Day #231: The Timeless Mystery of Motivation

There is a task sitting on your to-do list. You know that it is important. You know it needs to get done. But it is difficult, or at least, it does not seem like it will be enjoyable. You looked at the same empty checkbox yesterday, but spent the rest of the day focussing on other things. You know you cannot put it off indefinitely, but it seems far easier to ignore it — again — for now, so you opt to worry about it sometime later.

There is a task sitting on your to-do list. It is the same task discussed in the previous paragraph. But this time, instead of procrastinating on the inevitable, you mentally buckle down and execute the responsibility. You accomplish the assignment entirely, efficiently, and excellently.

Same task. Same you. Completely different outcomes.

Consider all the mental, physiological, and intangible variables. Why are you more self-controlled at some times and less so at other times? What, exactly, changed? After all, you could have utilized your full arsenal of gumption the first time, but you chose not to. Why? What flips the switch of your motivation and willpower on and off? If you control the switch, why didn’t you turn it on the first time? If you have a spirit of perseverance and initiative to do it now, where was your fortitude and spunk earlier? What changed between then and now?

“Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake,” said philosopher William James. “Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked. We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.”

Most of us seem to have an invisible threshold for external pressure. If presented with a fork in the road, we will tarry along the path of least resistance for as long as we can. But sooner or later, something forces us to buckle down and get stuff done — even if the “something” is the same deadline we have been procrastinating all along.

Either some unusual stimulus fills us with emotional excitement, or some unusual idea of necessity induces us to make an extra effort of will. Excitements, ideas, and efforts, in a word, are what carry us over the dam.

As soon as we actually accomplish the task, we have proven an interesting point: we could have simply fulfilled the objective at the outset. This demonstrates that we all “possess amounts of resource, which only very exceptional individuals push to their extremes of use.”  In other words, most of us exert ourselves only when under the gun of external pressure. A relatively small handful of us do not wait for external pressure to summon our will to focus, manage, and perform at our best.

If you can choose to “put it off until tomorrow”, then you can also choose to do it today.

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