Ask Stephen

 [twitter float=”right”]Sometimes people ask me questions related to the Tuesday messages I send or the articles I write. Since other people probably have similar questions, I’ve decided to publish the answers here. I’ve kept the names anonymous for privacy. If you want to ask me something, send me an email.

Q: How do you keep doing consistently good work? What do you say to yourself at the moment of giving in? Again, is it not motivating (with limited willpower) yourself rather than taking action?

The answer is NOT motivation. It is to use willpower (i.e. force yourself) to take action. Many people get into the habit of thinking they have to be motivated to do things (it becomes an unspoken rule), but it’s not true. Right now, you can touch your nose, do one push-up, or anything else without being motivated. I used those examples because they’re very small, meaning that you’re guaranteed to have enough willpower to do them.

And that’s the key. If going to the gym is your goal, don’t try to use willpower to “work out at the gym for 45 minutes.” That can still be too large and intimidating for your willpower. Instead say, “I’m going to put on my workout clothes.” Then use willpower to “drive yourself to the gym.” In each step, don’t cheat and think about your entire workout (you can worry about that when you arrive at the gym). By breaking the entire task into sections that are too easy to fail doing, you can succeed.


Option A: I want to go to the gym and exercise for 45 minutes.
Willpower Requirement: Large

Option B:
1. Put on workout clothes (easy)
2. Get in car (easy)
3. Drive to gym (easy)
4. Pick up weights (easy)

Willpower Requirement: Small

Break the steps down until they’re too small for you to fail at, and you’ll become unstoppable.

Q: I was wondering if you would be willing to give me some advice on how you got started and rolled out your business?

I decided one night to register a domain, start a blog. I learned everything by googling things and fiddling around.

Here’s my advice for getting started…

1. Start right now, before you’re ready (you can learn as you go)
2. Focus on marketing at least as much as writing, and more so in the early stages (guest posts are how I built my readership).
3. Go for in-depth content over average content. Instead of writing five so-so articles, write one great article. So-so articles are all over the web, and to stand out you have to create something unique and worth talking about.

Lastly, don’t expect overnight success. It’s hard to get attention and keep it. You have to earn it and be persistent and consistent. Most bloggers that were around 6 months ago have already quit. There have been a few times I’ve thought about quitting, and it was just after the recent one that I had a big breakthrough (an article went viral and Lifehacker picked it up).

Good luck to you!

Q: My biggest challenge is identifying what I want for myself. What I
want is something I can focus on every day. This gives me a sense of
direction and security because I know I’m on the right path. There
are times (that are too uncommon) in which I know exactly what I
want. However, even once I define what I want, write it down with
clarity, and review it every day, my initial sense of certainty and
enthusiasm disappears. Each time I feel I’ve found what I truly
want, it fades away, until I find something else I think I want, and
then that fades away…. If I could sustain this feeling of
certainty of what I want, I would be much happier. My experience has
been that when I feel this certainty of exactly what I want, I
automatically filter what matters and what doesn’t – which is
calming and feels solid and “right”. Since most of my thoughts
aren’t related to what I want, they would get zapped out
immediately. It’s a feeling I want to sustain. Here is where I get
hung up:

Everyone seems to stress the importance of knowing what you want, but
there are so many different ways to define what I want. I don’t
know which way to go.

I can focus on what I want my ultimate goal to be, which wouldn’t
occur for years and doesn’t really clarify how to get there.

I could focus on the small steps of how to get there, which often
aren’t very inspiring or motivating (i.e. go to the gym every day)

I could talk about _all_ the things I want (personal, job, money,
lifestyle, home, family, etc…), which can be complex and lack

I can focus on the one thing I want right now more than anything else,
which is neglecting all of the other areas I can focus on (i.e. if
what I want occurs outside of work, and I am too busy to focus on it
during work, by the end of the work week I feel out of touch with what
I want)

I can focus on who I want to be – which usually makes me feel
self-conscious or stifled since I’m focusing on myself.

There’s more too

As you can see, these are pulling me in a million different
directions. No one method seems ideal and sustainable.

What I ultimately want is something I can consistently focus on with a
burning desire that cuts through everything else that I don’t really
care about, but may think I do because I lack focus. How do I figure
out which way to go to identify what I really want?

Thanks for writing and I’m glad you enjoy Deep Existence. I’ll give my thoughts on what you’ve said. They’re just my thoughts, so take them for what they are. 🙂

The first thing I notice is that you seem to want to feel focused on what you want (which seems to change at times). Most people would call this passion and you might find this article I wrote interesting. It’s about how we don’t need passion to do well and get what we want out of life, even though it is implied everywhere that we need to find our passion.

Clarity in life starts at the top with your values. A brief self-analysis tells me that storytelling, adventure, writing, courage, and one-on-one relationships are a few things I value most in life. I figured it out partially through my emotions – each one of those things excites me or stirs me in a more powerful way than anything else. And for one-on-one relationships, I’ve always had a best friend so I can see that I’m drawn to that.

But one step above values might be what your ultimate goal(s) in life is – happiness? A good reputation? Social status? Living true to yourself?

Back to your situation – you say that when you latch on to something, you go with it for a little bit and then interest fades. I think that’s a very human trait, and especially for men. We’re designed to hunt and chase, but we don’t always know what to do when we catch what we’re hunting. It could be a matter of always wanting to experience the newness of finding something.

Some people go through their entire life flipping through many jobs because they get bored.

Here’s what I would do if I were you…

For all of the things you’ve latched on to temporarily, that gave you the ability to focus on them and feel ok with ignoring everything else, try to extract out the key part(s) of them that interested you. Write these down in a list, taking note of recurring themes.

I recently dropped a project that I was very excited about (and worked many hours on). Like what you said, I was focused on making it happen, but then I lost interest somewhat suddenly. One thing that drew me to it was that if it succeeded, it was scalable and low maintenance. Another thing is that it was to help people reach their goals, which would give me satisfaction. And lastly, it was a smarter format than most goal aid systems.

So I would write down scalable business, low maintenance business, unique/creative business, and helpful business. Those things are the core aspects of what made the idea appeal to me. The idea itself wasn’t enough to get my full commitment, perhaps because it didn’t align well enough to my core values.

But on the other hand, there’s a strong habit component to all of this. The habit of starting something and not finishing it. It is frustrating, but it is also highly rewarding. We get to experience the rush of a new pursuit that could be “the one” and not experience the doldrums of hard work to make something happen.

I bet that for some of these things that you dropped, if you had followed through on them, you may have reignited your interest and focus. From my research and experience, it isn’t really about finding your one best area to focus on, it’s about finding good areas to focus on that appeal to you in some way.

I recently went to Rome, as I mentioned. And before I went, I forced myself to practice Italian for 30 minutes a day until I left (for a few weeks). Italian would not be my first choice of language to learn. It might be 5th or lower. But when I arrived in Italy and saw the practice pay off, I was very happy about it. I made a joke in Italian at a restaurant and made the girls behind us laugh, and my travel buddy and I ended up spending 3-4 days with them and having an authentic Italian lunch at an Italian lady’s house (the highlight of the trip…we had 4 languages being spoken at the table, and the food and wine were incredible…fun!).

So that’s to say that if you picked some of these “decent interests” that interest you initially, and followed through with them even when you don’t feel it, you might be surprised to find your initial analysis was accurate. Feelings are not reliable at all, which means that passion (an emotion towards something) isn’t reliable either. Just like in relationships, you might have to trust your initial commitment at times.

For some personalities and people with this habit, that’s probably why they never find that “one” thing, because nothing will ever be good enough to make them feel alive 24/7. I can relate with you on this, and I think we both have this habit, but I’ve seen in small examples the benefits of stubbornly following through when the emotions aren’t on board. I think it will hold true for the bigger examples.

I’ve almost quit Deep Existence about 5 times. Maybe I should have, but I’m trying not to flip-flop anymore just because something isn’t perfect. Everything will have uncertainty, downsides, and opportunity cost.

(note: I wrote this when Deep Existence only had 440 subscribers. Now our community is over 2,500 people!)

But if you picked a few good areas to focus your time on that you knew would pay off in 5 months, and stuck with them despite new shiny ideas, I bet you’d see the light. This is what I’m doing right now, and at the very least, it’s building up my persistence!

(note: This was just before my big breakthrough with Mini Habits. And I can confirm that my advice here is solid. This goes along with the November 5th message I sent to subscribers about how passion often comes AFTER success.)

Q: There’s one thing that really bugs me about self improvement and I would be curious to hear your thoughts, maybe even an article. I am very much a proponent of improving one’s self. I’ve read many articles and books. I even agree strongly with what most of them say. However, when I look at my own life, the desire to improve is there, but I find that I just have the greatest difficulty getting started. I’ve considered many of the strategies, including small goals, writing things down, etc. However, the initiative just doesn’t, well, initiate. I often feel like a paraplegic trying to drive a car – I’m in the car, I know how to drive, I’ve started the ignition, and know where to go. But when I try to move my foot on the gas, nothing happens. It’s like the nerve impulse just doesn’t pass along. This, of course, leads to frustration at myself and negative thinking.

I’m curious to hear what you think about that. Do others have this problem? Any strategies that can work?

Your question strikes me as funny, not because it is funny itself (it is a VERY common problem). It’s more that this is exactly what my upcoming book addresses (Mini Habits is the title). I’ve written almost 29,000 words on this topic. In fact, one subtitle for the book that I considered was “Mini Habits: Lasting Change For Early Quitters, Burnouts, The Unmotivated, And Everyone Else Too.”

One thing that could help…have you read my article on Willpower vs. Motivation?

You said: “I just have the greatest difficulty getting started. I’ve considered many of the strategies, including small goals, writing things down, etc. However, the initiative just doesn’t, well, initiate.”

So the two options for initiation are motivation and willpower.

Motivation – increase your motivation to act to the point that it exceeds all other options (TOUGH and unreliable, as the article above points out).

Willpower – Force yourself to take action.

Willpower is the way to do it. But I think your frustration and beliefs about your willpower matched up against the size of your goals is a mismatch (even small goals can look huge). It’s a knockout in the first round. That’s what your description tells me. Because tell me this…can you force yourself right now to touch your nose? Of course you can, because even though it’s pointless, even though it offers no reward, you HAVE ENOUGH willpower to make yourself do it. That alone should tell you something. You can force yourself to do things, but you have a limit, and that limit is possibly extreme because you’ve been in a failure/discouragement spiral. This is like muscle atrophy for willpower – it makes you weak and kills your belief that you can do it (which is called self-efficacy, and it’s the lifeblood of goal achievement).

So my suggestion for now is to read the above article and also the one push-up challenge, and create some kind of goal like that for yourself. If you feel a strong “I don’t want to do it” resistance, GO SMALLER. I don’t care if you have to go as small as “I will lift my right leg off the ground.” If that’s where you need to start, that’s fine. When I started the one push-up challenge last year, I had to set about 40-50 micro goals to complete a single 30 minute workout. That’s how weak my willpower was. That’s how defeated I felt. Now I work out without thinking twice because it’s habit. It’s EASY now.

You have to stop trying to do too much at once or you won’t do anything. It doesn’t matter if your small goals are small according to others, they have to be so small that YOU laugh at them because they’re so easy. Make yourself start, and start every day. My rule of thumb is “stupid small” steps – where it’s so small it sounds stupid (one push-up, write 50 words). If you have the tiniest amount of internal desire to do whatever it is, starting small is eventually going to ignite that desire.

One more possible issue could be pride. I initially scoffed at my one push-up goal and almost didn’t do it. Try to instill the belief that any progress forward is better than nothing, because it’s true.

And never, ever wait for motivation. It comes after you take action, and only if you’re lucky does it come beforehand. You have no obligation to feel like acting before you act. Make yourself act.

Mini Habits goes into a lot more depth on why this works and how to do it, but those two articles I mentioned are a great starting point. I hope that helps.

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