Zen and the Art of Motivation Maintenance

Way back in high school, I was busy with both academics and sports, so I developed a personal strategy for staying motivated and productive. Fast forward many years, and I’ve refined this strategy based upon the research and personal experience. It works for me, and I hope you’ll find it useful, too.

What makes this strategy unique is that it acknowledges rest, relaxation, creativity, and fun as necessary parts of the motivational process. The science shows that our motivation and energy levels naturally fluctuate throughout the day. Psychologically, having an ebb and flow to the day, where your body and mind are used in different ways, is healthy and more intellectually stimulating (read: fun).

The approach I’m about to describe is an attempt to tap into that natural ebb and flow of the day. “Motivation,” such as it were, becomes more of a byproduct than anything else. You do not “increase motivation” so much as “refine your practice,” attempting in some small way to achieve the same focus in crafting your arts (whatever they may be) as Zen monks do in tending their gardens.

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Bringing “Dead Time” Back to Life

It all started when I was playing ice hockey and taking some challenging (for me) classes in high school.

Everybody (including me) complained that we did not have enough time to complete our homework. Writing a paper for an English class, for example, took hours. I was waking up each day with the sun to get to school, and not getting home until late at night due to sports practice. How could there possible be enough time in the day?

Hidden in my schedule, though, was a lot of “dead time.” I spent about an hour per day in the car, for example. Once I realized this, I was determined to leverage this dead time. The first thing I noticed was that most of the time spent writing an English paper was not spent typing: it was spent outlining, brainstorming and planning.

I started talking to myself in the car, instead. I was practicing the arguments I would make in my papers, listening to how they sounded. With a little practice, I got good enough at this that I could sit down at the computer and write the whole paper in a fraction of the time in front of the screen that it used to take me.

It was a crude first attempt, but it worked.

Energy Levels: Ups and Downs

After college, entering the real world, I would get frustrated when I did not have the energy to do everything I wanted. “Motivation” is really hard when you just feel… wiped out!

Really, this is just the body’s way of telling us what it needs. We tend to speak of “energy levels” as if they were just one thing, but the truth is that energy and motivation come in a lot of different types. Research into circadian rhythms has shown that there are optimal times of the day to do specific things, for example. Check out this image, illustrating how your body changes throughout the course of just one day:

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I started incorporating this pattern into my daily life. It may strike some as overly-structured, but it was an interesting experiment:

Mornings were used to accomplish tasks due to the “high alertness,” while evenings were used for creative endeavors and planning for the next day. I scheduled my workouts for mid-day, in the 2:30pm-5pm range, to take advantage of the “greatest cardiovascular efficiency and muscle strength.” This also served as a sort of pivot point in my day, creating a schedule like this:

  • Wake up + Breakfast (30m)
  • Accomplish Tasks (6h)
  • Exercise + Lunch (3h)
  • Plan, Read and Be Creative (6h)
  • Dinner (30m)
  • Sleep (8h)

It’s really more an outline for the day than anything. The morning is about producing, followed by personal growth and coming up with ideas for the next day (no execution, though!) My mornings were filled with checklists and my evenings with sketches.

There Is No Try

We like to think of ourselves as basically rational creatures, yet the vast majority of the decisions we make are made completely without a plan. Much of our lives are lived on autopilot, and the decisions we make are more like reactions than calculations.

The hardest thing you do each day is get started on a new task. It takes a certain amount of activation energy just to get started. If you can make specific plans for how you’ll accomplish the goals you set for yourself, you stand a much better chance of achieving them (as described in the book Success and The Power of Habit).

Funny things happen when you have a plan. Stuff gets easier. You just have to follow the steps of the plan. It’s why my “talking to myself in the car” approach to writing English papers worked so well. It’s why there are two halves to the day in the previous section. When you plan out your day ahead of time, all you have to do is follow the plan (research shows this makes it much easier to accomplish your goals than “just trying”).

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The mistake that most of us make is to approach each day with the attitude “I’ll do some studying today.” Instead, the planning approach says “I will use the perfect practice plan at 7:30am as I drink my coffee.”

I came to realize that I had left a big piece out, though…

Avoiding The Brick Walls

The difference between speed and velocity is direction.

If you only have speed, you might be heading for a brick wall and you’d never know it.

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All these techniques can help you do more things, but I must confess: productivity for its own sake is ultimately unsatisfying. I’ve been assuming in this post that you already know the things that you want to do, and need to focus on getting them done. I’ve noticed in my own life, though, that these techniques tend to lead to a lot of speed but not a lot of direction.

Keeping yourself on-course is where the “Zen” part of this post comes in. We know from research that creativity and reflection comes as a result of letting the mind wander. Paradoxically, it is important to take time each day to not focus on “getting things done.”

I’ve taken up meditation and long walks as a structured way to be unstructured. Having time each day to let your thoughts go will improve the effectiveness of, quite literally, everything else. It’s why so many business leaders and high-performers have taken up mindfulness practice. I must admit that I struggle with this kind of free-form thought, but the practice of meditation helps me to reflect on where I’m going (and why I’m going there).

Some interesting insights can come about from adding a mindfulness practice to your motivation plan. You might realize, for example, that something you thought was important isn’t really important at all. You might find that it was not your motivation that was bad, but your goals themselves.

So take a moment and breathe. Motivation is easy if you’re doing the right things.

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