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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 November 18, 2020

    15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It)

    15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It)

    It’s okay, you can finally admit it. It’s been two months since you’ve seen the inside of the gym. Getting sick, family crisis, overtime at work and school papers that needed to get finished all kept you for exercising. Now, the question is: how do you start again?
    Once you have an exercise habit, it becomes automatic. You just go to the gym, there is no force involved. But after a month, two months or possibly a year off, it can be hard to get started again. Here are some tips to climb back on that treadmill after you’ve fallen off.

    1. Don’t Break the Habit – The easiest way to keep things going is simply not to stop. Avoid long breaks in exercising or rebuilding the habit will take some effort. This may be advice a little too late for some people. But if you have an exercise habit going, don’t drop it at the first sign of trouble.
    2. Reward Showing Up – Woody Allen once said that, “Half of life is showing up.” I’d argue that 90% of making a habit is just making the effort to get there. You can worry about your weight, amount of laps you run or the amount you can bench press later.
    3. Commit for Thirty Days – Make a commitment to go every day (even just for 20 minutes) for one month. This will solidify the exercise habit. By making a commitment you also take pressure off yourself in the first weeks back of deciding whether to go.
    4. Make it Fun – If you don’t enjoy yourself at the gym, it is going to be hard to keep it a habit. There are thousands of ways you can move your body and exercise, so don’t give up if you’ve decided lifting weights or doing crunches isn’t for you. Many large fitness centers will offer a range of programs that can suit your tastes.
    5. Schedule During Quiet Hours – Don’t put exercise time in a place where it will easily be pushed aside by something more important. Right after work or first thing in the morning are often good places to put it. Lunch-hour workouts might be too easy to skip if work demands start mounting.
    6. Get a Buddy – Grab a friend to join you. Having a social aspect to exercising can boost your commitment to the exercise habit.
    7. X Your Calendar – One person I know has the habit of drawing a red “X” through any day on the calendar he goes to the gym. The benefit of this is it quickly shows how long it has been since you’ve gone to the gym. Keeping a steady amount of X’s on your calendar is an easy way to motivate yourself.
    8. Enjoyment Before Effort – After you finish any work out, ask yourself what parts you enjoyed and what parts you did not. As a rule, the enjoyable aspects of your workout will get done and the rest will be avoided. By focusing on how you can make workouts more enjoyable, you can make sure you want to keep going to the gym.
    9. Create a Ritual – Your workout routine should become so ingrained that it becomes a ritual. This means that the time of day, place or cue automatically starts you towards grabbing your bag and heading out. If your workout times are completely random, it will be harder to benefit from the momentum of a ritual.
    10. Stress Relief – What do you do when your stressed? Chances are it isn’t running. But exercise can be a great way to relieve stress, releasing endorphin which will improve your mood. The next time you feel stressed or tired, try doing an exercise you enjoy. When stress relief is linked to exercise, it is easy to regain the habit even after a leave of absence.
    11. Measure Fitness – Weight isn’t always the best number to track. Increase in muscle can offset decreases in fat so the scale doesn’t change even if your body is. But fitness improvements are a great way to stay motivated. Recording simple numbers such as the number of push-ups, sit-ups or speed you can run can help you see that the exercise is making you stronger and faster.
    12. Habits First, Equipment Later – Fancy equipment doesn’t create a habit for exercise. Despite this, some people still believe that buying a thousand dollar machine will make up for their inactivity. It won’t. Start building the exercise habit first, only afterwards should you worry about having a personal gym.
    13. Isolate Your Weakness – If falling off the exercise wagon is a common occurrence for you, find out why. Do you not enjoy exercising? Is it a lack of time? Is it feeling self-conscious at the gym? Is it a lack of fitness know-how? As soon as you can isolate your weakness, you can make steps to improve the situation.
    14. Start Small – Trying to run fifteen miles your first workout isn’t a good way to build a habit. Work below your capacity for the first few weeks to build the habit. Otherwise you might scare yourself off after a brutal workout.
    15. Go for Yourself, Not to Impress – Going to the gym with the only goal of looking great is like starting a business with only the goal to make money. The effort can’t justify the results. But if you go to the gym to push yourself, gain energy and have a good time, then you can keep going even when results are slow.

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