I’m not highly motivated.
I don’t have amazing willpower or self-control.
I don’t get up at 6 am to read, meditate, drink a green smoothie, and run 10K.
That’s because I don’t believe in motivation.
Instead, I’ve built systems and habits that remove my internal drive from the equation. So, whether or not I feel “motivated,” I can still be productive.
I realize that systems and habits are not a glamorous topic, but honestly, they work.
They’ve fueled every step of my entrepreneurial journey over the last 13 years — from the early days, when JotForm was just a simple idea, to growing a team of over 140 employees who serve 5 million users.
Habits and systems have made it all possible.
If you create reliable systems and continue to improve these systems (instead of your willpower), you don’t even have to think about motivation.
Let’s break it down a little.
What the heck is motivation, anyway?
In the simplest terms, motivation is your desire to do something. It’s a sense of willingness that exists on a spectrum — from zero interest to a burning desire to take action.
When your desire is strong, motivation feels effortless.
But when you’re struggling, just about anything sounds better than starting the assignment, making a tough phone call, or hitting the gym. Procrastination takes over — until the agony becomes overwhelming.
As Steven Pressfield writes in The War of Art,
“At some point, the pain of not doing it becomes greater than the pain of doing it.”
I love this quote because I suspect we’ve all felt this painful moment. That’s when it’s harder to stay on the couch than to get up, put on your sneakers, and go outside.
The two types of motivation
In his 2011 book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, author Daniel Pink splits motivation into two different types: extrinsic and intrinsic.
Extrinsic motivation is external. It’s money or praise or trying not to look clumsy on the tennis court.
Intrinsic motivation comes from within. It’s the desire to act, even when the only reward is the activity itself (or completing a task).
Intrinsic motivation implies that you’re acting for authentic, honorable reasons. For example, you start a business to help people or solve a problem — not because you’re dazzled by visions of fame and fortune.
Motivation gets in the way, though, when we rely too heavily on it.
No matter how much you love your business, there are probably moments when you don’t want to take action.
Maybe it feels scary or impossible, or the task at hand is downright boring.
That’s when systems can do the heavy lifting. Here are a few strategies that have helped me to build sustainable systems so I don’t have to rely on motivation.
1. Choose your focus areas — and ignore the rest
Focus and motivation might seem like two different topics, but they are closely intertwined.
Take me as an example. This year, I have 3 work priorities:
- Hiring really great people
- Creating quality content
- Equipping our users to work more productively
These themes inform everything I do. If a project or an opportunity doesn’t fit into one of these three buckets, I say no. Distractions slip away and I can make real progress.
For example, I spend the first two hours of every workday writing out my thoughts. It might be a problem I’m trying to solve or a new idea. I don’t book meetings during this period and I definitely don’t answer emails.
But, if I arrive at work feeling less than inspired, I give myself permission to do something else — as long as it fits within my three focus areas. Instead of writing and problem-solving, I can read articles or books on these topics, meet with a product team, or watch a lecture.
All that thinking and exploring soon makes me feel more engaged. Once I’m engaged, I come up with better ideas. And good ideas inspire me to take action.
This process isn’t accidental. It’s a simple feedback loop I use to get moving on days when my brain feels stuck in neutral.
2. Remember that motivation is optional
In a 2016 article for The Cut, author Melissa Dahl shares,
“the only motivational advice anyone has ever needed: You don’t have to feel like getting something done in order to actually get it done.“
Go back and read that again, if you want. I know I did. Let it sink in.
It’s surprisingly brilliant. Your feelings don’t have to match your actions — especially when you truly want to move forward.
You could feel tired, but still put on your goggles and go for a swim. You could feel like you’d rather staple yourself to the chair than build another PowerPoint deck — and you still get the presentation done.
Dahl also quotes Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, who writes:
“Who says you need to wait until you ‘feel like’ doing something in order to start doing it?
The problem, from this perspective, isn’t that you don’t feel motivated; it’s that you imagine you need to feel motivated.”
Once again, this is where routines can outsmart feelings. Sure, you might feel like watching cat videos, but every morning, you sit down at your computer and open a blank document.
You write for two hours (or whatever your routine entails) and you don’t bother taking your emotional temperature.
Progress ensues. Then you repeat, repeat, repeat.
3. Delegate whenever possible
The other day, I had a great idea during my morning workout. It was one of these eyebrow-raising lightbulb moments.
Unfortunately, it had nothing to do with the three focus areas I mentioned above. So, I made a note in my phone and asked our COO to follow my mental thread.
I was tempted to chase it myself, but I knew I had to stay focused.
I realize that delegation isn’t always possible, especially when you’re just starting out or money is tight. JotForm is a bootstrapped company.
We’ve never taken a dime in outside funding, so I know what it’s like to watch every dollar.
But when it’s possible, delegation can pay off, big time. Offload an activity if:
- You can regain precious time, energy or focus and apply it to something that will truly move the needle for you. That kind of work is priceless. Stretch yourself a little and measure the results. You can always test delegation in baby steps.
- Someone else can do it better. In my case, there’s almost always someone on our team who has more knowledge or niche expertise than I do. They’ll create a stronger result in less time — and again, I don’t get distracted from my goals.
The importance of enjoying the ride
We’ve talked a lot about everyday motivation. But how do you sustain your drive for the long run?
It’s an important question. The answer will look a little different for everyone, but ultimately, we’re all motivated by joy and meaning.
Guardian columnist (and The Antidote author) Oliver Burkeman first led me to Buddhist teacher Susan Piver. Tired of forcing herself to be “good” and master the daily to-do list, Piver decided instead to focus on the pleasure of her work:
“Once I remembered that my motivation is rooted in genuine curiosity and my tasks are in complete alignment with who I am and want to be, my office suddenly seemed like a playground rather than a labor camp.”
She asked herself what would be fun to do and then focused on what she loved about each activity.
In the end, her day looked the same as it did when she was “disciplined” — but the experience was nearly effortless:
“Yes, discipline is critical, just like all the teachers say.
And there is definitely stuff that needs doing that is just never going to be fun, like paying bills and cleaning the cat box.
But I suggest that instead of being disciplined about hating on yourself to get things done, try being disciplined about remaining close to what brings you joy.”
Talk about a perspective shift. We all go through tough times, work at jobs we don’t love, and endure genuine unfairness.
But if you’re struggling to do something you care deeply about, go easy on yourself.
Tap into why you started your business, or why you’re flexing your creative muscles in the first place. It’s a much happier way to move through your days.
To recap: establish your systems and habits. Stay focused on what matters. Delegate and tune out the noise. Your motivation will grow.
And if it doesn’t? You don’t need it anyway.