The three secrets of motivation



One day I’ll get motivated, but for today I can’t be bothered…

I’ve been thinking about motivation. I’ve noticed something a little bit strange. That is “strange” as in “strange and useful”, not “strange” as in “strange and weird – I’ll post it youtube.”

When we think of motivation, we think of the big thing we want to achieve. We want to be rich or we want to lose weight or write that novel, or whatever.

For some people that may be enough. There are some lucky souls who can take a lofty goal like that and swoop their way towards it in leaps and bounds that can clear a skyscraper. That’s great for them, but the rest of us mortals can’t quite manage such feats of superheroism. Or superheroineism if you want to be gender neutral.

The problem with these big goals is that they can seem to be too big. Too far away. Unreachable. They intimidate us with their vastness.

Because of this, we put off doing them. There is always tomorrow to climb that mountain. It isn’t going to go away.

Well, no, the mountain isn’t going to go away. But tomorrow is. Or rather, today is. This day will never come back. We only get it once. Says the author who chose the pen name of Once.

What do you do if you are one of those people who struggles to get motivated by big stuff?

It turns out that there is a simple answer. You break a big task down into little tasks and you attach a number to those little tasks. Then repeat, repeat, repeat.

Let’s have some examples.

My dental hygienist nags me to clean my teeth for two minutes. Thirty seconds for front top, thirty seconds for back top … and I’ll stop before I have to type ‘front bottom’ (which has always made me giggle).

The Government says we should eat five portions of fruit and veg each day. Which has incidentally given rise to an industry of argument about what is a portion and whether beer, wine and chocolate count as fruit.

Bottled water companies say that we should drink two litres of water a day. Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?

We should walk 10,000 steps per day.

The Pomodoro technique encourages us to work in 25 minute bursts followed by five minutes of break.


Many writers set themselves a daily target for how many words they should write.

And so on. Unpeel any successful person and you will almost certainly find the same thing. Their success will be based on the constant repetition of a number of good things. Building achievement one step at a time.

The journey of a thousand miles doesn’t just begin with one step. It is completed one step at a time too.

Yes, but, but, but … there’s always a butt, isn’t there?

Yes, yes, the targets themselves are largely meaningless. There is no science behind many of them. There is no reason why we should eat five portions of fruit or veg. Some countries use a different number. Five was chosen simply because it is easy to remember and the whole concept might fall over if was too hard.

Some scientists quibble over the 10,000 steps a day target. Apparently it should be 8,000. Or 7,000. Or one figure for men and another for women. Or …

Nonsense. 10,000 will do just fine. It’s a big round number. That’s all we need to know. Stop arguing and just do it.


The reason that these things work is that they are simple to remember, they are not intimidating and they break down a big task into smaller manageable chunks.

There’s something else. These targets also work because they stop you from doing the wrong things. Eating five portions of fruit and veg doesn’t just mean that you are eating healthy stuff. It also means that you aren’t eating rubbish – sugary processed food.

But a negative target does not work so well as a positive one. “Don’t eat sugary processed food” is not as effective a message as “do eat five portions of the good stuff”.

Similarly, when we are sitting at the word processor writing today’s pages of their best-seller to be, we are not indulging our time thieves by chatting on social media, checking up youtube, twotting or playing computer games.

That is the first secret of motivation. Don’t focus on the big goal that you want to achieve. Break it down to little daily steps. Attach numbers to those steps – simple everyday numbers that you can count or get technology to count for you. And then just do it. Day after day.

Don’t stare at the mountain. That will only scare you. Focus on your boots. One step at a time. You can manage one step, can’t you?

Then one day you will look up and discover that you have lost a lot of weight. You are much fitter than before. You can write “The End” on that novel.

And the next two secrets of motivation? Sorry, I fibbed. There is only one and I have already told you what it is. I simply thought it would grab your attention more if I claimed there were three. That’s the power of these funny little numbers.


Now, if you will excuse me, I have today’s 2,000 words to write for “Love, Death and Words” – the sequel to “Love, Death and Tea”.


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