You sit at your desk, open your laptop, and hope that perfection will flow from your fingertips. You sit there for ten, twenty, thirty minutes — it’s been half an hour and nothing. Your fingers aren’t moving today. Why aren’t they moving today? Why isn’t your brain telling them to write? Why isn’t your brain telling you anything? You can’t find the ideas; you can’t find the words.
I’ve experienced this scenario several times throughout my first month as a freelance writer.
I wanted to finally have autonomy over when I worked, how I worked, and what I worked on. I was tired of working to meet other people’s expectations. I wanted to do my own thing, in pyjamas from the waist down.
But in reality, things haven’t been as smooth sailing as I had hoped. I’ve often struggled to find the motivation to get started; to find the words and give my pieces a creative oomph.
Although, I did learn one thing: You won’t find the motivation by staring at your fingers, hoping to pull a Matilda and make them move with the power of your eyes. You need to do something else. Formulate a strategy that helps you find your motivation. Here a few ideas that worked for me.
1) Lower your expectations
This strategy may have immediately made you think ‘no, I’m not going to do that’. You’re an ambitious person, and you want to do the best that you can possibly do. You might even feel guilt by the thought of lowering your expectations; guilty that you’re not doing enough.
But there’s a fine line between contentment and complacency. Contentment is an emotional state of satisfaction with your own situation. It’s about self-acceptance. On the other hand, to be complacent is to be smug; to have a sense of calm satisfaction with your own abilities or situation that prevents you from trying harder.
Being content is what we should all aim for. It allows you to reward yourself for your achievements, without losing that desire to constantly self-improve. It’s complacency that saps ambition.
Lowering your expectations brings you closer to contentment because it helps to see results. It’s easy to feel discouraged when your goals seem so far away that they appear unattainable. Keep your end goal in mind, but set yourself attainable milestones that you can hit every day.
When I lowered my expectations of what I could achieve in one day, I found that not only did I exceed my expectations, I was also more productive than I was on the days that I had a page-long to-do list.
Instead of saying to myself ‘I’m going to publish two articles today’, I said ‘I’m going to write one page’. Any day that I write one page is a good day. This way, making a start didn’t seem so daunting. Perfection doesn’t exist. You can’t expect to write wonders every day. Try lowering your expectations. Be content without losing that hunger for more.
2) Share your goals with someone
One of my biggest issues, and one which dominates a large part of my self-improvement journey, is worrying about what other people think. It can paralyze me and stop me from putting out anything other than perfect. Given that nothing was perfect, I was publishing just that — nothing. I was paralyzed by the fear of judgement.
But if you’re anything like me, I have good news. You can use this to your advantage. You can make yourself fear being judged for not publishing something. This may sound a little masochistic. I do think that ultimately, you and I both need to get over this. We need to wake up and realize that no one really cares. But in the interim, let’s do what we can with what we’ve got.
I made a list of goals I wanted to achieve by the end of the month, and I shared these with a friend. My friend is also a writer; a much more successful one than I. So the prospect of not hitting my goals, ones which he could probably get done in a weekend, is somewhat petrifying; in a good way.
So choose someone (preferably someone who’s not afraid to tell you what they think), and share your goals. I found it’s a great way to hold myself accountable.
3) Make a plan the day before
This works for both your daily tasks and your writing. Not knowing where to start is the worst. Making a plan the day before of the tasks you need to do, and the order in which you’re going to do them can give you a sense of direction and minimize interruptions.
There have been times where I’m half-way through my first paragraph when I remember I urgently need to order something from Amazon, or water the plants, or hoover the house, or call a friend. Having a plan gives me peace of mind. I know I’ve left enough time to get to those things later. But right now, it’s 10:30 am, I’m supposed to be writing.
Likewise, it makes a big difference to open your laptop and see an outline structure of what you need to write today. Draft an outline structure of your articles or the night before. If there’s any research you need to do or sources to find, include those too. That way, all that’s left for you to do when you sit down at your desk in the morning, is to fill in the gaps.
“For every minute spent in organizing, an hour is earned.” — Benjamin Franklin
4) Manage your energy
We all have a natural biological body-cycle, and it affects our mental alertness. We’re each most productive at different times of the day. You’ve probably noticed that you find it harder to focus at certain times. For me, it’s the two-hour period after lunch (maybe it’s my Spanish genes nagging for a siesta). By becoming attuned to your body-clock, you can plan your day to maximize results and maintain your motivation.
I know that my most productive time of day, and when I’m feeling most motivated is between 9:00 am and 2:00 pm. So, I get the bulk of my work done in that period; those tasks that require a greater level of concentration. I leave the afternoons to edit, research, and plan my work for the next day.
I suggest that you do the most exciting tasks first, and to group your energy-draining tasks. Choose a daily or weekly slot in which to get your more administrative tasks out of the way. This way, you can avoid interruptions to your flow and keep your motivation levels up.
5) Give yourself something to look forward to
I find it especially hard to find motivation when I don’t have something to look forward to. Those mornings when I can see my day stretch out into a grey evening of nothingness.
It might seem counter-intuitive, but focusing too much on your goals can make them harder to attain. When all you see is work, it can be difficult to find motivation. Even if you truly love what you do. There will always be challenges to overcome; however great or slight. And you’ll always find more work that you could be doing. It becomes a relentless cycle that begins to sap your energy.
Giving yourself something to look forward to gives you a chance to disconnect. Your life shouldn’t just be about work. Give yourself an opportunity to refresh your mind and come back to your work feeling motivated, not drained.
I give myself something to look forward to every day. Something I don’t want to not do because I’m swamped with work that I haven’t finished. Whether it’s seeing friends, watching a particular series on TV, or reading a book, I set a time to stop and move on to something fun.
Find the time to –
“Stop — Unplug — Escape — Enjoy.’ — Fennel Hudson, A Meaningful Life — Fennel’s Journal — №1
6) Cancel out everything else
You do your best work when you experience a state of flow. When you feel like you’re in a bubble that separates you from the rest of the world. You’re surfing your thoughts and your fingers are following. This is what you want. And research shows that in order to enter a state of flow, you need to eliminate all external distractions.
I found it particularly difficult to ignore the emails in my inbox. In the corporate world, people expected me to respond within a matter of minutes. And this was an expectation that wasn’t easy to shake. But I knew I had to.
When I sit down to write in the mornings, I disconnect the Wi-Fi on my laptop, and I leave my phone in a different room. If I miss a call, they can leave a voicemail. That being said, I do check to see if I received any urgent calls every few hours. As I said above, some things are more important than work.
You can try out different things. See what works for you. Work out what you find most distracting, and find a way to eliminate it when you’re working. Likewise, incorporate the things that soothe you. What makes you feel centred and relaxed?
7) Create a stimulating environment
This is one you can have some fun with. Different things work for different people. I’ve heard that playing classical music through noise-cancelling headphones is a great way to focus. These are now high on my Christmas-list.
Also, research shows that being among plants, flower, and tress, in particular, can shift our mood from anxious to calm, and depressed to happy. And since the happier we are, the more productive we are, bringing in a little foliage to your workspace can be a great way to go.
I like to have a few motivational quotes to hand. A few of them are framed and on the wall. Here’s one of my favourites by bareMinerals founder, Leslie Blodgett:
“If you wait for the fear to go away, the opportunity will go away too.” — Leslie Blodgett, Pretty Good Advice.
Make it an experiment. Play around with different options; see what works for you. Maybe it’s pictures, maybe it’s quotes, maybe it’s art. Find the thing that makes your environment feel like ‘you’. Somewhere you want to be every day.
Not every day will be a good day. Not every day will be productive. There’s only so much you can control. Stop beating yourself up when you can’t find the motivation.
Set yourself a strategy that works for you. Give yourself permission to change it as time goes on. Make it work for you and have a little fun with it. Listen to what your body is telling you, and do whatever works best for you.