reason for acting in a particular way”) to follow it. And since reasons are based on thought, analysis, judgment, and reflection, time spent on all of those activities is time well spent. Your emotions have almost no part in this. It’s very nice if you also feel attracted to the way forward that you have chosen, but it should never be necessary for taking action. No one who has ever succeeded in this world did what they did only when they felt like it.

Right living is seeing what needs to be done and then doing it, regardless of how you feel about it at the time. Forget how you feel. Concentrate purely on what needs to be done. Unless you do, nothing else will change—not even how you feel about your life and career.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. His new book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization

    , is now available at all good bookstores. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life.

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    Last Updated on August 16, 2018

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    The power of habit

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to make a reminder works for you

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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