How to do the right thing EVEN when you’re demotivated

What happened to me

I love running. But I also hate running. Let me explain.

Once I am done with a long run, it is pure bliss. Running is my drug (in a really good, positive way).

And yet, incredibly, my mind sometimes resists getting started with the run. This especially happens when some injury or travel breaks my running streak. However, once I get started, I invariably push through and complete my run.

So the dichotomy is that my mind resists something I actually love. Why? Because the initial part (getting started) is painful, while the bliss only comes later. And our mind wants the gratification instantly — now, now, now… not later.

A lot of good things in life are like that — the hard part comes first, while the benefits come later.

In fact, many things that would make our lives more fun and meaningful are like that. That is why we make new years resolutions and keep breaking them.

But here is a fantasy — what if we somehow built the capacity to act on our resolve regardless of how we felt at that time? Would that not open up our life to almost infinite possibilities?

I believe that it would totally change our lives. The bad news is that there are no magic solutions. But the good news is that it is eminently doable.

What I learned

So let us start by understanding what is going on below the hood (actually, inside our skull).

Making a resolution and acting on it involves two different parts of the brain.

The resolution is made by our thinking brain (Cortex). This is the part of the brain that thinks about the future. It plans, worries, fantasizes about our rosy future, and so on.

When it comes to action, an older part of our brain, called the limbic system, also jumps into the fray. Let us call it the emotional brain.This limbic brain can’t think — it can only feel. Unfortunately, it seeks instant gratification and pain avoidance. So it resists anything immediately painful, and seeks anything that is instantly pleasurable.


But is that the end of the story or can we change it? Is it possible to act even when our emotional brain resists?

Over the last year, I have learned that the answer is ‘yes’.

So let’s talk about how:

Step 1: Change your mindset

Imagine your school days. A new teacher is taking the class and asks a question, which you answer beautifully.

Now, for him, you are a star — he lavishes praise on you. After this episode, will you be more sincere in his class or less? Clearly, more. You have made a great impression and scored a win — now you wouldn’t want to just throw it away.

This is the mindset that we want to tap into. Start your day with a win and it will motivate you to maintain that winning streak.

And the best way to score that win is with an intense morning routine. Whenever I complete my morning routine properly, especially an intense workout, I feel elated. The endorphin rush is topped by a sense of accomplishment at having pushed through a challenging workout. Naturally, once you score a win, your willpower reserve goes up and the next time you have to resist an unhealthy snack, it feels much easier.

Step 2: Activate your body’s alertness (sympathetic) response

It is easier to push through difficult things when we feel activated. Turns out — this ‘feeling activated’ is not just some psychic woo-woo, but an idea backed by solid neuroscience.

Our body can exist in two states: 1. A calm state, also called the ‘rest and digest’ state. This happens when our parasympathetic nervous system is activated — let us call it ‘the calming system’ to make it less non-technical. 2. An alert state, when the ‘fight and flight’ response is activated. This happens when our sympathetic nervous system is activated — let us call ‘the alertness system’ for convenience.

When the ‘calming system’ (i.e., the parasympathetic nervous system) is activated we feel relaxed but sometimes we might also get too lethargic.

Sometimes to take any action, e.g., to go for a run, we might want to activate our alertness system to a certain degree. Here are the things that can do that:

Rapid breathing: Rapidly breathe in and out 10 times. If you feel like, after a short break, repeat it. A cautionary note: Please don’t do it if you are already feeling panicky or edgy, as an already activated fight or flight system can go overboard and create a panic attack.

Cold shower. Ideally, after your workout when are grimy and sweaty, take a cold shower. It can have a strong alertness response.

Step 3: Harness the motivation chemical: dopamine

We feel motivated because of a specific chemical (neurotransmitter) in our brain — ‘Dopamine.’When dopamine level goes up, we are more likely to act. In fact, dopamine is why we are motivated to check our smartphones — I would say ‘too motivated.’But we can also harness dopamine for good — by increasing dopamine levels through some simple activities:

  1. Physical movement increases dopamine levels. For example, when feeling lethargic, just do 10 pushups or jumping jacks — and now you will feel differently.
  2. Social connection can give us pleasure, causing dopamine release. If you want to go for a run, get a friend to join you or become part of a community.
  3. Dopamine is released when we anticipate things. E.g., if you have experienced the ‘feel-good’ you get after the run, visualize and recreate that feeling in your mind. That anticipation will cause dopamine release and motivate you to get up and go for a run.

Break the resistance with a starter habit

From my experience, 90% of the resistance we feel is in getting started. Sometimes I feel some resistance in starting my workout or in going for a run. But here is my trick: Once I put on my running t-shirt and shoes, then I just get started — somehow the resistance melts away. This is a classic example of a ‘starter habit’ — an easy-to-do action, which if you do, you are very likely to keep doing and take the desired action.

Finding out the starter habit can require a bit of trial and error. In general, think of the very first step in taking the action. E.g., if you want to learn coding every day on Coursera, your starter habit could be — logging into the Coursera website and viewing a course video for 1 minute. After that, if you feel like doing the rest of the learning, you can do it. Else, come back the next day and do the starter habit again. Very likely, in a day or two, you will do the full learning.

Build a new identity

One of the things that we protect fiercely is our identity aka who we see ourselves as. We can take advantage of this. If we want to do some action, we can build an identity of the kind of person who takes that action routinely. So our focus should be on building the right identity rather than just performing the action.

If you want to run regularly, build the identity of a runner. How do you do that? First, think about what a runner does. Of course, run regularly. When you go running on day 1, you don’t feel you have become a runner yet but that identity has just become a teeny-weeny bit stronger. Now as start running day after day, your life will revolve more around it. You will avoid other activities that come in the way of your running. You will probably associate with other runners. Over time, when someone asks what your hobbies are, you might say that you are a ‘runner.’ In fact, any runner will tell you very gladly about their running experience!

What I want to leave you with

Pick a task that you have been wanting to do but haven’t been able to because your mind has been resisting.

Here are some thought starters:

  1. Learn a new skill/course for 1 hour a day
  2. Eat 1 healthy meal in the day
  3. Do 20% extra in your daily workout (whether it’s running or yoga or anything).

Pick something aligned with your goals and decide on the frequency of action (e.g., 4 times a week).

Now, refer to the ideas I’ve discussed and just get started.Remember, there will be some trial and error. Some things will work better for you than others.

If something doesn’t work, reflect on it by writing a journal: Did your mind resist it? What is the emotion you felt? Could you do something differently when you feel the same the next time?

Remember to start small and then ramp it up. Just pick one action — and make it happen consistently.

In about 4-6 weeks, your sense of self (identity) will start changing — you will start seeing yourself differently.

Like I said earlier, there is no magic solution. But I can assure you, this will feel magical.

Now go do it.

Until next time,


HabitStrong Newsletter by Rajan Singh

In this fortnightly newsletter, Rajan shares inspiring lessons and stories from his career as an IPS officer, McKinsey consultant, investor, and now, as a startup founder. Join 25,000+ subscribers.

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