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What to do when self-motivation comes and goes

States of mind

Here’s an issue Merrie Haskell, a writer, mentions in a comment to an earlier post: “I’ve noticed that I go through periodic surges of willpower. (I guess that’s what I mean.) I will be in a rut for months, and really feel stuck; then wake up one morning, and like a switch has been thrown, go into hyperdrive.”

Merrie’s hyperdrive clearly works for her: she’s sold well over a dozen short stories, including sales to two of the most demanding science fiction and fantasy markets, Asimov’s Science Fiction and Strange Horizons. Clearly doing something well isn’t the same as feeling motivated to do it all the time. So what’s happening?

The short answer is that self-motivation–whether for writing or for any other project–is complex, and there are a number of factors that can influence it. The longer answer names some of those factors, and as we name them, we can begin to see that they influence each other, so that one advantage can turn into a lot of advantages, and one obstacle can turn into a lot of obstacles.


We won’t be able to look at all of the elements of motivation in this one post, or go into any in depth, but we can see some of the more prominent pieces and how they fit together.

Motivating ourselves has some basic requirements. For instance, we usually need to believe what we are trying to do will provide the result we want, to care about the result, and to believe we’re capable of achieving it. In addition to those basic requirements, there are some pieces that can really support and enhance self-motivation, like the support of others, feedback loops, and recognition. Lastly, to consciously pursue a goal, we need to take certain steps, like clarify what the goal is, gather the information we’ll need to make good choices, and figure out where the time will come from to achieve our goal.

If any of these pieces falters, the others can be disrupted, or at least slowed down. For instance, if I’m in the middle of writing a novel and lose faith that anyone will ever be interested in reading it, my enthusiasm is likely to crash. This is a crisis of believing that the goal will achieve its purpose, one of those prerequisites I mentioned.

What makes this worse is that even if I regain that confidence soon after, it has already had a chance to influence other elements. For instance, losing confidence that the novel will be read makes me stop writing, and when I can’t get up the enthusiasm to write, I could lose the belief that I can finish the thing at all. Losing these beliefs can cause me to stop feeling enthusiastic about the goal I picture myself achieving. I stop having writing to show to friends and downplay the importance of the project, which could cause the friends to decide I’m not interested in it any more and withdraw their support for it, which deprives me of the feedback I’d been getting that helped keep the project going. And so on.

So what do we do about these insidious slides? Tackle them one piece at a time. Fortunately, we have an advantage in getting back on track, which is that just as the failure of one element tends to lead to the failure of others, getting one element working encourages the others to work, too. For instance, seeking out someone who’s been enthusiastic about pieces of my novel that they’ve read so far can help rekindle my enthusiasm for the project and my belief that it’s worthwhile, at the same time that it brings in the support of others and provides me with feedback. Clarifying my goal for the book (say, a novel in a given genre of a given length, finished by a given date) and making a plan to meet that goal can get me writing regardless of whether I feel enthusiastic or not, which moves me closer to the goal, which tends to make me more enthusiastic.

This process may sound familiar: it has a lot in common with mood congruity, which I discuss in another post. In either case, the solution is the same: if you break out of the pattern you’re in to do one positive thing, you’ll be going in the right direction.


  • Strong self-motivation means a number of elements are working together to move the project forward.
  • Problems with one element of self-motivation can cause problems with other elements.
  • If you find yourself losing momentum on a project, find one motivating thing you can concentrate on and focus on doing that, regardless of whether you feel enthusiastic about it at the moment or not.

Photograph by V’ron

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Mer Haskell  •  Jun 8, 2009 @10:46 am

    Hey, I must have missed this the first time. Thanks for poking at my dilemma–and pointing out the obvious, which is that my cycle/process is, more or less functional for me. 🙂

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