Know Yourself to Motivate Yourself

We all need a loving little push now and then. Can we be both the pusher and the pushee? Can we work with our own strengths and weaknesses? What might that look like? Here are three suggestions.

Set a High Bar

A writer client was stuck in the weeds while developing an incisive essay on a “ripped from the headlines” topic that’s the client’s expertise. They couldn’t seem to find that one thing to focus on, a spine from which the entire piece could hang.

How to get back onto the path forward? Set up a speaking engagement at a nonprofit organization’s conference, some months in the future. Not yet knowing whether their pitch would be accepted, just the act of volunteering to speak to an audience was enough to open the way ahead. The client immersed again in their writing. Some part of them, always ready to show up and do an excellent job in public, took charge of the decision to focus as soon as a speech was in the offing. By comparison, writing an excellent essay looked doable, and gave the writer the positive energy required to recommit to their work. Their speech (yes, they got the slot) will be a shorter spin-off from the longer-form essay they are now crafting.

Set a Low Bar

Writers often challenge themselves with metrics for their output: Words written per day. Hours spent “butt in chair” at the writing desk. Pages edited. Queries sent out. Etc. For some, those expectations are just the ticket. For others, perhaps especially those who fancy ourselves too creative and flexible for such regimentation, such demands morph into cruel and restrictive, even punitive, obligations imposed by some evil outside force which must be repelled. Yes, even when we’re the one who made those demands on ourselves. (Who said people make sense?)

How to set and meet specified goals we’ll actually want to achieve? Make them tiny ones. Promising to write each morning for five minutes seems pretty doable. Five minutes won’t usually register as cruel, punitive, or evil, right? Even on a bad day, a few minutes can be identified. The secret is starting. As anyone who has tried this knows that, oftentimes, five minutes can slide into ten, twenty, forty-five, and more minutes. Setting a ridiculously low bar can be the key to success.

Photo of a little dog mid-air as it jumps and clears a low hurdle suspended between two yellow plastic cones

Twofer! Cute puppy clears a low (or high, if you’re the dog) bar. Threefer!
Image by Petra from Pixabay


I don’t have direct verification for this next technique, but that won’t stop me from including it. Cute kittens and puppies! I mean, what’s not to like? Turns out scientists gave university students some tasks requiring precise motor skills (playing a children’s game similar to “Operation,” where you tweeze out foreign objects from a miniature body) and visual focus (identifying how many times a specified letter appears in an array). During breaktime, some of the students viewed cute photos of kittens and puppies, while others looked at everyday photos of grown cats and dogs. Dramatically better results resulted from the test subjects in the kittens-and-puppies cohort. The response seems to have to do with hardwired human responses to the young animals’ “infantile” features (and applied equally to men and women test subjects).

How to sharpen your skills when everything seems dull? If you need to increase your focus and carefulness, take a short break and look at some photos (or videos?) of cute kittens and/or puppies. (Or walk on the wild side and expand to the as-yet-untested universe of other adorable young mammals.) The study’s scientists conclude their article explaining, “Cute features not only make objects more user friendly and approachable, but also induce careful behavioral tendencies in the users.”

Use Your Powers for Good

What do these three suggestions – high bar, low bar, and cuteness – have in common? They all provide ways we can acknowledge our own strengths and weaknesses, and apply them to our important work. Stuck in the messy middle? Consider challenging yourself with a bigger, related commitment. Rebelling against your own guidelines? Consider forming an easy low-stress habit. Unable to give your edits the detailed attention they need? Take a kitten or puppy break. The more we know our own foibles, the more we can lovingly work with ourselves to thrive creatively.

What do you do when you get stuck? Have you tried any of these suggestions in your own life?  Drop a line in the comments – I’d love to know.

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Thanks for reading!