Understanding and unpacking your motivation – how to inspire yourself to get things done [Part 1]
Motivation is one of the most valuable currencies of our age. Until recently, I had never given it much thought – despite the frequency with which I (along with most people) feel its absence.
Over the past eighteen months or so I noticed a significant downturn in the amount of time I dedicated to songwriting – hours spent playing guitar or piano, or writing new lyrics, or dreaming up ideas for songs.
Since my early teenage years I have never struggled for a lack of motivation to write and release music. All through school, law degrees and assorted jobs, I could always rely on the side of my identity that yearned to write better songs and share them with a much wider audience to keep me instilled with that sense of purpose. E.g. if I had moments in my job where I felt uninspired, I would remind myself what purpose it served – creating money and a space to write/record/perform music and ultimately pursue that dream.
It’s been very alarming to discover that this deep motivation to write music is no longer impregnable. The part of me that could always find time to sit and noodle on the guitar or write lyrics has taken a knock. What used to be effortless now takes energy – sometimes a lot of energy, sometimes insurmountable amounts.
This realisation has driven me to explore more deeply why this motivation is lacking and how, in practical terms, I can find it again.
In this Part 1, I will first outline my own experience, before converting these findings into practical exercises you can try (Part 2).
The Creative Process
The creative process can be very elusive. You can’t accurately predict when an idea will land in your head or what form it will take. What you CAN do is:
Firstly, create the ideal conditions for such ideas to land as frequently as possible – by reading widely, constantly exploring new things, putting yourself into a creative space by writing regularly, etc, and;
Secondly, practise recognising these ideas and grasping them immediately, turning them into a tangible output.
My problem with a lack of motivation affects both of these actions. I find it harder both to do the groundwork that will lead to a better flow of ideas and to actually grasp any ideas and turn them into songs.
Exploring the WHY
I decided to explore this with Vedantha, my close friend and co-writer of nearly a decade. We discussed in detail my thought patterns around music and what made me either want or not want to write and do all the accompanying ‘admin’ around the music itself (writing to blogs, updating social media, devising music videos concepts, booking and promoting concerts, etc). We manufactured some findings through a series of questions, such as:
What is missing now that you had three years ago?
What goes through your head when you think about songwriting?
What exactly leads to those rare moments when you feel like sitting down to write for hours?
The answers to these questions pointed to some interesting conclusions, further developed when I started speaking to other friends about it. You can actually identify various different ‘sources’ of motivation, or different ways of categorising motivation.
Sources of motivation
For example, motivation can be positive (the motivation to bring about a desirable set of circumstances) OR negative (the motivation to avoid an undesirable set of circumstances).
Some people are motivated through accountability to others, whereas for others external accountability is neither necessary nor sufficient. The effectiveness of accountability for a task relies on the potency of the ‘negative’ circumstances you are trying to avoid – either there needs to be a tangible consequence (e.g. a fine or some other punishment) or you need to sufficiently fear judgment from other people for not doing the task.
This works for me when I tell Vedantha I’m going to do a specific task by a specific date, because I don’t want to ‘let him down’ or earn his disapproval. A duty owed to your parents to live your life a certain way would fall into this category, as would the drive to revise to avoid failing a specific school exam. While there is an overlap with a broader, longer term desire to avoid a certain outcome (failing at school means it’s harder to get a job; letting down your parents by not living a life of purpose might lead to disinheritance), you could argue that the motivation to do any specific task stems from a narrower desire to avoid judgment.
Arguably, however, the most powerful form of motivation exclusively derives its force internally. This comprises a motivation to do a particular task because it will fulfil a particular need. If you haven’t already read this post it’s worth a read, but to summarise: after watching and reading about Marshall Rosenberg’s ‘Non Violent Communication’ philosophy, I extrapolated my own fundamental needs from my everyday thoughts and communications as a tool to help me better understand myself. (It was like having the architectural blueprints for myself).
My needs – where I get my motivation
My songwriting and music career serves to fulfil two of these needs:
Firstly, the need for relevance, to have a positive impact on other people; and
Secondly, the need for progress, to feel like I’m growing as an individual
To frame it another way, I am motivated to write songs because I want to bring about a scenario in which I am positively impacting other people – i.e. people hear my music and feel some emotion that enhances their life. This might sound obvious (it is breathtakingly obvious actually) but it can have real practical applications.
The big revelation is that my motivation is lacking at the moment because I haven’t shared enough new music with people over the past eighteen months and so I haven’t been able to feed off that positive energy to write more. It’s a vicious circle, because without the new music and fresh exposure to motivate me to write more, I’ll lack those new songs in the future too, and so the cycle perpetuates.
What practical application does this have for me?
Most importantly, it points to the fact that, without having public releases planned in my diary, I am not fully invested in the creative process – the amount of effort it takes me to write is too high.
I have thus planned a solo project release for early 2020 as something to work towards. I am not overthinking the music itself – e.g. the exact form it has to take, or the standard it has to be to create a great first impression – but just trusting in my own creative process and reconnecting with my songwriting.
These findings have already had an amazing impact on my productivity – I’m working on new songs almost every day and have written several in the last two months.
So, the next big question is:
How can YOU apply these to your work/life? How can you unpack your sources of motivation and make them work harder for you?
(And in the meantime, please leave a comment below with your thoughts)…