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On inspiration, motivation, and time

For most of my adult life, I held the belief that true magic happens at the intersection of inspiration, time, and motivation. Successful businesses are created, captivating books written, and hit songs produced when there's enough time available, ideas are flowing, and we experience a strong inner drive and abundant energy.

Alas, waiting for those three factors to coincide has largely failed me as a strategy so far. I did some of my most creative work in spite of having very little time, and then saw my motivation evaporate as soon as the time pressure lifted. Or I was burning to work on a project but waited in vain for a stroke of inspiration.

That's why I gave up on waiting for inspiration, motivation, and time to occur at the exact same time. It's simply too rare an occurrence. It's far more common that one or maybe two of those three elements are present. And I believe that if we can harness the power of each of them individually and in sequence, it's still possible to achieve great things. Here's an idea of how to capture the benefit of each element whenever it happens to be present in your life:


Inspiration has a habit of striking at odd times. For me, it's often while running or when walking to the office in the morning. Key to preserving the power of our ideas is to capture them as they arise and keep them for later use. I keep notes on my mobile phone (because that's the one thing I almost always have with me). Other people prefer to carry a small notebook with them. I guess anything's fine as long as you don't try to rely on your memory (I tried and failed). And ideally, write a bit more than just a keyword. Maybe add some context. When you pay attention, inspiration is often accompanied by certain feelings. Write those down as well. In fact, the more aspects you can capture in the moment, the better. More than once, an idea I kept as a single keyword felt flat and uninspiring when revisited. There was something I failed to capture and now it was gone. I also experimented with keeping ideas as audio memos but found that I rarely revisited them. I hear audio works well for some people though.


For me, this one's the most frustrating of the three. Because unlike inspiration (i.e. ideas), you can't bottle motivation. You can't preserve it. One minute it's here, the next minute it's gone. There are people who seem to be motivated all the time. Sadly, that's not me. And to make matters worse, motivation and having time available seem to be negatively correlated, at least for me: Whenever I have plenty of time, I feel zero urge to accomplish anything. Here are two ideas on how to tackle this conundrum:

  1. Ignore your level of motivation and simply start what you assume you would do if you were motivated. This requires willpower, which may be in short supply. But often, motivation will rise with your level of engagement (author and coach Brad Stuhlberg often talks about motivation following action). And even if you work on a project for an hour unmotivated, you will be rewarded with a sense of accomplishment. You did it. Nobody (yourself included) will care whether you felt motivated in the process.

  2. See if there are ways you can create motivation on demand. This is a lot easier if you have a clear purpose for what you want to achieve. Becoming consciously aware of that purpose can sometimes be enough. Or maybe there's a visual cue or another form of reminder that will give your motivation a kick in the butt.


Time seems to be the most straightforward factor. Either we have it or not. If there's no time to work on the things that truly matter to us, that's that. All of the motivation and inspiration don't matter if there's other stuff that needs doing. But can it be that simple? I found that there's often a way to carve out time - even if it's just minutes a day - when the motivation is high enough or we're hit by inspiration. Time is also the one factor we can willingly shape. We have 24 hours each day that we can allocate. We're not totally free in how we do this, of course. We have commitments at work, with family and friends, and we want to make sure we're getting our seven to eight hours of sleep. But still, there's a level of agency when it comes to allocating our time. The trick is to make wise use of this agency and create the time we need. For me, consistency trumps the amount of time. Half an hour or even twenty minutes every day goes a long way. And it’s easy to spend such a relatively short time on a task even if I'm not motivated (so I don't have to rely on motivation so much).

But that's me. There are people for whom blocking an entire day once a month to work on whatever matters to them works best. Regardless of what works for you, the important thing with time is being aware of your agency and using it to create at least some room for your ideas and projects to grow. You may do great work without motivation, and there are ways to be creative without relying too much on inspiration, but without time it's hard to accomplish anything. I also found that time is the easiest of the three factors to use as an excuse. No motivation? Suck it up, buttercup! No inspiration? Just start and inspiration will eventually hit. No time? Well, what can I do...

I love reading about the work habits of creatives like authors, musicians, or designers. The two things I take away are: There are countless different and highly diverse working styles that all lead to remarkable results for different people. But no successful artist, writer, or entrepreneur seems to rely on a confluence of inspiration, motivation, and time for their success. They all found tricks to avoid this trap.

How about you? Which of the three factors is the one that hinders you the most in pursuing your aspirations? Can you spot relational patterns between your motivation, inspiration, and time? Becoming aware of such patterns is a first step in finding your own unique way to make the three factors work for you without having to rely on them being present at the same time - just like countless creatives, artists, and entrepreneurs have done before you.


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