The what why and how of getting into action and the myth of motivation

It all starts with thinking

When we are stuck, not taking any action, we often find ourselves wistfully saying if only I had a bit more motivation. But motivation to do what? If you are stuck, it’s most likely there are too many unknown’s. You’re not sure what you want exactly. You may not even be sure where ‘here’ is. Or maybe you have a clear goal, even had it for a while, but you’re just not getting any closer to it and don’t know what to try now.

Why are you procrastinating?

It is impossible to generate action without clarity, the what, why and how of doing. If you are procrastinating there are potentially two issues getting in the way and they occur in this order;

  1. Not enough planning in at least one of the three stages; what, why and how.
  2. Emotional resistance

We are often focused on the emotional element first, having been sold the myth that if we feel good we can conquer anything, or that if we resolve old emotional issues we become more effective. Sorry to say, but even when we feel great, we can be idling in the shallows if there is not enough planning.

Let me explain.

Actions are generated by thinking – Feeling ‘good’ or ‘motivated’ cannot initiate actions.

Emotions can, however, block action- Emotions like fear, confusion or uncertainty all signal danger and will stop action.  We cannot sustain consistent action when there is significant ‘danger’ except for the actions that ensure survival (see graphic).

Emotions are themselves products of thinking. If we think something is dangerous we feel fear. If we cannot understand a situation we feel confused etc. If emotions can block action it’s understandable why we believe that simply ‘clearing’ these up is enough to stop procrastinating and restart action. But alas no. You still need clarity of what, why and how to start, and stay, in action. Without clarity, you are left in a state of confusion. Confusion is one of the emotions that stop action.

 What is motivation?

When we are unable to get into action we say we don’t feel ‘motivated’ enough, using the term as if it’s an emotion. Let’s consider what motivation really means? Motivation means having a motive, a cause or reason to act, it’s our ‘why’, that is, the second stage of planning. Motivation, it turns out, is not something we feel, it is something we think. This means we don’t have enough clarity on ‘why’ we want it, the rewards of reaching our goal and any upside during the process.

For example, you want to study to get a better job. Rewards from finishing the qualification include pride in achievement and increased social status/salary/employability. Rewards along the way may include, leaving a bad job, making new friends, living on campus/new city and for some the joy of learning. All of these only counts if you personally think they are positive.

The ‘why’ must also be the net reward after considering all costs; personal effort, actual costs, potential costs, losing the security of your current position and consequences of doing it badly (taking many years or not graduating). If there is no negative consequence of staying where you are now but action requires much effort for undefined rewards, why make the effort? Because you should? Because you ‘want it’? Neither of these is reasons enough to get you into action.

Are your attempts at ‘getting motivated’ making it worse?

To create sufficient clarity to get into action temporarily throw out the visualisation board, the 5 am alarms and other “simple” success strategies. These can be making the situation worse by creating new emotional barriers to action. Yes, all of these success ‘tools’ can make it harder to start or continue.

If you cannot get yourself into action but have started ramping up ‘motivation’, you are proving your inability to achieve your goal; no action = no progress forward = lost resources (time) = failure. This artificial loss is creating more emotional resistance and barriers to action.

How planning helps!

It’s time to start thinking in much greater detail to get yourself into action. Thinking includes 3 different aspects and they are best started in this order;

  • Deciding exactly what you want – setting specific goals and milestones. What does being ‘done’ really look like?  For example, you want to be an Art critic. That is a big lofty hard-to-define goal. Instead, you might focus on a specific tangible milestone; to have 5 unique art reviews published within 12 months. With this tighter milestone, you can now plan why this will benefit you and then what actions are needed, which need to be repeated and how often etc.
  • Understanding why you want to do this. This can be very tricky and is the place most goals stall. Without reasons you can quantify, you cannot continue to the how stage of planning. But sometimes you cannot work out if your goal is worth the effort until you know exactly how much effort it will it take, the exact value (both monetary and emotional) of the rewards including milestone rewards.  So the ‘Why’ phase often needs to include some research on the ‘how’. Analyse (cost + risk) vs. reward of the final goal and each of the milestones. Often the early stages of a plan can appear to be all negative, requiring huge additional effort, like years of education. Having clarity over what the total costs and rewards actually are is very important to both starting and staying in action during the cost/negative phase. For example, knowing how much salary advantage your qualifications can give you over the next 25 years versus the costs of tuition and salary lost during study.
  • Finally, how you would go about it all. To quantify the why you have already completed some of the how. The danger here is to think your initial considerations of how are enough to get started. Certainly, if you did the why analysis thoroughly it will ‘feel’ great. Seeing how much more upside than effort there is will energise you. You are as they say; on fire!. But beware, you will need to go into ALL the details to prevent resistance creeping back or becoming totally stalled later.

If a lot of detail makes planning seem overwhelming, then plan for a shorter horizon to a specific milestone which has a significant tangible reward. The reward must be big enough to justify the effort even if you go no further. Do you need a 5-year plan or a 3 month one? For example, will completing just the one stage of the education give you enough upside?   Big goals do take a long time to achieve, but the longer the time frame you set, the harder it will be to plan at a detailed enough level to get started.

Just do it – and the never give up death-trap

Should the story of Edison trying a thousand different materials for the filament in the lightbulb inspire us to never give up?

No. Edison had a real plan and was following a proven success process.

As a scientist, his life was about discovering things by hypothesising and experimenting with a range of options, to eliminate what does not work, in order to establish what does. So ‘failure’ is a positive action in his context that directs future actions toward success. There was also no social downside, everyone expects scientists to fail continuously. Financially risk? Nope, he was being paid to conduct these experiments. When a reporter asked, “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”

But if you are not following a proven plan and being paid for the journey, then continuously ‘failing’ will create a huge toll on your mental health, perhaps to the extent that it will rob you of your energy to perform in other parts of your life.

Should you stop wanting things if you cannot work out how to achieve them?


Just don’t torture yourself if you are doing nothing about making it happen, nor confuse wanting, wishing and hoping with having a goal.

To want something and let the ‘universe provide’ can sometimes help gather information to allow detailed planning and thus get you into action later. Coming back to the art critic, with your heightened desire to achieve the goal of publishing 5 articles, you become more observant of relevant issues. You notice adverts for writing courses, ask more questions of anyone who is already in the field, read more about art, and so forth. All this ‘universe’ provided input contributes to being able to start really planning, by clarifying parts of the what, why, or how.

The role of research and networking

As a variation to waiting on the universe to provide, you can actively seek more input on any of the three stages, by researching or interacting with people who are already on this journey.

Planning is boring

Agreed. So is brushing your teeth, and as adults, we know there are real consequences, physically in the long term and socially in the short term, if we don’t do it. To succeed, planning is not just an event, it is a daily component of success. This does not mean you are continuously changing the plan, rather maintain clarity you may need to review it daily or refine it as you progress and you have more information. If you talk to anyone with greater success than you, you will see that they have done, and are doing, more planning than you are currently doing.

While enough planning must occur before action can start, you will need to be continually planning on a daily, and if unforeseen obstacles emerge, even an hourly basis for action to continue. We have many names for this continuous planning, like ‘time management’ and being ‘agile’ or ‘responsive’. This can be happening subconsciously, which does work beautifully for some people. But regardless of your usual style, if you are procrastinating you need to do your daily planning consciously, at least till are fully active again.

Where does a coach fit in?

There are lots of misconceptions about the role of the modern-day business coach. A coach is not here to provide public accountability and to keep your ‘toes to the fire’. These just increase your emotional risk of humiliation and reduce action. We don’t need to pay anyone to tell us we are behind schedule. If you think you do need someone to tell you, then you probably have a parent or sibling who will gladly do this for free.

Coaches help us becoming better at the planning, improving our skills (doing) and managing our emotions on the journey.

  1. Planning: Giving you the headspace to plan, by focusing your attention on the goal, why it matters to you and its steps. Providing skills and methodology for planning. While a coach does not need to be a subject expert they need to be good at analysis and planning, otherwise, you could use any friend to question your decisions.
  2. Doing: Improving your activity by helping to analyse the progress and by offering feedback. By telling your coach how you felt you are not just sharing the burden, but this conversation can lead to practical adjustments to the plan, improving your results, and reduce the emotional consequences over time.
  3. Managing emotions: Moral support while you learn to crawl. A cheer squad on the journey who is objectively able to say, “your winning because you’re getting better and failing less now”. The feedback that you are going forward, no matter how slowly, reduces your fear response and makes future actions easier. When you work alone the uncertainty of not knowing if your effort is moving you forward is enough for your brain to stop all activity to conserve energy for actions that can produce positive outcomes.

We all need help making things happen in our lives. A few coaching sessions could be the start of a new adventure or the insight to conquer a specific roadblock. Let’s start the conversation by emailing me at

Corporate Coaching since 1994 in Sydney or by Skype across Australia and New Zealand.

How delving into misery can create more joy in your life

“If you want the rainbow, you need to deal with the rain” – John Green

Our brains, like the rest of our bodies, are designed to heal and regenerate. Just as our lungs are designed to breathe out the bad air and in the good air, our minds need to deal with the bad thoughts to make way for healthier new ones. It’s not just the extreme of holding our breath that will cause our lungs to explode, it’s the breathing in of toxins that causes long-term oxygen deprivation and cell death. So too it is with ignoring our pain, from small annoyances to evenets that makes us misery, that deprives us of the ability to engage fully in the good parts of our lives and grow.

You cannot move on to a positive emotional state while your brain is filled with misery. Nor can you either pretend it didn’t happen or plaster it over with positivity, which is like holding your breath. Eventually the pressure of the pain will burst through, as a major illness. You need to jump (or sytemtically tiptoe) into that misery to excavate the old, to open the space for the new. Our brains only have so much capacity to think (emotions are just old thoughts) and if, it is full, it cannot take in new happy thoughts.

But even worse, our brains attach new thoughts to similar old ones for efficiency. We accept new thoughts fastest that fit well with our existing ones and easily forget new ones that there is nowhere to file. If your brain is filled with pain and fear it will have a hard time fitting the lovely positive new ones anywhere and certainly not as equals.

Spending an hour each day doing ‘positive’ thinking may have no effect on your mood if those thoughts have nothing to latch on to. Meanwhile your brain is strengthening fear and pain from just a minute’s negative processing. We need to resolve (remove/break/disolve) the link between the historical events and our current survival so that your brain can move out of survival and be free for growth.

Resolved is different from forgotten. You can resolve painful emotions around events and still rememeber what happened. When you think back to the event, there may even be some residue negative charge/emotion, but this is akin to scar tissue. The scar is not going to spread into something more dangerous by continuing to influence your thoughts and actions on a daily basis.

How To Resolve Your Old Negative Emotions, in this order;

1. Have them
Feeling it again, over and over, until the feelings lessen. Think about it, cry, talk about it, stomp your feet, rage against the gym equipment etc. If you cannot find specific events to focus on yet you are feeling down you can do a general emotion dump. My favourite technique for this is EFT and the Ortner’s are my favourite practitioners of this.

2. Get professional help
If you have suffered any of these life events; an assault, loss of a significant other through divorce or death, public humiliation, bankruptcy, been fired etc, it is best to do this with a medical professional such as a psychologist or clinically qualified therapist, not a life or business coach. Do not underestimate the depth of these emotions because you appear to be ‘coping’ or it wasn’t as bad as what other people have experienced. Any event that endangers our survival; physically, emotionally or financial will dig into the deepest level of our subconscious because survival is the primary function of the brain and takes priority every minute of every day over everything else.

Regardless of the event, if you feel like you are bordering on depression, or you have in ANY WAY been limiting your interaction with others; stopped applying for new jobs or dating or even engaging less in a sport or social activity, absolutely see a medical professional.

3. Get systematic
If the emotional charge is lower, examine your memories in a systematic detailed way. Put your thoughts under a microscope and engage the logic circuits. A significantfunction of our survivalcapacity is problem solving,so start by laying out the problem in detail.

This could be by writing a list or journaling exactly what happened. Get really detailed. Like super detailed, include every tiny thing you can remember, time of day, weather, smell, what you were wearing. Or, if there was a single significant event, write it out as a play script including dialogue and staging directions to the actors.

Your brain’s capacity for logic will kick in to clarifying which aspects of this event are still dangerous and then will start searching subconsciously for a solution to prevent any future consequences.

4. Rewrite history
I have used the write a ‘script for a play’ a few times. If, I first have a good cry, stomp, EFT session before starting to write, I usually find I can no longer recall all the issues in enough detail to finish the play. I then continue writing it as fiction and editing the factual parts I can still recall with what I would have preferred and just having fun with it. These improved fictional edits then stay in memory ready to do or say the next time something similar happens.

Your brain does not know the difference between; thoughts that you imagined and replay compared to memories of events that happened if they are of equal detail. Therefore, imagining yourself doing something in detail is a great way to prepare for doing it better. Athletes actively do this all the time. It’s not about imagining it ending well, the victory, rather imagining DOING it well. See your legs pumping faster than ever before as you run the race and then standing on the podium receiving your medal.


Fill Your Day With Good Stuff.

Scientific research shows smiling and laughing have positive effects on mental and physical health. Stay alert to things to smile and laugh at. Smile and laugh, out loud, longer when these things happen.

Actively create better content by adding many, even tiny, events that make you happy. Create a list of 5 positive little things that you can spread through every day regardless of who you are with or what other obligations you have for that day. One of mine is to buy a coffee from my favourite café and really savour that first taste. Your day might allow you to listen to great music on headphones or step out into nature for a few minutes.And when you have time you might; watch feel-good movies and read books that leave you feeling inspired or filled with hope. Watch Frozen 12 times, even if you don’t have kids.

The Power Of Gratitude’s

The reason gratitude’s work way better than ‘positive’ thinking or affirmations is because you are reinforcing things that have happened to you and are already fully formed in memory. There are existing memories to easily attach the positive gratitude thoughts too. Gratitude’s don’t work if you cannot think why these events are positive. Your brain is not an idiot. The generic ‘everything occurs for a reason’ is not enough. You must actually see something positive to feel happier.

Having a daily evening gratitude ritual is a great way to resolve potentially negative daily events by analysing them for positive content to be grateful for. It will also change the ‘file to long-term memory’ balance while you sleep. Your brain will continue highlighting the positive events of the day to file and sending to trash the day’s insignificant events leaving your brain better prepared for processing more positive stuff tomorrow.

You can start this ‘clearing’ through the day, long before you actually go to sleep, like as you cook, or on your trip home from work. Better still, have a work grattitude ritual before you leave work. You can end the workday with a positive sense of closure or by writing a better to-do list for tomorrow. Either way, you can then leave work at work.

If you have young children, you can instal this habit with them by playing the ‘name three happy things’ during their bed-time routine. It’s not too late for grumpy teenagers either, you’re just going to need to debate the events of their day until they get the hang of seeing the good for themselves.

Make it part of your own bedtime routine. If your day was filled with boring uneventful stuff you may be unable to whip up any genuine gratitude’s. It’s ok to end your day thinking about something from days, weeks or years past that you are still grateful for.