Motivation is a Mechanism in your Brain

(by Daniel R. Jones)

If I had a dime for every time I heard someone weasel their way out of the creative life by saying they don’t “feel inspired,” I could quit my day job. Others will go days, weeks, or even months without picking up their pencil to work on a new drawing.

If you are comfortable with this lack of production, that’s entirely acceptable. For most, there is no moral imperative to keep creating artwork. We often place unrealistic stress on ourselves to “produce,” and the goal of this blog post is certainly not to shame others for their lack of consistency.

But at times, most of us find that we do wish we were more motivated. We hem and haw and wait for the moment that inspiration will strike. This, however, is a fundamental misunderstanding of motivation.

Most people think that the chain of events that leads to the accomplishment of something goes like this:

Motivation>Task>Task>Task>Completion

Since the first domino never falls, they don’t begin their first task, and they make no headway in their creative life.

We tend to think of motivation as an abstract concept, like that of the Muse. In reality, we can easily dupe our brain into providing “motivation” through simple physiology.

The neurotransmitter most associated with motivation in the brain is dopamine. Simply put, when your brain needs to get things done, signaling of dopamine occurs, and you feel the compulsion to complete a task. This is why people all across the world guzzle coffee each morning, desperately trying to tap into this physiological reaction in the brain.

Endogenous dopamine, (that is, dopamine naturally occurring in the brain,) can actually be utilized in a much simpler way. Numerous studies have shown that ticking a task off your To-Do List, no matter how simple or trivial, activates this neurotransmitter.

In much the same way that strength-training tells your brain that it needs to grow more muscle, completing a task tells your brain that you’ll need more dopamine.

So, in actuality, the chain of events that leads to productivity goes like this:

Task>Motivation>Task>Motivation>Task>Completion

Have you ever wondered why on some days, you’ll get into a rhythm and clean your whole house in a whirlwind, while on other days, you can barely muster up the strength to do anything but watch TV on your couch?

This is why.

It’s the same rationale that leads countless self-help experts to advise people to start their day with the simple act of making their bed. These “gurus” know that by accomplishing one menial task, you’re cascading a series of events in your brain that will likely lead to the completion of many more.

So, what’s the secret? An incredibly simple one: any time you’re feeling unmotivated, complete one miniscule task, and give yourself permission for that to be the end of it. Tell yourself, “I’ll just sharpen my pencils to prepare them for the next time I’m ready to draw,” or “I’ll open up my Word Processor and just jot down three ideas for a short story.”

Before you know it, you’ll be halfway through drawing or writing your next masterpiece.

Anything Worth Doing is Worth Doing Poorly

(by Daniel R. Jones)

A shop-worn adage you’ve probably heard countless times states “Anything that’s worth doing is worth doing well.”

But recently, I came across a counterintuitive twist on the aphorism: 

“Anything that’s worth doing, is worth doing poorly.”

The application on this iteration is a little more difficult to parse out. Why would you want to do something poorly? 

Well, you wouldn’t. But that’s exactly the point.

Consider the following scenario: you accidentally snooze past your 6 a.m. alarm. You look at the clock and it’s 6:45 a.m. You’d planned on running a mile and getting some weight training in. But because you’ve overslept, you only have 45 minutes before you need to hop in the shower, not the hour and a half you’d allocated for working out.

“Forget it,” you think. “Even if I started now, I wouldn’t be able to get a full workout in. I’ll just sleep a little longer and pick it back up tomorrow.”

But if working out is worth doing, it’s worth doing it poorly. Which is to say, if you can’t go on a mile run and a one-hour weightlifting session, it’s still better to do some HIIT exercises for 15 minutes and lift weights for half an hour. Beats doing nothing, right? Better to do something poorly than not at all.

And yet, we constantly go to war with ourselves, allowing our self-defeating tendencies to win out:

-You had a donut in the break room, so the diet starts tomorrow.
-You broke down and bummed a cigarette after swearing you’d quit, so this whole day is a wash.
-You’ve only got 15-minutes to work on that foreign language you’re studying, so what’s the point?

What if, in every area, we took to heart the adage that “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly?”

I believe that artists, a group who have a proclivity toward perfectionism, are among those who would best be served by taking this advice. 

You’ve got an idea for a painting, but you’re worried your lack of technical mastery will overshadow your artistic vision. Oh well, paint it poorly.

You enjoy writing, but you don’t think you can write the Great American Novel just yet. Too bad. Start anyway.  

You love the idea of playing guitar, but you’re middle-aged so you’d be very behindNo excuses; take the lessons.

At the end of the day, the only way toward mastery of anything is to begin. Once you start, you’ll likely do things poorly for a while. But anything worth doing is worth doing poorly, so get to work.