Updated: Jul 20, 2019
There’s a reason this blog is called Life By Grit and not Life By Motivation. Motivation is unreliable. If you want to create change, be more productive, or finally get your life together, what you’re going to need to build is discipline. However, I will concede that I have found exactly one way to reliably generate enough motivation to push myself when I hit a rut: knowing your Why.
Motivation comes at 2 a.m. and is gone by the time you wake up. Motivation is what you’re feeling when you think, “I’m going to start a side hustle so I can one day leave this awful job,” during your Monday morning commute. Where is that feeling on Friday evening? That feeling is not what gets you moving toward your goals, and keeps you moving when things get tough. That's why you need a Why.
What’s a Why?
Your Why is your source of intrinsic motivation. If you know your Why, you can drum up that little bit of motivation that you need to get started. From there, it’s momentum, not motivation.
Your Why is a list of reasons that resonate with you as to why you’re doing something. Sure, with enough discipline, you can do anything, even if you really don’t want to. But I assume you’re not there yet, which is why you’re here. Finding your Why will help you to eventually build self-discipline. But don't worry about that yet.
Whys need to resonate with you.
Reasons that do not go on your list of whys include, but are not limited to:
“My parents want me to.”
“Everyone else is doing it.”
“Society is pushing me to.”
“It will make me famous.”
“It’s something I ‘should’ do.”
Everything on your list of Whys needs to appeal to who you are. Whys are meant to inspire you to become the person you want to be and go after the things that you want to do. To borrow from Marie Kondo, if your Whys don’t spark joy, they’re not Whys. Get rid of them.
Sometimes, you know you need to do something, and you just need a bit of a shove to get moving. Other times, you get caught up in the drudgery of life and start to wonder why any of this matters. It’s easy to lose sight of your goals. It’s easy to not have any goals in the first place. I remind myself of my Whys several times a day because it keeps me focused on and excited about my goals.
Your Why is your best inspiration. Few things are more inspiring than a list of all the reasons why you’re doing what you’re doing. If you need to get off the couch and get moving, reminding yourself what’s in store for you down the road is going to put a fire under your butt more than any inspirational Pinterest quote ever will.
Whys are personal. They remind you of what matters to you. Your reasons for doing something won’t ever be exactly the same as anyone else’s. They just need to inspire you.
As I said at the beginning, Whys are the only thing that I’ve found that can reliably generate motivation. They’re still not powerful enough to drive you the whole way to your goal using only motivation, but they are great for that little push to get you started.
Knowing your Why keeps you focused. It’s much easier to keep working on something if you know that accomplishing it will allow you to experience X or that Y will happen. Whys give you that push you need to get started and help to keep you focused as you’re working toward your goal. Convinced yet?
Whys give you hope. They give you something to look forward to. Maybe everything kind of sucks right now. Or maybe everything really sucks right now. Your Why can be a candle in the dark room.
Change is possible. Happiness is possible. Your list of Whys can absolutely include, “It will make me happy,” or, “I want to be happy.” I put that on most of my lists. Happiness is a powerful motivator, and knowing that things will change and you will be happy helps to keep you moving forward.
Hope is one of the most powerful human emotions. Hope can get us through even the darkest days. Your list of Whys will help you remain hopeful. They’ll pick you up when you’re down and keep you moving so you’re less likely to stumble again.
Your Why helps to narrow your direction and give you a path to your goal. By setting out a good goal and a good list of Whys, you define where you want to go and why you’re going there.
It’s easy to start something and then have our actions wander all over the place because we don’t quite know where we’re going. Sometimes, that’s okay because that wandering helps us figure out what’s best for us. Other times, you know where you want to go and need to make sure the finish line doesn’t move.
Your Why will keep your goal fresh in your mind so you don’t go off the path or keep moving the end just out of reach. It’s so easy to keep making our tests harder and harder as we get better and better, but it’s important to actually hit your goals before you move them. Reaching each goal is concrete proof that you’re improving.
Having a list of Whys helps you to appreciate the process. They make you more aware of where you currently are and how the steps you are taking are moving you along the road to success. The vast majority of our lives are part of the journey, not the destination, so it’s important to have fun while you’re working toward your goal.
Reaching goals is enjoyable and fulfilling, but so often we immediately set a new goal or want to figure out where to go next. That’s not a bad thing at all, but it makes it all that more important to make sure we’re present during the journey so that we can enjoy the process.
Remaining mindful as you work will also help you to appreciate everything that went in to reaching your goal and make it even more rewarding.
Finding Your Why
To set a Why, first you need a What. What’s your goal? Where do you want to go? Want to go to bed at 10 every night this week? Maybe get at least a 3.6 GPA this semester? Save $250 this month?
Remember to start small. I know that it’s so tempting to set thirty-seven goals right off the bat. I know you want to start getting up early, start working out six days a week, start all your homework assignments the moment they’re given, eat exclusively kale, never touch your phone again, have 7% body fat, and land your dream job as a yacht helmsman all in the next six weeks, but that is just not going to happen.
It’s hard to start small because starting small means you’ll need to be patient, but change doesn’t happen overnight. If you really want that life as a yacht helmsman, you’re going to have to take one step at a time.
It may seem slower at first, but if you take small, consistent steps toward your goal, they will stick, and you will get there. On the other hand, trying to do all of these things in a very short time frame will overwhelm you, and you almost definitely will not be successful.
You can make small, consistent steps forward and see tons of progress and results in a year, or you can try and fail to overhaul your life once every three months and still not see a difference in a year. The former actually requires less patience (and less frustration) than the latter. So which is it?
Do you have a goal? Is it reasonable? Are you starting small? If you answered yes to all of those questions, then you’re ready to find your Why.
Start by brainstorming. Brainstorming is underrated. List everything that comes to mind when you think of your goal. How will you feel? What will change about your life? What makes this goal appealing to you? What are the benefits of this goal?
Not everything that you brainstorm will make it onto your final list of Whys, but it’s good to have a lot of options to pick from.
Just ask yourself, “Why?” Why did you pick that goal? When you have an answer to that, again ask yourself, “Why?” about why you want that thing. Often, the answer will be that it makes you happy. That’s fine as long as you wholeheartedly believe that you are deserving of happiness.
Give it a few days. Sometimes we know we want something, but haven’t put much thought into why. Just letting the idea float around in your brain for a bit can produce some great answers. It’s hard to think on the spot. Move on to other things and see what pops into your head while you aren’t thinking about it.
If it’s possible, take the first step toward your goal, or try it once or twice, and make note of what you liked about it. I wrote my list of reasons why I’m getting up at 5 a.m. early in the morning. It wasn’t quite 5 a.m., but it was before sunrise. In doing so, I was able to observe what I was enjoying at the time, and just write about it.
If your goal is to take a specific action every day, do that thing and pay attention to what you enjoy about it and how you feel after you’ve completed it.
If your goal is to run a marathon, which you obviously can’t do without training, go for a much shorter run and note how you feel about the experience. Pay attention to the positive things that happen before, during, and after your run and add them to your list.
Can’t find a Why? Then your Why could be something like, “I’m trying to figure things out,” or, “I want to see if this works for me.” It can often be difficult to set goals and find Whys when you’re just starting a journey like this.
Clarity comes from action. If you’re just starting out, experiment. Try new things to figure out what works for you. Make sure to give new ideas a fair chance before abandoning them. Don’t quit in two days just because you think you don’t like running, but if you still hate it in a month, try a different type of workout. I put, “I just want to see if I can,” or, “I want to know what will happen,” on almost all of my lists of Why.
At this point, you probably have a pretty sizable list of reasons why you’ve set this goal. Look it over, and take out anything that doesn’t resonate with you. If you wouldn’t look at that reason and feel excited about it, it’s not a Why.
But before you take it off the list, really think about it. It’s easy to skim over a list and decide that most of it doesn’t matter, but if you take a moment to really consider each item, really internalize and imagine it, you’ll be surprised how many of these things resonate with you.
So What Do I Do With My Why?
Now that you have your Why, you need to remind yourself of it often. The more often you see that list and think about how badly you want the things on it, the more you’ll be motivated to work toward your goal.
Reviewing your Why every morning might be the most effective use of the list. By reviewing your list each morning, you set your intentions, direction, and focus for the day on the things that you really want, and you know exactly why you’re headed that direction.
At the very least set up a few minutes each week to go over your Why. Even ten minutes once a week spent doing nothing but reflecting on and dreaming about your Why will serve to motivate you throughout the rest of the week.
If you’re a crafty-type person, make a dream board. A dream board is a collection of quotes and pictures that remind you of your Why. These could be places you want to go, things you want to accomplish, or feelings you want to experience more of.
Choose each image and quote thoughtfully. A giant amalgamation of stuff won’t inspire you as much as a dozen or so carefully curated pieces.
Your dream board could be physical, or you could make a Pinterest board. Whatever you choose to create, come back to it frequently. If it’s physical, put your dream board in a place that you will see it often. If you’re a Pinterest person, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you to get on Pinterest.
Make it your desktop background. This is my favorite method. One of my goals is to create a life where I have the freedom and ability to travel extensively, so I’ve set my background to rotate through a set of photographs of places I’d like to go. Each time I see it, I feel a pang of longing that spurs me toward action.
While you’re at it, get all those random files off of your desktop. It’ll make your space less cluttered, let you appreciate the gorgeous background you just set, and make your life and mind less hectic and needlessly busy. I promise you’ll be able to access those files just as well in a folder.
Surround yourself with your Why in as many ways as you can. Create reminders on your phone to periodically bring your Why to the forefront of your mind. Hang a tapestry that reminds you of the things you want to do. Find encouraging fridge magnets. Do whatever you need to do to be constantly reminded of Why you’re doing what you’re doing.
For your inspiration, here are some things that often show up on my list of whys:
“I just want to see if I can,” or, “I just want to see what will happen.” I am an endlessly curious person. I constantly try things just to see what will happen. If I fail, then I learn a valuable lesson so I can make better choices moving forward. And sometimes, you’ll succeed beyond your wildest dreams.
“It makes me happy.” Don’t confuse pleasure with happiness. Eating a bag of chips on the couch while binging Netflix is pleasurable. Challenging yourself in order to do something you’ve always wanted will make you happy.
“It helps other people.” Part of being a good person means helping others. Unsurprisingly, this reason is pretty high on the list of reasons why I created Grit.
“It inspires others.” I love serving as inspiration for other people. Countless people have told me that they’ve created positive change in their own lives after seeing me do what I do, and few things bring me more joy than that.
“I want to push myself.” If you saw my post about making 1000 pots, you know that sometimes I set challenging goals. Sometimes, I just want to push myself. Pushing your limits is a great way to learn more about yourself, improve quickly, or get out of a rut.
“Why not?” Be careful with this one. Sometimes it’s great to do something because you can’t find a reason not to. Sometimes it’s not. Personally, “Why not?” symbolizes freedom and possibility, which I love.
“Because I want to travel.” This is one of the most frequent items on my list of Why, one of the most concrete, and one of the most powerful. I long to travel. I went on a seven-week-long road trip after graduating from college, and it is still the coolest thing I’ve ever done.
“Because I want freedom.” Ah, don’t we all?
“Because it makes me feel good.” Again, I do not mean this in the sense that eating an entire bag of Cheetos in one sitting makes you feel good. I mean it in the sense that getting enough sleep, eating healthy, working out, and drinking enough water make you feel good.
Set your Why. You wouldn’t be here unless you had something you wanted to accomplish. Figure out what that thing is, and determine why you want to accomplish it. Your Why is the closest thing you’ll find to consistent motivation, so if you want to keep moving forward, know your Why.