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Why trying to get motivated may be a terrible idea (and systems are better)

The modern curse is wanting to do anything but that what you’ve set out to do. It’s why PhDs never get done, masters are written at the last minute to scrape by and Facebook is an internet giant.

One of my favourite things is to practice different variations on introducing myself. Yup, I’m a bit of a weirdo. But the results are fascinating. Sometimes I tell people that I’m a legal translator. They’ll usually start talking to someone else. Other times I’ll say I run a legal translation business, and they’ll be dying to know more.

But when I say I work for myself, the next question is always: is it hard to stay motivated?

And staying motivated is the key to excellence. People like Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, Geoff Colvin in Talent is Overrated or Cal Newport demonstrate that deliberate practice of your trade, professional or craft is how you become really good. It’s not innate talent. You aren’t born a great writer.

The top performers in any domain didn’t get there entirely by chance or on the back of a natural talent. They got there by constantly working on their weaknesses, challenging themselves and taking their skills to the next level. It’s very, very tough (which is why they often take naps in the afternoon).

Also, they often put in these tough hours over decades to get where they were. It wasn’t just a few tough months of work to get to the top.

Therefore, understanding and cracking the code of motivation is one of the keys to developing unusually high levels of skill. And developing high levels of skill in areas makes life interesting, rewarding and fulfilling. So it’s important.

I’ve struggled with not doing any work (and especially the work I was paid to do), even though I really wanted to do the work.

The answer most people come up with is to get inspired or get motivated. Preferably by reading some awesome pages of the internet. And then maybe listen to some great music. And finally make some coffee – before kicking ass and doing some WORK.

Unfortunately, that’s a little like a sugar high – you quickly come crashing down again, because motivation comes in waves. Sometimes you have it, sometimes you do not.

A better approach is systems. Systems work when you’re down, when you’re up and in between. You don’t have to rely on your finite willpower. You can trust the system instead. So, that’s what I’ve been working on this year with a vengeance. I’ve tried a lot of things, but I now have a core set of processes that work quite well.

Most of this stuff below is very simple. I’ve known about them for years. But I did not do them, so I frequently felt entirely unmotivated and procrastinated like hell.

1. Plan and review on a regular basis – weekly/daily/hourly

A weekly basis works best for me. I look at the past week, measure what I did and assess how successful I was. I analyse failures to exactly what I’ll do differently next week.

Sometimes the changes are tiny. I find it very hard to get up in the morning. But I find it very easy to listen to podcasts in bed. And when I listen to podcasts in bed, I can get up really early. So I’ll make sure my headphones are beside the iPhone and I have a cool podcast downloaded. That’s an example of how small the changes often are.

Then I’ll plan the next week. The key, I’ve found, is to have tasks that can be done in 15-20 minutes. No longer. And the more precise I am on the details of doing it, the better. Therefore, l write down the page I have to start on or the link to a site I need to read.

2. Test to find your high productivity times and schedule high value work for these times

I’ve tested working at night. I can’t. After 9pm, I’m done for the day. My main work times are in the early morning and in the early afternoon. If I really need to be focused, I’ll throw a nap in between, because it’s like getting a fresh start to the day.

I’ll block these times for my hardest work such as translation, learning new skills or finding new clients.

3. Have an accountability partner

This part makes most people shake their heads, wondering if all is well in Tom’s world. But almost everyone with a job has one: a boss. But when you work for yourself, either in business, studying or even personal hobbies, you need to somehow make yourself accountable.

It’s quite powerful to tell someone what you plan to do and then have to check in with that person a week later and tell them how you did. I’ve found that picking your significant other is not the best approach, because it’s far easier to rationalise why you did nothing to them than someone else.

4. Get Google Calendar to remind you of what you need to do

It’s easy to start learning a language, get side-tracked and then forget about it and never do it again. Google Calendar allows you to schedule reminders that get sent to your phone by SMS. These days I get text messages at all hours telling me do anything from do physio to learn French or to plan something for the weekend. My brother even had Google calendar send him insults at 6:00 am in the morning, telling him to “wake up you lazy bastard”.

Wrapping up, the system works like this: on Sunday evening I review my past week and plan the upcoming week incorporating the lessons learned from last week. Therefore, over time I get better a planning, so I’m more likely to do what I plan. This in turns breeds confidence in myself, which is important.

Then I pass on the review and the plan for the following week to my accountability partner, and I put reminders in Google calendar so I won’t forget at the critical times.

Finally, I protect the most valuable times of the day for high level work.

And boom! no stress productivity.

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