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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.

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