by Steve Pavlina, founder of Dexterity Software. Reproduced with permission.
A slump. A rut. Downtime. Low productivity. Writer’s block. Regardless of what you prefer to call it, we all experience these low periods where our energy wanes and our motivation weakens. We look at the work before us and think, "Why bother? What’s the point?" And yet it still nags at us. We feel like we should be motivated because of all the great benefits we’ll receive when our work is done, and yet, something just isn’t right. We can’t get moving. We procrastinate. Days, weeks, and perhaps even months go by, and we seem to accomplish very little. We try every strategy we can think of to motivate ourselves, but the end result is simply more frustration. We can visualize the sort of high productivity days we’d like to experience regularly, but to even churn out one of those days seems nearly impossible. We begin wondering if maybe we’ve set our sights too high, that perhaps we aren’t as gifted as we once thought, that maybe we’ll just have to settle for average results in life. This feeling may be best described as that of being blocked, as if there’s some external force acting against our best efforts at building sustainable forward momentum.
I’m sure you can relate to having at least one episode in your life you might describe as a motivational slump. Perhaps you can even relate to it intimately because you find yourself experiencing one right now. But is there a solution? Or are you utterly doomed?
No, you aren’t doomed. Most likely the reason you’re having so much difficulty is that the solution is not at all what you would expect. Traditional solutions for overcoming procrastination like writing down your goals, making promises to others, setting deadlines, and taking time off can be effective for minor bouts of laziness, but they may not be sufficient to break out of a prolonged slump. You might get a temporary boost for a day or two, but soon your productivity and motivation are right back down the toilet again.
So how do you break out of a slump? First, let’s get a clear understanding of what a slump really is. There are many levels on which we can define the problem. Are you suffering from too much negativity? Are you having a spiritual crisis? Do you feel like you just don’t have the energy to do what you want to do? Most likely you’ve been experiencing a combination of these feelings. Physically, you may feel like you just can’t get going, feeling more fatigued than when you were at your best. Emotionally, you may experience negative emotions more often than you’d like, especially disappointment with yourself. And spiritually, you may be wondering if you’re really on the right path and that maybe you really should be doing something else… that perhaps all the roadblocks you’re running into are a sign that you’re off course. If you’ve been in a slump for several months or longer, you may very well be cycling through these different impressions, one week trying to break the pattern from a spiritual perspective and another week focusing on a more physical-emotional strategy.
As the slump continues, you may even find that your relationship with yourself begins to suffer. Whenever you consider taking a break, you question whether it’s really necessary or whether some part of you is merely attempting to procrastinate. Perhaps you’ve developed some rituals to distract yourself from the reality of your situation, like watching TV or web surfing a lot more than you used to.
I’m not going to baby you. A slump is a serious problem. You know the costs. You’re greatly underperforming your potential, and every day that goes by feels like another day wasted. I could rattle off a cute little laundry list of bullet points for you to try, and they might boost your motivation for a little while and leave you thinking, "Yeah, that would work," but in the long run we both know this approach would be doomed to failure.
This is a tough problem to solve. It may be one of the toughest you’ve faced. You may have already thrown a tremendous amount of resources at it and still have little to show for your efforts. To solve it we’re going to have to give it the respect it deserves and really understand what’s going on beneath the surface. This is a problem that can be overcome, but it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to require you to do something that you really don’t want to do. But deep down you already knew that, didn’t you?
So let’s dive right into the heart of the problem. Why are you in a slump? You’re in a slump because you’re afraid. And you’re expending a lot of energy avoiding what you fear. It may not even be the subject of your work. It could be something totally unrelated, but it’s something that’s very important to you.
So what is it that you fear in your life? Do you think you may be on the wrong career path, but you’re afraid to take the leap into the unknown and do what you really feel you should be doing? Are you afraid you’ll never get out of debt or make the kind of money you’d like to be making? Are you afraid the goals you most want to achieve are beyond you? Are you seriously overweight, but you don’t think you can make a permanent change? Are you afraid of what others might think if you express more of the real you? Are you afraid your marriage/relationship was a mistake, but you can’t bring yourself to end it? Are you afraid you’ll never find your soulmate and will always be alone? Are you afraid that your social skills are too weak to be able to attract the kinds of friends you yearn to have in your life?
These are tough questions, and to answer them properly, you need to be in a mental state where you can think about them deeply enough without getting defensive or distracted. Be as honest with yourself as possible. What are you really afraid of? What worries you most about your life? Please feel free to stop reading and jot down anything that comes to mind before continuing.
Now just take a moment to think about how your life would be different if you experienced absolutely no fear at all. Even if you think that’s impossible, just use your imagination and ponder it anyway. You’d still maintain your biological fight-or-flight response for truly dangerous situations, but the low-level nagging fear would be permanently absent. No fear of public speaking. No fear of ridicule. No fear of taking risks. No fear of going broke. No fear of inadequacy. No fear of divorce. No fear of switching careers. No fear of tedium. Could you suffer no fear and still experience a slump?
No, you couldn’t. Why not? Because fear is what paralyzes you from taking action. On the surface this may seem too simplistic – too easy – an answer. But take a moment to think about it. When you procrastinate – when you feel you are most deeply suffering the symptoms of your slump – how do you feel? At the edge of your consciousness, you may notice certain thoughts going through your head. On some level you’re thinking that if you continue along your intended path, it’s only going to lead to more pain. You’re afraid to press on. You feel like the road ahead is not the path you’re supposed to be taking, whether it be in your career, your relationship, your health, etc.
This fear ends up paralyzing you, and it can spill over into every area of your life. If you feel deep down that your life is on the wrong path, all your inner resources will grind to a screeching halt. For example, if you worry that you married the wrong person, you may lose all motivation to excel in your career or to maintain a healthy physique. If you fear that your career may be wrong for you, you may find it excruciatingly difficult to concentrate effectively and to discipline yourself to complete projects, even personal ones. Fear in one area of your life can sap the motivation, creativity, discipline, and enthusiasm from all areas of your life. That’s the insidious nature of fear; the more you allow it to fester, the more it spreads.
So how do we overcome fear? The answer you’ve probably heard before is that you have to face your fear… that it will only grow stronger if you try to avoid it. That’s partly true, but it overlooks the vital step of what must first happen in your thoughts in order to grant you the ability to face your fear in the first place.
Now this next part is where things will get a bit strange. What I’m about to say is not something that’s objectively true; it’s merely one of many possible models of reality. But if you humor me a bit and buy into this paradigm, it will likely help you break out of your slump. It’s like Isaac Newton’s F=ma law, which actually turns out to be an inaccurate model of reality, but if you accept it as true anyway, you can solve lots of physics problems (assuming you stay well below the speed of light).
The real first step in overcoming fear is to develop the belief deep down that there is a part of you that cannot be harmed in any way, shape, or form. You might think of this as your inner self, your soul, your spirit – it really doesn’t matter what you call it. But this is the fundamental belief that allows you to permanently overcome any fear you may encounter in life. Without a belief in your own fundamental safety, you can never overcome fear. Here’s another way of phrasing this. Deep down do you honestly believe that you are truly safe here in this universe? Or do you believe that it’s actually possible for you to suffer some form of irreparable harm?
I’m not talking about being physically invulnerable here in the third-dimensional world in which we live. I’m referring to a deeper form of invulnerability… a sense that there is some core part of you that will always exist, no matter what, and which cannot truly be harmed by any outside force, including your own physical death. Again, you might think of this as your higher self, your spirit, your soul, or even just your subconscious mind.
Now what the heck does this have to do with you having trouble getting going in the morning because you feel unmotivated? Am I saying that the reason you feel unmotivated is that you don’t feel you’re totally safe here in this universe?
Yes, that’s exactly right. If deep down you harbor the fear that some kind of reaction to what you do in the third dimension can actually hurt you at a fundamental level, then you will always experience fear. If you believe that embarrassing yourself when you try to speak in public, or starting a new business and going bankrupt, or trying to start a new relationship and failing at it can actually hurt the real you, then you will never feel quite secure enough in anything you do. If you view humiliation, embarrassment, rejection, or failure as entities that are truly harmful, then your strategy of procrastination is the correct one. If you are surrounded by real dangers, then it actually does make logical sense to hesitate before taking action. And if the potential dangers are great enough, outright avoidance may indeed be the optimal strategy. For example, if starting a new business could potentially lead to a failure that really does hurt you, then it is probably wisest to play it safe and not risk it. That’s just being smart, so if you find yourself in this situation now, you can at least feel grateful that your brain is doing a good job of keeping you safe from harm.
Does this make sense? Let’s try to make this even more clear just to be sure you follow this line of reasoning. It may sound a bit new-agey the way I’ve presented it so far, but you can reach the same conclusions with nothing more than simple logic. Here’s the logical progression in its simplest form.
- Let’s assume you hold the belief that there exist real dangers in the world that can truly harm you on a fundamental level. You believe that a setback like losing all your money is real and that it could actually hurt you in some manner.
- Your safety is not guaranteed. How safe you are is at least partially dependent on your actions. Your choices will determine how much real harm you suffer.
- Given the above, procrastination and avoidance are the most logical choices of action (or inaction) in certain situations. If there are indeed real dangers ahead, it may be safest to stay put. Remaining in a slump may be the best course of action if most of your intended actions have a high degree of risk that you’ll suffer some form of real pain (rejection, failure, financial destitution, etc). If you think in terms of weighing potential pleasure vs. potential pain, things like starting a new business or going on a diet will often have a negative expected value. So it’s only logical to maintain the status quo; given the risks, this is often the best option.
Hopefully this seems logical. All I’m really saying is that if you buy into the belief that there are real dangers in the world that can actually harm you, and that if you believe your actions can affect the degree of harm you suffer, then you’ll also have to accept problems like procrastination and motivational slumps as a natural consequence of those beliefs. There’s really no getting around it. If there are real dangers out there, then you’re naturally going to exhibit some avoidance behavior towards them. To ignore such dangers would just be reckless and foolish.
So what’s the problem then? Well, if you’re content with suffering from bouts of procrastination and low energy, then there’s really no problem at all. You just learn to live with it. But on the other hand, if you want to leap to a much higher level of performance and maintain it, then you have to go a different route. And this requires that you actually discard these beliefs, as logical as they may seem.
There’s a concept called "lies of success" that you may have encountered elsewhere. Newton’s F=ma law is one example I previously mentioned. A lie of success is something that’s probably not objectively true, but if you believe it anyway, you can achieve far greater results than if you don’t. For example, if I’m somehow able to convince you that I’ll pay you $1 million if you can be extremely well organized for the next 10 days, and you actually believe me, then you’ll probably achieve some amazing results in this area. And what if at the end of the 10 days I tell you I was just kidding about the $1 million. After you finishing choking me, you might realize that it wasn’t the $1 million that made you an organizational superstar – it was your belief about what the consequences of your actions would be. Your belief, however, was a false one, not grounded in reality. Yet it still allowed you to achieve superior results. That’s a lie of success.
Now when you’re considering integrating a lie of success into your belief system, you do have to be careful, or you could actually achieve worse results. For example, what if you were so convinced about receiving the $1 million that you went into debt to buy more organizational stuff, believing that the big cash payment would ultimately bail you out? Ouch. So if you do begin fiddling with your beliefs, do think carefully about what new programs you might be installing in your brain. Fortunately, in most situations you have nothing to worry about. Your brain will do a pretty good job of combining new beliefs with common sense.
Ok, back to our story…. So what belief actually has the power to eradicate procrastination from your life? Simply put, it is the belief that you are fundamentally safe here. You cannot truly be harmed. There is nothing in this universe that can truly hurt you. Your safety is absolutely guaranteed, and it’s totally independent of your actions.
Whoa! That’s nuts, right? Well, not necessarily. Just humor me for a moment, and I’ll do my best to explain the logic here. When I say that you are fundamentally safe here, I mean that there is a part of you (your soul, your spirit, your non-physical mind, your higher self, or whatever you prefer to call it) that cannot be harmed by anything you experience on earth. Failure, rejection, embarrassment, physical pain, even death – nothing can touch it. This part of you is immortal and invulnerable.
Think of it like this. Imagine that your life is like a computer role-playing game. Your physical body is the character you play. You can fight monsters, amass gold, gain experience, and so on. Your character can take damage and run into challenging situations, but you the player are immune to all of that because fundamentally you’re an observer of the game. Nothing that happens in the game world can affect the real you. It can only affect your character. It makes no difference how you play the game – the real you can never truly be harmed by anything that happens in the game world.
But what if you forget that you’re playing a game and you begin to identify with your character? What if you start to believe that what happens in the game world is real and that you could truly suffer serious harm based on your actions? How will that affect your play? Would you boldly run off to fight monsters, or would you be too afraid of getting hurt?
If you think about it, this is how most people think about their lives here on earth. They’ve forgotten that they are not their character. They see all the problems of the world as very real and very dangerous. And this creates a low-level fear that never goes away. You are not safe here. Danger!
But let’s consider the opposite belief system. What if you believed that your life was akin to controlling a character in a very realistic RPG? But this is a game with purpose. You are here to learn and to grow and to interact with the other characters in a positive way. But you are absolutely safe here. The real you remains outside the game world and cannot be harmed.
You still value your character’s life – this belief doesn’t suddenly make you reckless. Even when you’re playing an RPG on the computer, you still probably take good care of your character and adhere to the rules of the game world as you understand them. But the difference is that you no longer experience any fear. You still activate your fight-or-flight response when you run into a situation that could damage your character, but you always know in the back of your mind that the real you is permanently safe.
When you adopt this kind of belief system and view your life along these lines – and I mean really believe it just as you believe the earth orbits the sun – your results in life become vastly improved. You can speak in front of an audience with no fear, since you know that the real you is immune to embarrassment. You’ll be less afraid of starting your own business, since if the venture fails, it doesn’t really hurt you. You can go broke and not worry about it, since money isn’t real anyway.
So here’s the progression of logic for this new belief system:
- Let’s assume you hold the belief that there are no dangers in the world that can truly harm you on a fundamental level because the real you (your spirit, soul, etc.) is immune to any kind of harm.
- Your safety is guaranteed and is independent of your actions. You’re free to take action without fear that you will suffer any real harm for it.
- Given the above, procrastination and avoidance are totally unnecessary. Because there is nothing to fear, there is nothing to avoid. You feel empowered to jump into any new project without hesitation. Instead of worrying about potential dangers, you focus on opportunities and the chance to enjoy new experiences, just as you would if you were controlling a character in an RPG.
Again, this isn’t the kind of belief system that will turn you into a reckless idiot. You’ll still take your life seriously, but you’ll begin living without fear. Being fearless doesn’t mean that you’ll become a jerk and abandon all your morals. What being fearless will do for you is to make you less attached to outcomes and more free to explore. You’ll be more interested in the experience of quitting your job and starting a new business, for instance, instead of worrying about how things will turn out and stressing over what you can’t control. You’ll spend more time living in the present instead of the past or future.
As it turns out, when you experience no fear and lose your attachment to outcomes, you end up performing much, much better, and you get the kinds of results that you never could achieve with your fear-based beliefs. Have you ever felt that your character performed better in a role-playing game that you did in your real life? Fear is what makes the difference.
Without fear life takes on an almost magical quality. Everyday seems like a wonderful adventure. You lighten up and don’t worry so much about things like making money because in the long run you know they aren’t real anyway. Money is just a resource you can use to enhance your experience of life. Sometimes you’ll have a lot of money; sometimes you’ll have none. As odd as it may sound, the less attached you are to money, the more likely you are to attract it into your life. Isn’t it funny how it seems so easy to amass huge sums of gold in an RPG even though you still have to do a lot of "work" to earn it. Real life can be the same way when you learn to live without fear.
So how do you adopt the belief that you’re fundamentally safe here if you don’t already believe it? There are different ways to go about this, depending on where the rest of your beliefs lie. If you’re a very logical, scientific, and/or skeptical person, then you might want to read up on mind-body research and quantum physics. If you’re never studied these fields in any depth, you’re in for a shock that will likely turn your belief system upside down and bring you closer to the empowering beliefs discussed above. You may currently hold the belief that thought is the epiphenomenon of matter. That is to say, you are fundamentally a physical being in a physical universe, and your physical brain gives rise to your mind and your thoughts; your mind is merely a consequence of the inner workings of your physical brain. Even though this belief probably seems logical based on what your physical senses tell you, the physical evidence that we know today just doesn’t support it. What the evidence suggests is that it’s far more likely that you are fundamentally a mental or spiritual being (i.e. a non-physical being of thought and energy), and your physical body and brain are the epiphenomena of your thoughts. So instead of being a body with a mind, you’re fundamentally a mind with a body. And what’s even more interesting – your mind is probably immortal and will continue to exist after your physical body goes kaput. If you want to read up on this, some eye opening books include Ageless Body, Timeless Mind by Deepak Chopra, Infinite Mind by Valerie Hunt, Power vs. Force by David R. Hawkins, and Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse. When you expose yourself to ideas like these, you’ll probably be forced to conclude that the universe is a far stranger place than you ever previously considered.
On the other hand, if you think of yourself as a more intuitive/spiritual type of person, then you might find it easier to go a different route towards this new belief system. This might include getting into deeper touch with your spiritual beliefs, such as through meditation or reading spiritual texts that resonate with you. Chances are good that if you’re this type of person, then deep down you already believe that there’s a core part of you that’s immortal and invulnerable. Take some time to reconnect with this part of yourself at least once a day, and you’ll find that stress virtually vanishes from your daily existence. Remember who you really are. Are you really just a body with a mind? Or are you much more than that? A great book to read on this subject is There’s a Spiritual Solution to Every Problem by Dr. Wayne Dyer – I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Now it’s possible you may have been conditioned by your upbringing to believe in some sort of eternal damnation/punishment if you don’t live up to a particular set of external standards – this is another disempowering belief that you’re best off releasing, and you’re likely to find that you live a far more moral life without such fear or implied threats. If you need help letting go of this belief, a great book to read is Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore.
Your journey to letting go of fear will undoubtedly be a personal one. And your results will likely be more a matter of degree than of essence; releasing fear is like a path along a continuum. The more strongly you hold a connection to the part of you that’s fundamentally safe, the more you’ll enjoy the experience of life, and the less you’ll suffer from motivational slumps.
As long as you’re still in the game of life, you’ll always lack any provable certainty about the nature of life. You probably won’t possess the proof you desire until you actually die. So ultimately then this comes down to a matter of choice. You can remain skeptical and doubtful and accept the consequences of living with fear. Or you can adopt the belief in your fundamental safety and live a life without fear.
One more point before we go… In the absence of fear, you’ll find that what fills the void is love. Instead of fearing failure, you’ll end up falling in love with challenge. Instead of fearing financial destitution, you’ll fall in love with risk-taking and enjoying new experiences. Instead of fearing divorce, you’ll fall in love with the possibility of a new relationship or the renewal of an old one. Instead of fearing that you can’t lose weight, you’ll fall in love with healthy food and exercise. Instead of fearing eternal damnation, you fall in love with living a moral and empowering life. To reach the point where you truly live without fear is a remarkable realization.
Without fear you’ll find that you’re able to express more of the real you. Instead of thinking you need certain outcomes in order to be happy, you’ll just be pervasively happy by default. So all the "projects" in your life will assume new roles. Instead of doing stuff to be happy, you’ll find that you do things to express your innate happiness. You won’t see your marriage as something that’s supposed to make you happy; instead you’ll see it as a place for you to give of your pre-existing happiness. You won’t see your business or your job as something you have to do to make a living; instead you’ll see it as an outlet for your natural creativity. You won’t see getting your body in shape as a chore; instead you’ll get in shape because it just feels like a natural expression of the health and happiness you already feel. Your whole mentality will shift from a focus on getting to a focus on giving. And extraordinary results will follow. Remember the RPG analogy – you’ll be enjoying the game of life so much that you’ll accomplish and experience more than you ever could have with a fear-based belief system.
You are safe here, and the dangers are only in your mind; you are free to release them at any time. When you truly come to believe this, you’ll begin living the life you were really meant to live, one where you can give the absolute best of yourself to the world with no fear of harmful consequences. Deep down I suspect there’s a part of you that already knows this to be true. Let go of the fundamental fear of living in an unsafe universe, and you’ll find that all other fears vanish as well. Then you can finally begin living at the level that you intuitively feel is within your grasp.