please sir, may I have some dopamine?
I think about motivation a lot. What is it? Where does it come from? What does it smell like? Is it a crutch? You can find a diverse set of answers to questions like these (even the smell one!). I'm basically going to ignore all of those and talk about my subjective experience instead.
For much of my life motivation was an afterthought. As a teenager I felt my energy was boundless, every time I was presented with a chance to learn or create, I couldn't resist. I wasn't really sure how one could not be motivated.
As my skills grew so did my ambitions and in turn so did the scope of my projects. From a few weeks to finish a game, to months, to a year, to years... Long-term projects taught me more about myself than anything else. I saw the seasons change inside of myself, burned myself out and recovered uncountable times.
I truly believed that gritting my teeth and pushing forward would overcome these cycles in motivation, but all I found was exhaustion.
This may sound nothing like your experience, or it might sound scarily relatable. All I can say with certainty is that everyone has to work out how to best play the hand they've been dealt.
surfing the waves of motivation
Surely enough, just as the sun rises and sets, my motivation will ebb and flow.
It's practically impossible for me to do something I am not excited about, which is unfortunate because the universe seems to roll a dice deciding how I'll feel each day.
Broadly speaking, I have three kinds of day. I’ve included rough frequency ratings below but this balance changes over longer periods of time, I’m still working it out.
type i: artist (75% chance)
I wake up with my mind already buzzing with questions and ideas, during my morning meditation I'm amused by the thoughts enthusiastically bouncing around my skull, listing off all the exciting activities I could try.
During these days I am hugely productive, though not always on the project I expect. I am very distractible and have to take notes throughout the day to stay on task. My mood changes wildly, from excitement to frustration to elation as I frantically peck at the keyboard. I will almost never do admin tasks on days like these to avoid “wasting” my energy on them.
Typically I enjoy this but it can be overwhelming, there's a task-master side of me that sometimes appears and in turn, these suggestions turn into jobs. Things that must be done if I'm going to "get the most of out my life". I worry about forgetting ideas, not following through, being all talk and no action — all of which can trigger feelings of shame.
type ii: monk (15% chance)
I wake up calm and focused, today is another day to appreciate and enjoy. No pressure, nothing I need to do. I feel like I’m floating approximately a centimetre off the ground. My thoughts are clear and stable, I find writing most enjoyable on these days.
This is when I check off all the phone calls, emails and letters I have been avoiding for weeks. At work I can become a task-list robot, staying mindful and calm throughout. However, over-reliance on this mode of being brings up existential questions, is this all there is to life? to work?
I find these days are best spent in quiet contemplation and conversation, tackling those existential questions directly.
type iii: puddle on the floor (10% chance)
Before I even take my first conscious breath I can feel the heaviness, the dullness. Today is one of those days. I used to hate myself for feeling like this, taking one miserable footstep after another. These days are far from easy, intrusive thoughts are common: “lazy”, “weak”, “inconsistent”, “neurotic”, “difficult”, “unlovable”.
With time I have learned that when my mind tells me to do nothing I should probably listen. These days are made of metta meditation, music, cartoons, video games and absolutely no talking.
I remind myself that I've been here before and it's comforting to know that it will pass.
why don't you try and be more consistent?
I'm always tinkering with my habits to further my wellbeing. That said, I've tried to be an "ultra-disciplined" person for many years and it, uh, sucked. I denied the suck the whole time, believing that discomfort is proportional to payoff. Of course there's a grain of truth to that but it's greatly exaggerated.
Today I believe that tailoring your life to align with your own personal behaviour patterns is far more effective. I typically have 2-4 side projects at a time on top of my professional work and I let myself intuitively move between them. I take notes constantly and monitor my interest level in each project, I put them down when my interest falls away and resume if/when my interest returns.
None of this is particularly compatible with regular 9-5 jobs, as a programmer I tend to chip away at tasks until the cosmic dice give me the motivation I need to do several days worth of work in one 6hr session. I am not saying this is good, but it’s the reality of being me.
I am no longer interested in whether this is optimal because it is the only way of working I have found that allows me to enjoy both my work and my life. I have grown weary of most productivity advice, I am more concerned with working sustainably than maximising reward.
Of course it's unlikely that your own patterns of motivation are the same as mine, I am not recommending an approach to everyone. All I’m suggesting is that if it feels like you're constantly resisting your nature and retreading the same steps, it might be time to take a step back and ask whether it's worth it.
Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't.