This is guest post by Alex Romero.

You’re a nervous volunteer at a nursing home.

You’re nervous because of the sounds you’re hearing coming from a room down the hall—metal screeching, drawers falling, and floorboards scratching. Hopefully the residents are okay.

You get to the room and find three elderly folks, all above the age of 80, prying a dresser off the wall with a crowbar.

Besides the obviously funny mental image, there are two surprising things to note about this situation.

  1. Such acts of defiance are common in nursing homes across the country, and
  2. They’re incredibly healthy for the residents.

I read about this in Charles Duhigg’s book, Faster, Smarter, Better. Duhigg’s message: Motivation is directly connected to our personal sense of control. Residents who frequently perform these small (or large) acts of rebellion exercise more, take their medication more frequently, and live longer than their counterparts.

Duhigg also writes in the book about the methodology behind military commanders’ attempts to teach their recruits how to self-motivate. They (the sergeants) understand recruits need to be able to think and act for themselves. While respect for authority is important, a soldier who’s only ever learned how to follow orders will freeze up in the battlefield when forced to make their own decision.

This is why recruits will be put into dangerous training situations with almost no guidance. And when running through the hell of boot camp, marines in training are constantly reminded to ask their teammates “why” they’re all doing this, to remind themselves of their larger mission.

We can take lessons from the marines, and from the nursing home residents, and apply them to our own lives.

I know when I’m trying to write or do work for university, it can be hard to look past the tediousness or seeming uselessness of the task at hand. This leads to overwhelm and carelessness. But, in reality, whatever we’re facing right now, no matter how tough it may seem, is just another step in the process of something larger, whether that’s approaching mastery or helping as many people as we can.

Keeping this in mind, I can turn whatever chore I’m facing into triumphant action, or at the very least, make it feel a bit more manageable.

Lack of perspective isn’t the only thing that can make us feel unmotivated. Some others include:

  • Lack of Sleep
  • Hunger
  • Multitasking, or having many things to do at once
  • Boredom

But at the heart of the issue are two main culprits—a missing a sense of control, or a missing sense of meaning.

Like an elderly person who gives up their cake because they want more control over their food and their life. As Charles Duhigg quotes an elderly resident, “It doesn’t really matter if you eat cake or not. But if you refuse to eat their cake, you’re demonstrating to yourself that you’re still in charge.” If we feel what we’re about to do is both meaningless and out of our control, apathy sets in.

When looking at what causes motivation it becomes clear why the way we relate to it is often wrong. We say, “I don’t feel like it” when in reality, if we just got one small part done, we would increase our sense of control and begin to “feel like it.”

We become discouraged and underwhelmed midway through a project because we’ve stopped connecting our aim with our action. Or conversely, we are so concerned with the stakes and getting everything done perfectly right now, we can’t focus in on one thing and become overwhelmed.

To become more motivated you need to simultaneously amplify the situation (connect it to something larger) and boil it down to completing the next smallest task that reaffirms your sense of control over the project, and on a larger level, your life. Yet, know that motivation is not a prerequisite to action or quality of work—use it in your favor when you can, but don’t let its absence hold you back.

While random spurts of motivation might lead you to action, it’s an inconsistent, unreliable way to get meaningful work done. On the other hand, motivation does come after we take action, almost every single time. To say you need to be motivated to take action (even though it’s action that would get you motivated) is like saying you need to already be happy in order to do things that make you happy.

When you need to get something done, don’t shame yourself, wait for inspiration, or just grind through it. Connect what you’re doing to a great goal and then make a decision, any decision, that gives you control over how you’re moving forward, step by step.

Alex Romero writes and teaches about making and keeping Amazing Habits, from Meditation to Exercise.

Best regards,