Inspiration is Perishable


Over the last week, I’ve outlined two blog posts that have excited me, about topics that I think are important and I feel I have something worth saying about. The problem is that now that I have some time to actually write them, I just don’t have the motivation to do so.

The title of this post comes from a short essay in a great book called Rework, by Jason Fried and David Hennemeier Hanson of the company 37Signals. The idea is to act on your inspiration when it strikes because it won’t be here tomorrow, no matter how potent it might be right now. If that means working well into the night, rearranging your plans, whatever, then go for it.

There’s definitely merit to this idea, but it’s not really practical in most situations. I write this blog in the margins of my life, mostly on the weekends and in the subway to and from work. It’s necessarily a secondary priority to my job and my girlfriend. If the only way I could do good work on the blog was to drop everything else, I would choose not to do good work.

So I am often in the position of having to return to work I’ve started earlier, and that brings me to the question of why the motivation perishes. I think it’s this: motivation results from a belief that you have something worthwhile to gain from taking an action. To truly be motivated, that needs to exist not just as words in your mind but as a clear and tangible vision of what you have to gain and how, the clearer and more tangible the better. The challenge is that this vision depends on a lot of supporting factors, including your recent experiences with the problem, experiences of your own success in related circumstances, relevant knowledge you have about the moving parts. All of this was in your head at the time of the inspiration. In the meantime, other experiences, facts, and thoughts have taken their place.

So I am often in the position of having to return to work I’ve started earlier, and there are two simple strategies I follow.

1) Give up and move on.

This is a variant on “Inspiration is perishable.” If I don’t have the inspiration for what I said I’d do before, what do I have the inspiration for? That’s actually the strategy I am successfully doing in this post. I had something outlined about interactions with others, but it’s been four days since I was confused by a coworker that I thought was too flippantly dismissive of another coworker’s perspective, and I’ve moved on. Maybe I’ll write about how to think about others’ opinions the next time a similar situation comes up. In the meantime, my outline has been captured, so some progress has been made should I return.

2) Commit to ten minutes.

The secret of this is that it helps to recreate the original mindset, those experiences with the problem and your own successes, all that relevant knowledge. This may sound like a lot of work, but I think for a lot of people, this happens fairly automatically when they actually force themselves to sit down again. The inner monologue sounds something like, “Okay, let’s get this over with. What was I trying to do again? Okay, I wanted to write a blog post about dismissing others. Why was that again? Oh, yeah, Jane was making fun of George’s good idea. Why does she do that? I think it’s because she’s just so focused on checking things off that she oversimplifies things. Oh yeah, I was thinking that a lot of people do this.” And so on. One question begets the next, and all those answers make up a mindset. Nine times out of ten, you lose track of the end of those ten minutes because you’re off pursuing your inspiration.

Now, those are the simple strategies for recreating a motivated mindset. I think they’re really effective for a lot of people a lot of the time. But clearly there are often bigger issues. If there weren’t, I wouldn’t have much of a blog to write. So expect more on this subject. When I feel like it.



  1. The ten minute trick is kind of a hack, but it can be really effective when there isn’t some kind of larger block in the way.

    Great post Randal. Looking forward to the next one.

  2. I find it helpful to keep in mind that motivation is typically an issue of contrasts or opportunity costs. If you lose motivation to do X without explicitly changing your mind about X’s value, it’s usually because really you feel like you’d rather be doing Y. So a good thing to do is to just pose that question to yourself: is Y really more worthy of my time than X? And that helps to bring in the whole context that you mention in your “commit to ten minutes” point.

    This is part of the reason why teaching brings a whole new load of mental strain to graduate students: because they’d rather be teaching than writing their dissertation. (Of course often they’d rather be reading blogs than writing their dissertations too, but that’s a different issue. ;))

  3. Also, I’d like to state for the record that whatever software decided that Sam was a squished perterbed-looking purple hourglass and that I’m a radish/carrot hybrid that has just been run over by a truck is totally on the mark.

  4. And totally *off* the mark is the software that has decided that “Inspiration is Perishable” is a post possibly related to this one. Identity is not a relation!

  5. All of Matt’s points are good ones. Especially the one about our icons. I actually thought that was a photograph of Matt when I first looked at it.

    Opportunity cost is a great way to think about the issue of motivation and of time management in general. It’s the same with money; you can’t evaluate how much something is worth to you without thinking about what else you could spend the money on.

    The trick to spending money well and the trick to spending time well both involve balancing what you want with the facts involved. The key in both cases is not to push aside your desires, but to try to consult the relevant facts first before you take your desires too seriously. Desires are always informed by facts, and usually by the facts that are the most concrete to you in any given moment.

    I think the trick is to commit to bringing a certain amount of context to light before you decide what you really want to do. Thinking about opportunity costs is a great way to do this.

  6. First of all, I just have to geek a bit that there was a back and forth in the comments section of my blog. Alright, back to being professional.

    I agree with everything that’s being said here. The idea of evaluating different options and committing to one is very interesting to me, and I think they are both places where a lot of people have real problems. Incidentally, these are a big subject in the great psychology (and rock climbing) book Rock Warrior’s Way, which I plan to raid as often as possible for the blog.

    Ultimately, I think the two of you are making two slightly different points, both important. Matt’s talking about the problem of working on contradictory desires, when you’d prefer to do something else. Sam is talking about alternatives as well, but I think more from the perspective of concreteness, that you can’t really evaluate until the full scope of your options is real to you. Is that about right?

  7. I was basically elaborating on Matt’s point with a more general one, that cost benefit analysis is a great way of making the context of a decision more concrete, which will often alter your emotions.

    The larger point here is that emotions respond to facts. The ten minute approach and thinking about alternatives are both ways of clarifying our emotions by bringing the relevant facts into focus.

  8. i want to leave a comment to see what my icon is.

  9. oh, dammit!

  10. One very obvious fact that I think men especially tend to forget is that emotions, including motivation and inspiration can be cultivated. Sometimes instead of simply trying to get back to work from where you left off, the best approach is to engage in some activity specifically designed to rekindle your motivation. That can be anything from reading an article on the topic, or trying to come up with some fresh insights. I found that my biggest obstacle was learning to recognize my own emotions as a distinct roadblock that had to be addressed separately and not just “powered through.”

  11. I really want to write more about what Eran said, because I think it’s a really crucial point. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to write anything now, so I’ll have to just say that I think what Eran said is a really crucial point.

  12. Not only (or even more often) for men.

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