How to Find & Sustain Motivation To Take Action
Do you know why you're not taking action?
So you know what question I get asked the most in my Creative Experiments workshops and 1-1 Creativity Calls?
"How have you managed to keep yourself motivated?"
They're talking about my first Year of Creative Experiments.
For 12 whole months, I randomly picked a creative experiment to try out. No pressure, no goals, no expectations. The only rule was I had to write online about what I learned.
I actually stuck with it for an entire year, and the impact has been mind-blowing–personally, professionally, mentally, and emotionally (all the -y’s!)
Because here's the thing:
I never saw myself as a disciplined or creative person–and used to beat myself up over my (self-diagnosed) lack of these elusive qualities.
So what changed?
How was I able to motivate myself enough to start, let alone keep going for an entire year?
The honest answer is: I coached myself through journaling.
Let me explain.
Thoughts ➝ Feelings ➝ Actions / Inactions ➝ Results
If we agree that our thoughts create our feelings, and our feelings dictate what we do/don’t do, and our actions/inactions define our results - then we can agree our thoughts are where it all starts.
If you want to get results (meaningful, long-lasting results!), you need to begin by analyzing your thoughts.
Thoughts ➝ Feelings ➝ Actions/Inactions ➝ Results
Most people fail at making a change because they try to skip the whole icky thoughts and feelings part and jump straight to ACTION.
They try to beat themselves into making the change. And ideally that change is impressive and overnight.
And that rarely works.
Not because they don’t have what it takes. Not because they don’t have good ideas. Not because it’s too late or they don’t have time.
But because they're not looking at the underlying thoughts and feelings.
It's very simple:
You have to understand yourself before you can change yourself.
The challenge is we have no idea what we’re thinking. Our mind runs 95% of our life on automation.
“Neuroscientists have shown that most of our decisions, actions, emotions and behavior depend on the 95% of brain activity that is beyond our conscious awareness, which means that 95% of our life comes from the programming in our subconscious mind.” - Bruce Lipton
On top of that, paying attention to our thoughts is a skill we've never learned or placed much (any?) value on. It’s seen as navel-gazing. A form of self-indulgent and excessive focus on yourself. An inefficient use of your time. Why spend 30 minutes writing in a journal when you have 30 unread e-mails in your inbox?
But the bigger challenge is that it’s damn uncomfortable. You probably won’t like much of what you’re thinking, once you start paying attention. Of the roughly 60,000 thoughts we have per day, most of them will be negative and repetitive. I recently saw someone describe thinking about uncomfortable thoughts as “staring into the abyss” - which I think describes it perfectly.
It's dark. It's scary. It's unknown. It'll probably be quite lonely as well.
But here's the truth:
If you truly want to change something important in your life, you need to resist the urge to look away and distract yourself with prettier things.
So here's what I did.
I started writing down all my thoughts.
Whenever I’d notice a strong feeling — disappointment, resignation, envy, frustration— I’d stop and ask myself:
“Where did that come from?”
“What was I thinking about right before I noticed that feeling?”
And it was fascinating because often I wouldn’t even know what I was thinking until I paused and retraced my steps.
“Oh right, I saw that Instagram post a few minutes ago, and now I’m feeling low. What was that post about? Who was it from? Why do I think that made me feel this way?”
And I’d write down the answers. Sometimes just a few words, sometimes entire paragraphs.
Then I’d review those notes on the weekend, and take time to journal in more detail. I'd analyze them like a detective.
And here’s why that is so, so powerful
Journaling allows you to take the time to sit still, look inward, and be brutally honest with yourself. It’s not always pretty. We can be petty and insecure, selfish and envious.
These are not qualities we’re proud of, so we tend to hide from those thoughts.
Telling your journal the uncensored truth, without looking to impress or convince anyone else, is difficult but necessary, and ultimately helps you to know and understand yourself more fully.
All of us, whether we admit it or not, have so many ideas and dreams. But we don't dare to speak them out loud. What will other people think? Will they laugh? Will they think we're naive or silly to even believe we could ever do something like that?
And in journaling, instead of immediately pushing those thoughts away, you answer them. Honestly.
And after a while, you begin noticing patterns. You start to see what you care about, and what your triggers are.
For me, for example, I knew I was hard on myself. That I had high expectations and was a "perfectionist." But seeing the words on paper day after day made me realize how deep these negative thoughts were running.
They’re easy to ignore in the busyness of work, life, dinners, and hangovers.
But on paper, it's all there. Staring back at you. It becomes impossible to hide from, but instead of that being scary, it's liberating.
The more I wrote about my so-called "flaws" and "weaknesses," the more I started analyzing where these thoughts were even coming from. Are they true? Have they served me in any way so far? If not, is there anything I can do about them? If so, what? If not, how can I let them go? What do I need to see, read, or learn to start believing the opposite?
Action becomes unavoidable.
Clues from the environment
And here’s what’s really cool, and what will motivate you to keep going:
As you start getting a sense of what's going on in your mind, you'll start noticing little clues in your environment that help you deal with those thoughts.
It can be a paragraph in a book or something someone says on a podcast. Every day, I'd have these lightbulb moments.
I started hearing stories like James Dyson, working on 5,000 prototypes before finding the winning one. Or J.K. Rowling, receiving 12 (!!) rejections of her Harry Potter pitch. Or Walt Disney, getting fired from his first job because "he wasn't creative enough."
Before journaling, these stories wouldn’t have resonated with me as much. Now, they meant everything. I clung to them and reminded myself of these people whenever I could hear myself thinking, "it's too late" or "why bother?"
I also wrote a lot about my insecurities around my memory and lack of real, deep interests and talents.
But as I was reading books like The Happiness Advantage (Shawn Achor) and The Brain (David Eagleman), I learned about neuroplasticity. How our brains are dynamic, and we can learn and grow, no matter how old we are. How the feelings of frustration when learning a new skill are a neurological and vital part of the learning process—not a sign that you can't do it.
I started seeing and hearing how everyone, even those I used to put on a pedestal, struggles with insecurity. How to improve, you have to be okay with looking foolish at the start. How most 'overnight successes' had years of trial and error, failures and rejections. How most of the issues I struggle with are universal, and part of our human condition.
All of these stories, all of these ideas, all of these learnings—I started weaving them into my answers to my own questions in my journal.
Damn slow process
If you're thinking: "Pffff, that sounds time-consuming."
You're right. It is.
This is a damn slow process. Journaling is one of those first-order negative, second-order positive habits. It takes effort, and you’ll feel like you’re wasting your time. And when you look at all the stuff you just spilled out on paper, you'll wonder what the heck to do with it.
For a while, you’ll feel worse before you feel better.
So that's where you need to trust in the process and keep going. Keep writing the same thoughts if you have to.
Approach the process with curiosity, fascination, and experimentation. You are getting to know yourself, the most important person in your life, on a whole new level.
You are literally rewiring your thought patterns, one journal entry at a time.
And the longer you wait with addressing the root issues, the longer it will take for you to get to where you so eagerly want to get to. So when you really think about this rationally, it makes no sense to try to skip these steps.
(That’s why I don't like these courses and books promising quick fixes, jumping straight to the actions, systems, and how-to's. They make it seem as if all you have to do is follow the steps, and everything will work out exactly as planned. And when it doesn't, you end up feeling frustrated and blaming yourself, and you're right back where you started. Or worse, you've just reinforced a belief that "see, I can't stick with anything.")
Becoming aware of your mind gives you a feeling of control and responsibility.
And once you’re willing to look at all your thoughts and feel all emotions, negative and positive, there’s nothing you can’t do. Nothing you can’t try. Nothing you can’t handle.
You won't have to do this forever
For the first year or so, I journaled every - single - day.
Now, I do it every few days, mostly when I'm feeling stuck. But now, I only do it every few days when I'm feeling stuck. I don't have the same negative thoughts anymore, like thinking I'm not creative or that it's too late for me. And when they try to sneak back in, I'm much better equipped at noticing them and keep moving forward regardless.
Of course, there are plenty of other, new thoughts–but I have gotten much better at spotting them early on and coaching myself through them. They’re also not as ingrained as the old ones, so they’re way easier to tackle and debunk.
Oh, and I still review my journals every month. It might sound like a pain, but I know enjoy this process, and it never takes more than 30 minutes.
The only way to know is by starting
Okay, if you feel like you're willing to try, do this:
During the day, when you notice yourself feeling down or worried or unsettled, see if you can spot the thought behind the feeling.
As soon as you’ve spotted it, write it down.
Start seeing your phone as your partner in crime here. We carry this thing around with us 24/7 anyway. It takes less than a second to open your Apple Notes and jot some thoughts down. Bullet points, words, complete sentences. It doesn’t matter. Let it be messy, both in content and style. Don’t overthink or worry about what to write. It doesn’t need to make sense, and there doesn’t need to be any structure to it.
And do it immediately, in the moment. I don't care if you're standing in line at the supermarket or just about to get into your car. If you don't do it right away, you'll forget.
Then, after 2 weeks of doing this, start looking for content that can help you positively address the patterns you're exposing. Go look for books, podcasts, conversations, and newsletters. Ask for recommendations.
And for a while, block content that makes you feel low. How about deleting Instagram and Facebook for a month? Just to see how it feels.
And most importantly: be patient.
Remember: Your brain is the most powerful tool you have in the world. Everything you do, and the results you achieve, are all caused by the thoughts within your brain. This will be the best time you ever spend.
If you're intrigued but still unsure how to get started, I'm happy to share more in a 1-1 Creativity Chat.