Over the past eighteen months, I’ve become much better acquainted with myself.
That’a strange statement to make, I know, but it’s true. You can coast through life without knowing very much about yourself at all - until you fetch up against something. Until you stumble, or trip, or are knocked right off your feet.
Life knocks us all off our feet, sooner or later. Sometimes, though, we do it to ourselves. We choose it, by attempting to discipline ourselves, against a natural tendency to over-indulge and relentlessly seek novelty. That’s what happened with me, and it’s been eye-opening.
There are two areas of my life where I’m engaged in a battle with myself: work, and fitness. Work is a matter of self-discipline because I work from home, and set my own schedule. It’s entirely up to me to make sure that things get done, and that working hours neither vanish, nor completely consume my life. The latter is the biggest danger.
Fitness is probably a more common challenge. Working out is difficult, tiring, and so very easy to skip when enthusiasm is low. Even finding time for it in the first place is a problem for most people - though I’m luckier in that regard. Many don’t even bother. I used to be among them.
So, where does the motivation come from? Where does it come from, on the days where your starting position is no? The answer is probably different for each of us, and when you find it, you learn a hell of a lot about yourself and what makes you tick.
The best - and often least useful - advice to help you do something is to love what you do. You should also do what you love, so that you automatically love what you do. In an ideal world, that’s all the advice you’ll ever need.
But this isn’t a perfect world, and even if you do manage to do what you love, you won’t always love it. There will be days when your dream job - or hobby, or whatever that thing is that you want to do - will seem like a chore. Suddenly, motivation will be required. Today, you’re just like everyone else.
Finding that push may be easy on most days, but on this day, you have to find it; to dredge it up. Enough to get out of bed with the dawn, put on your running gear, and slip out the door. To get your feet slapping against the tarmac when you’d much rather be in bed, or sipping coffee, or already cocooned in the heat of the shower.
Where does the motivation come from on those days?
Let’s get straight to the core of it: there’s hate involved. Hatred of yourself, or of what you might become. Hate isn’t a word that comes up in motivational material very often, and I can understand that - positivity is generally best. But truth is better still. For me, motivation is inextricably linked with the offsetting of regret.
Hate is what you draw on when motivation isn’t sitting there, eagerly waiting. Hate can turn the winch until the cable glows hot, and haul motivation up from unseen depths, like a shipwreck untouched for a long, silent century.
Hate isn’t a trusty companion, loyally at your side for the adventure, but rather your inner coach - or maybe your drill sergeant. It laments and despises what you’ve become, or what you might again become, or what you’ll never become if you continue along your current path.
It believes that there’s another way, son, but by god you’re going to have to work for it - and you are going to start now.
The goal just isn’t enough. If you’re going to make a difference to yourself, you need the fear. “Get in shape” isn’t a patch against “You’re fat, and you’re going to die”. “Write a book” doesn’t quite have the urgency of “You’re wasting your talent in obscurity” (and you’re going to die).
Which one gets straight to your hind-brain, where the animal lives?
Motivation can be another word for obsession. It most definitely is for me. There are other words, too, like willpower. I’m not sure what that one even means. It’s too vague; too wishy-washy and equivocal. Willpower is what people proudly lay claim to, like it’s one of their personal stats, then tell you how they’ve mustered it to slay some particular dragon. It’s a lovely story, but I think the truth is rather more mundane - and darker.
Motivation is self-denial. If the enemy is procrastination, then you’re denying yourself leisure, or the mindless pleasure of a lack of occupation. If the enemy is getting to the gym, then you’re denying yourself rest, and ease. If the enemy is your diet, then you’re denying yourself indulgence. I know a lot about that last one.
For the past year, I’ve been in a state of near-constant fixation on the next meal. I live in a vortex of food envy, cravings, and painful awareness of calories and nutrients. Upon finishing dinner, I know how long it is until breakfast. I barely remember how it is to feel any other way.
I deny myself things all the time. Mostly, I deny myself the luxury of skipping a workout. I deny myself those french fries, or the second biscuit, or the full-fat Coke. That cheeky home-delivered pizza for lunch, that my wife would never even know about. So many things that I wouldn’t even have to say yes to: I’d just click, or pick up and pay, and that’d be it. It’s the no that takes the so-called willpower.
It’s the no that needs the push.
I mentioned that you learn things about yourself. Here’s the secret: the main thing you learn is that there are two of you. The Wanter, which you always thought was just you, unchanged, and craving satisfaction and novelty and instant gratification. Then there’s the Denier, who you might know better as the drill-sergeant. Where did it come from? How did it get here?
Like a vampire, you had to invite it in first.
I think that’s the key, when you really think about it. When you resolve to do something - maybe to write a book, or to get in shape, or to stay in shape - you have to invite the Denier in, and you need to be aware that you’re going to hate the thing most of the time.
Luckily, it doesn’t care.
The Denier is who hauls me out of bed to work out every morning, even when I’m on vacation overseas, when I could be lying by the pool instead. During our recent trip abroad, I was in the hotel gym there for two and a half hours each morning, with that voice insistent in my ear the whole time.
Another fifty calories. Another thirty push-ups. You can leave when I say so.
The Denier is who makes me choose foods carefully, even when there’s a buffet of every tempting thing, and absolutely no-one to stop me going up twice, or three times. The Denier is who makes me write a little more every single day.
I didn’t write a book; I was forced to. I didn’t drop five inches around the waist; the personal trainer in my mind made it happen. I am weak. I choose the french fries, and the sticky toffee pudding, and the lazy morning in my pyjamas. I’m not equipped for anything else.
Thankfully, that other voice is there, not so much urging me on as shaming me into keeping going.
Do you want to go up to the next hole in your belt again, and the one after that? Do you want to get out of breath on the stairs?
Are you going to die without writing a single book?
His techniques can be subtle, when they need to be - he’s all about the next ten minutes, and how much harder can it possibly be to just say no to one little treat, or to cycle just a little bit farther - but deep down, his position is that it’s your own goddamned funeral.
You get to choose, he says, from right there just over your shoulder, hot breath against your neck.
You can feel the impatience radiating from him. You don’t even need to turn around to see the seething pity in his eyes. If you did, and you looked even more closely, you’d maybe catch a glimpse of the version of you that he can already see, and that he’s so disturbed by.
A life unsung, with no achievements to survive its passing. Or a tired heart, pumping not quite so regularly as it once did. Perhaps a sudden pain across the chest, when you still had so much left to see and do.
I’m willing to take those visions on faith, and just obey. I don’t need to take the hand of this particular Ghost of Christmas Future, and be shown in graphic detail. I’m pretty sure he’s not bluffing, and that’s good enough for me.
Drop and give me fifty? No problem.
There’s always the chance that I’ll slip back, of course. Indulging once in a while is absolutely fine - necessary in fact, to recharge the hate - but a sustained fall is one of my greatest fears. He’s made sure of it, and I can see it in every line of his face. There are a lot of lines.
He’d stand by and watch, exuding disapproval, but he’d never physically stop me. That’s not how it works. You have to do it yourself. If you’re not willing to do that, well, the only thing he has for you is pity.
Go right ahead. Damned if I care, he’d say. I can hear the voice right now, as clear as a bell.
Then he’d turn and walk away. A few brisk, military paces, and then a pause. He wouldn’t even turn around before offering his final remark.
But just remember this: you came to me.
This piece was written (straight through from start to finish, unusually) for my members.