But too often a goal you are initially very enthusiastic about and want very badly becomes a drudging chore you feel you have to do. Why does this happen?
When you first create a goal, you see the big picture — you see the result, you see what you want — and you feel motivated.
Then comes the work. You make your list of things to be done to accomplish the goal. You realize it could take many years. You get to work on it, and of course, you hit setbacks. You get bogged down in details. You get bored with tedious parts. And you might even forget why you wanted the goal in the first place.
Your motivation wanes because your attention is no longer on the goal, no longer on what you want. Your attention is on the problems and on what you feel you have to do.
So you need to refresh your goals once in awhile. Do a kind of mental reboot. Start by seriously considering the possibility of giving up on your goal. Ask yourself, “Do I still want to achieve this goal?”
Every once in awhile, when you ask this question, you will find that in fact, you no longer want it — not because of demoralization, but because your values have changed, or maybe you’ve thought of something better, or whatever.
But most of the time, once you think about it and give yourself the freedom to give it up and start something new, you will find you still want your goal.
That realization, all by itself, can make you feel more motivated because now you don’t feel you have to accomplish your goal. Now you are freshly and vividly aware you sincerely desire it, and that’s a totally different feeling.
ONLY A PREFERENCE
One of the first principles of Albert Ellis’s work is to “upgrade your musts to preferences.” That is essentially what you do when you allow yourself the freedom to give up on your goal. Ellis uses the principle in therapy because it brings people back to reality. In reality, most of the things you feel you have to do are things you actually simply prefer to do (given the consequences one way or the other). But the feeling of wanting to do something is positive and pleasant, while feeling you must do something feels like drudgery.
So when Ellis does his therapy, he helps his clients realize some of the musts and shoulds that run their lives are merely preferences they themselves have chosen. This, all by itself, removes a lot of craziness from their lives. It gets rid of unnecessary negative emotions.
To give up your goal, to even consider giving it up, and then choosing it anew reminds you that your goal is a preference. It really isn’t something you have to do.
Someone might say, “No, I really have to, because if I don’t, I can’t make the mortgage.” But this is not entirely accurate. He does, in fact, have the option of selling his house and living in a small apartment.
“I can’t do that!” he says, “I have my wife and kids to think about.” But the truth is, he really could. And oddly enough, if there was something he wanted badly enough, his wife and kids would probably be willing to sacrifice luxuries for him.
But the point is, you often have many choices you are unaware of. You have choices you haven’t thought of. Why? Because you haven’t thought about it! You set your goal a long time ago, and now you’ve got your nose to the grindstone. You need to rise above your project once in awhile and look at the whole picture.
If you think about it, if you look at the whole picture, you may go back to the grindstone, but you’ll feel good about it now. You’ll realize you have chosen it. You will have the alternatives to compare it to fresh in your mind. And you will feel motivated. You’ll feel better and get more done.
SAME GOAL, DIFFERENT APPROACH
Sometimes you may feel like giving up because what you’re doing isn’t working. One alternative to giving up on the goal entirely is to keep the goal but change your approach. For example, remember I tried to lose weight but was unsuccessful? I thought, “I can’t seem to do it.”
But now I understand that the way I was trying didn’t work. The goal was possible after all, but the method I was using was doomed to failure, like trying to criticize someone into a good mood or trying to cure anemia by bloodletting. The philosophy of low-fat, high-carb dieting doesn’t work without a lot of self-discipline or social support.
In another example of this principle, a group of Norwegians were able to stop Hitler’s quest for nuclear weapons by continually changing their approach.
Hitler wanted nuclear weapons. But first he needed “heavy water” (deuterium oxide, D2O). Heavy water is like H2O but the hydrogen is replaced by deuterium atoms (which has has two extra neutrons so it is heavier than ordinary water).
After Germany invaded and occupied Norway, Hitler used a facility there to begin the work. Making heavy water required an enormous amount of equipment, and it took a long time to get a sufficient amount, as the heavy water dripped slowly to fill up the tanks.
The Allies found out about this project, and of course, wanted to stop it. The British proposed bombing the heavy-water plant, but it was so close to a town (Vemork), the Norwegian resistance fighters talked them out of it. It would create too many civilian casualties.
They still had the goal (stop Hitler from developing nuclear weapons) but their approach needed to change. Giving up the goal wasn’t an option anyone seriously considered. Hitler with nuclear weapons? It was unthinkable. So they came up with a different approach.
The British launched a commando raid, using silent gliders. But both gliders crashed, leaving 23 men alive. The Nazis captured the survivors and executed them.
That approach didn’t work. The Allies needed another plan. This was one of England’s top military priorities because they had good evidence Germany was close to building an A-bomb. With only one such bomb, Hitler could easily wipe out half of London.
Six Norwegian resistance fighters escaped Norway and volunteered for training in England for the mission. To avoid the fate of the last volunteers, they were all issued a rubber capsule of cyanide to pop in their mouths if they were captured. A soldier only had to bite on the capsule, and it would burst. Within three seconds, he would be dead.
The six volunteers learned how to handle explosives, worked out their plan, their timing, learned to make detonators, studied diagrams of the buildings and the nearby German military station, etc. This time they would leave nothing to chance. Hitler’s project had to be stopped.
The Norwegians parachuted in — and missed their landing spot by 20 miles. They tried to get to the rendezvous point, but were caught in a blizzard. They were supposed to meet four of their fellow saboteurs already in Norway.
When they eventually successfully got inside the building, they were able to set explosive charges that destroyed the heavy water cells. Success at last!
But the Germans rebuilt it within months. It was obviously high on their priority list also.
This was tremendously discouraging and alarming. That several-month delay, however, might have been enough. Nobody was sure. The United States was pressing for bombing the plant — this was too important to be left to luck. And finally it was done. British and American planes — 388 bombers in all — dropped 828 bombs. They devastated the plant, but unfortunately one of the places that was not destroyed was where the heavy water cells were stored!
The Germans decided the heavy water they had made so far was too vulnerable, so they planned to move it to Germany. For the Allies, this was their last chance. They couldn’t let the heavy water make it into Germany.
To get the heavy water out of Norway, first it had to be transported by ferry. Norwegian resistance fighters successfully planted explosives on that ferry, sending it (and all the heavy water) to the bottom of the lake. This was finally the end of Germany’s “nuclear dream.”
How many different approaches did they try on this single goal? Four times they created a plan, trained for it, mobilized the equipment and men, and executed their plan before they finally succeeded in achieving the goal.
If you find yourself in a similar situation — still wanting the goal but having failed using the approach you first came up with — you have another option besides giving up: You can come up with another way. You can use what you learned in your first failed attempt to wipe the slate clean and begin again, knowing what you now know, to create a new plan using a different approach. This is another way to refresh your goal.
WHEN YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT TO DO
Sometimes when you seriously consider giving up on a goal, you can’t decide whether you really want to or not. There are so many good reasons and feelings on both sides, you’re on the fence. You don’t know what you want to do. At times like that, the best answer is finish what you started. When in doubt, finish the job.
It is more efficient. You already have something invested in the project, and you have no better alternative. You may merely be in a temporary funk, and it would be foolish to give up on your goal.
I used to occasionally have what I called a doubt funk. It usually happened when I was in the middle of a big project and I started thinking there was a better use of my time; maybe I should be doing something different; maybe the project would fail; maybe my destiny lay somewhere else and I was wasting my time.
I never went into a doubt funk between projects. I’ve never had a problem thinking up new goals and feeling enthusiastic about them.
But I suppose it was “the grass is always greener” because no matter what I was working on, I could think of other projects that might be a better use of my time. I aborted a lot of perfectly good projects because of it. I still have several half-finished books sitting in my filing cabinets. Lots of projects of different kinds down through the years never saw the light of day because a doubt funk came along and deflated my motivation.
I eventually learned the way to handle doubt funks: Finish the project. That policy will get the most done with the greatest fun over a lifetime.
Half-finished projects are a waste of time. To spend all that time getting something halfway done and then stopping means all the hours spent on the project were wasted. And wasting time is demoralizing.
I got the answer to doubt funks when I read a true story about Dr. Archibald Cronin. When Cronin was 33, he was a doctor in London. Once in awhile, he had a doubt funk, thinking maybe he should specialize in a different kind of medical practice. He worried that what he was doing wasn’t good enough.
Cronin eventually developed an ulcer and his doctor prescribed the standard treatment of the time — six months “complete rest in the country on a milk diet.”
He went to a small farm outside a village in the Scottish Highlands. After about a week, this very energetic, high-strung man was climbing the walls. His mind was thrashing around for something to do. Then he realized he’d always wanted to write a novel if he ever found the time. He suddenly realized he had the time! So he began.
After three months of being engrossed in the project, he sent his handwritten pages to his secretary to type up for him. When he received his first chapter and read it, he was devastated. It was terrible.
He understood with clarity and certainty that he had no business trying to be a writer. He was defeated, demoralized, and embarrassed.
In his anguish and shame, he threw the whole manuscript into the trash.
Feeling glad and relieved that he had “come to his senses,” he went for a walk, where he ran into Angus, the farmer, and stopped to chat, as he often did. When Cronin told Angus what he had just done, Angus was silent for a long time.
Then Angus spoke. “My father ditched this bog all his days and never made a pasture.”
He stopped digging and looked at Cronin. “I’ve dug it all my days and never made a pasture. But pasture or no pasture,” said Angus as he pushed the shovel back into the bog, “I canna help but dig. For my father knew and I know that if you only dig enough a pasture can be made here.”
Angus kept digging. Doggedly. Relentlessly. Unmercifully.
Cronin stood there watching him, and while he watched he experienced an intense personal crisis and then a revelation.
Cronin saw his situation as the pattern he’d followed all his life: He would start off in a particular direction and never get anywhere because doubt would overtake him halfway through it.
And then he saw it as a pattern and revelation not just for himself, but for all of humanity. He wrote later, “In this present chaos, with no shining vision to sustain us, the door is wide open to darkness and despair. The way to close that door is to stick to the job that we are doing, no matter how insignificant that job may be, to go on doing it, and to finish it.”
Cronin stomped back to his room and pulled his manuscript out of the trash. He was angry and fiercely determined. He got back to work on the manuscript and would not stop, no matter what kind of doubt or frustration he encountered. He kept working until he finally finished the thing.
He randomly chose a publisher out of a catalog and mailed off the manuscript. Then he relaxed and recovered from his ulcer.
Just as he was preparing to head back to London, he received a telegram from the publisher: they were interested. Unbelievably, the manuscript he had once thrown away was published as a novel in 1931 (Hatter’s Castle) and sold three million copies. It was even made into a movie.
When you don’t know whether to give up a goal or finish it, the answer is the same for you and me as it was for Cronin: Go to work on the current project, determined and resolute, and finish it.
MANAGING THE PROJECT
After you finish your project, then think about what you want to do next. On your way to a goal, you will think of other goals. Write down those ideas and file them. Then get back to your current project. When you are finished and you’re ready to decide on the next goal, look to your file for ideas.
And make sure you take the time to choose your goal. Carefully weigh the possibilities. Make your decision a project. You may be spending a lot of time on your next goal. It is a very important decision. Don’t choose carelessly or on a whim. Take your time.
And when you periodically refresh your goals, give it some time. Take the time to consider your goal. Find out if you really want it. Most of the time you’ll be surprised to find you really do. That is one of the best ways of all to cultivate your motivation.
This article is excerpted from the book, Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.