Action creates motivation

Human beings are interesting creatures. I’m fascinated by them. That’s probably the reason I was a psychology major in college. It’s certainly the reason that I believe (strongly) that everybody is talented, original, and has something important to say. (That bit of philosophy is something I picked up from Brenda Ueland’s marvelous book, If You Want to Write.)

People are awesome — even if we’re each flawed in our own way.

One thing I’ve noticed over the past few years is the dichotomy between knowing something and doing something. It’s one thing to understand a concept or fact intellectually; it’s a completely different thing to experience a fact or concept, or to put it into practice.

I came to this realization during our 15-month RV trip across the United States. At the start of the trip, I had an intellectual understanding of the country’s size and scope. I knew the facts and figures. But I didn’t have an experiential understanding of what these facts and figures meant. It wasn’t until Kim and I had driven 35,000 miles — about 1.5 times the circumference of the Earth! — exploring the U.S. that I really, truly grasped how huge (and varied) this place is.

So too, we — all of us — struggle to put into practice many ideas that we know would improve our lives.

Take my ongoing struggle with anxiety and depression. Too much of the time, I believe I can “think” my way out of it. I can’t. That’s not how it works. I realize this intellectually, but that doesn’t stop me from trying again and again and again. Intellectually, I know that I need to eat right, exercise, and engage in social activity. But knowing this doesn’t actually make it happen. Knowledge is not the same as action.

The same is true with physical fitness. Like all of you, I know what’s required to be physically fit. I have to eat right and exercise. That’s how it works. But again, knowing what creates a healthy body isn’t enough to achieve a healthy body. Fitness requires action, not just knowledge.

Financial fitness is the same. If you want to be rich, there’s only one thing you need to know: Wealth is built by spending less than you earn. The greater the gap between your earning and spending, the faster your wealth increases. But this knowledge isn’t enough to make most people wealthy. Again, knowledge without action is essentially meaningless.

Dreams remain dreams without doing.

The key to making lasting, positive change in our lives is learning how to put knowledge into action. But how? How does one find the motivation to exercise or to get out of debt? The answer is kind of counter-intuitive.

Feeling Good is a popular self-help manual by David Burns. The book helped a younger me through an extended bout of depression. Part of the solution was to overcome my chronic procrastination, procrastination brought about by fear. In Feeling Good, Burns describes the problem.

Individuals who procrastinate frequently confuse motivation and action. You foolishly wait until you feel in the mood to do something. Since you don’t feel like doing it, you automatically put it off. Your error is your belief that motivation comes first, and then leads to action and success. But it is usually the other way around; action must come first, and the motivation comes later.

Action primes the pump. It creates momentum. It instills confidence.

When I’m in a depressive funk — as I have been for the past six weeks — a large part of the problem tends to be because I’m waiting for motivation to come to me. When it doesn’t come, I feel even more miserable. It’s so dumb! I know what I need to do, and I know if I take even one step in the right direct that motivation will follow, but I still struggle to take action. To one degree or another, we’re all like this.

Fortunately, I’m growing older and wiser with each passing day — and year. More and more, I’m actually able (and willing) to take action on the things I understand intellectually.

As I mentioned last week, when I recognized I was experiencing another depressive episode, I took action. I made an appointment with my doctor. I stopped drinking alcohol. I began taking my meds. I improved my diet. And when my buddy Jonathan from Choose FI reached out with an offer to be my accountability partner for fitness, I took him up on it.

Now, Jonathan and I are doing weekly video calls to spur us both to improved mental and physical health.

Jonathan and J.D. chatting on Zoom

When I think back to all of the years I wallowed in debt, I see now that much of my trouble was an unwillingness to take action. I had all of the knowledge I needed to work my way out of debt and build wealth. I understood the problem intellectually for many years. But I didn’t do anything about it. I wasn’t willing to put in the work. I only wanted “silver bullets” — solutions that eliminated the debt instantly.

It was only once I stopped thinking about the problem and started taking action that things got better. When I buckled down and actually did the work, an amazing thing happened. I got out of debt! Shocking, right? And once I took those first small steps toward financial fitness, the subsequent steps became much easier.

Action created motivation. It always does.

So, for me this month will be all about taking action. I’ve spent the past week thinking about the things that have worked for me in the past, the actions that have proven effective. What has helped me fight depression? What has helped me achieve fitness? What has helped me write well (and often)? And how can I take this knowledge and actually act upon it?

What about you? Where are you stuck? What do you know needs done but have been putting off due to lack of motivation? What action can you take today to make your life even a litte better?

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