In 2008, after holding down a day job for all of six weeks, I gave up on the whole job thing to pursue an online business. At the time, I had absolutely no clue what I was doing, but I figured if I was going to be broke and miserable, I might as well be while working on my own terms. And at that time, all I seemed to really care about was chasing girls. So fuck it, I decided to start a blog about my crazy dating life.
That first morning that I woke up self-employed, terror quickly consumed me. I found myself sitting with my laptop and realized, for the first time, that I was entirely responsible for all of my own decisions, as well as the consequences of those decisions. I was responsible for teaching myself web design, Internet marketing, search engine optimization, and other esoteric topics. It was all on my shoulders now. And so I did what any twenty-four-year-old who’d just quit his job and had no idea what he was doing would do: I downloaded some computer games and avoided work like it was the Ebola virus.
As the weeks went on and my bank account turned from black to red, it was clear that I needed to come up with some sort of strategy to get myself to put in the twelve- or fourteen-hour days that were necessary to get a new business off the ground. And that plan came from an unexpected place.
When I was in high school, my math teacher Mr. Packwood used to say, “If you’re stuck on a problem, don’t sit there and think about it; just start working on it. Even if you don’t know what you’re doing, the simple act of working on it will eventually cause the right ideas to show up in your head.”
During that early self-employment period, when I struggled every day, completely clueless about what to do and terrified of the results (or lack thereof), Mr. Packwood’s advice started beckoning me from the recesses of my mind. I heard it like a mantra:
Don’t just sit there. Do something. The answers will follow.
In the course of applying Mr. Packwood’s advice, I learned a powerful lesson about motivation. It took about eight years for this lesson to sink in, but what I discovered, over those long, grueling months of bombed product launches, laughable advice columns, uncomfortable nights on friends’ couches, overdrawn bank accounts, and hundreds of thousands of words written (most of them unread), was perhaps the most important thing I’ve ever learned in my life:
Action isn’t just the effect of motivation; it’s also the cause of it.
Most of us commit to action only if we feel a certain level of motivation. And we feel motivation only when we feel enough emotional inspiration. We assume that these steps occur in a sort of chain reaction, like this:
Emotional inspiration → Motivation → Desirable action
If you want to accomplish something but don’t feel motivated or inspired, then you assume you’re just screwed. There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s not until a major emotional life event occurs that you can generate enough motivation to actually get off the couch and do something.
The thing about motivation is that it’s not only a three-part chain, but an endless loop:
Inspiration → Motivation → Action → Inspiration → Motivation → Action → Etc.
Your actions create further emotional reactions and inspirations and move on to motivate your future actions. Taking advantage of this knowledge, we can actually reorient our mindset in the following way:
Action → Inspiration → Motivation
If you lack the motivation to make an important change in your life, do something—anything, really—and then harness the reaction to that action as a way to begin motivating yourself.
I call this the “do something” principle. After using it myself to build my business, I began teaching it to readers who came to me perplexed by their own VCR questions: “How do I apply for a job?” or “How do I tell this guy I want to be his girlfriend?” and the like.
During the first couple years I worked for myself, entire weeks would go by without my accomplishing much, for no other reason than that I was anxious and stressed about what I had to do, and it was too easy to put everything off. I quickly learned, though, that forcing myself to do something,even the most menial of tasks, quickly made the larger tasks seem much easier. If I had to redesign an entire website, I’d force myself to sit down and would say, “Okay, I’ll just design the header right now.” But after the header was done, I’d find myself moving on to other parts of the site. And before I knew it, I’d be energized and engaged in the project.
The author Tim Ferriss relates a story he once heard about a novelist who had written over seventy novels. Someone asked the novelist how he was able to write so consistently and remain inspired and motivated. He replied, “Two hundred crappy words per day, that’s it.” The idea was that if he forced himself to write two hundred crappy words, more often than not the act of writing would inspire him; and before he knew it, he’d have thousands of words down on the page.
If we follow the “do something” principle, failure feels unimportant. When the standard of success becomes merely acting—when any result is regarded as progress and important, when inspiration is seen as a reward rather than a prerequisite—we propel ourselves ahead. We feel free to fail, and that failure moves us forward.
The “do something” principle not only helps us overcome procrastination, but it’s also the process by which we adopt new values. If you’re in the midst of an existential shitstorm and everything feels meaningless—if all the ways you used to measure yourself have come up short and you have no idea what’s next, if you know that you’ve been hurting yourself chasing false dreams, or if you know that there’s some better metric you should be measuring yourself with but you don’t know how—the answer is the same:
That “something” can be the smallest viable action toward something else. It can be anything.
Recognize that you’ve been an entitled prick in all of your relationships and want to start developing more compassion for others? Do something. Start simple. Make it a goal to listen to someone’s problem and give some of your time to helping that person. Just do it once. Or promise yourself that you will assume that you are the root of your problems next time you get upset. Just try on the idea and see how it feels.
That’s often all that’s necessary to get the snowball rolling, the action needed to inspire the motivation to keep going. You can become your own source of inspiration. You can become your own source of motivation. Action is always within reach. And with simply doing something as your only metric for success—well, then even failure pushes you forward.