Staying Motivated: The Watercourse Way

“Giving up smoking is easy. I’ve done it hundreds of times.” – Mark Twain

So your goal is to get up at 4am every morning, go for a 5km run and take a cold shower before meditating and writing a chapter of your new novel? I can’t say I’ve ever tried to do anything like this, but I imagine it must be hard to stay motivated.

For me, sticking to a routine like this would involve brute force – a never-ending battle of willpower over the desire to stay in bed. But this would go against my fundamental belief that life is not a battle. To me, life is not like climbing a mountain – it’s more of a downhill thing. Alan Watts, a great proponent of a Taoist view of life, called it ‘the watercourse way.’ Water will always flow downhill, of course, and yet its power is undeniable. So how can we apply the watercourse way to getting things done?

Make sure it’s something important

Where do you want to go? Is it somewhere important to you? Does it really matter? For many people, giving up smoking seems to be very difficult. But in fact it’s very simple. As soon as you decide to be a non-smoker, then you are one, and if it’s really important to you that you remain a non-smoker, then you’ll never have another cigarette. As soon as you decide to be a regular gym-goer, then you are one, and you’ll never miss a session if it really matters to you.

The point is that you can’t motivate yourself to do something that isn’t important to you. The extent to which you keep to your resolutions is the extent to which they mater – not to someone else (we all know, in abstract terms, that giving up smoking is important) – but to you.

A good way to be clear about whether something is important is to ask yourself why you want it. If you can’t give good, compelling answers that matter to you, then you’re unlikely to succeed.

Understand the difference between a goal and an intention

Self-talk is very important, and the language we use can really make a difference. A ‘goal’ carries with it some connotation of lack – it’s something you don’t have and perhaps will never achieve. An ‘intention,’ however, is simply a statement of what is going to happen. If I decide I want a cup of coffee, I don’t make it into a ‘goal;’ I just decide – or ‘intend’ – to have some coffee and I go ahead and buy a cup.

Some things might take longer and might be more involved than just buying a cup of coffee, but the idea that something is inevitable rather than merely being a possibility is an important one to implant in your mind.

So instead of trying, decide what you are going to experience and then make it your intention.

Keep going

If you intend to get that cup of coffee, you have to go out to Starbucks. You have to put your coat and shoes on, pick up your wallet, go outside and walk to the store. It’s obvious. And the same is true of every intention. You want to experience something? You just have to keep on going and you’ll get there. Some things take longer, some things involve more steps; but if you are persistent, the result will come.

Each step of the journey may seem insignificant, but every journey is made up of steps, and every step counts.

Review your progress and make adjustments if necessary

Now and again, stop and take stock. Look back and see how far you’ve come. It’s easy to focus on what we have failed to achieve and how far we still have to go, but when we look back, we can see the distance we have covered, and this should be a source, not so much of inspiration to continue, but of comfort and confirmation that the destination is even more of a certainty than it was at the start of the journey.

Sometimes your intention might change. You might decide you don’t want that coffee after all, but something different. Fine! It’s your life, so you decide on what to make of it. Don’t be too inflexible. Circumstances change, needs change. Sometimes we need to go with the flow.

Don’t take it too seriously

Enjoy the journey. Sometimes you take a detour, sometimes you take a step back. Well, that’s OK – you’re not a robot. Maybe something unusual and unexpected happens and it sends you off course – life’s like that! Don’t worry – just take stock, try to learn something and get back on track. Maybe it takes you a little longer to get to where you intend to go. So what?

I am not a big fan of setting deadlines. If your intention is inevitable, then why set a deadline – this only seems to imply that you might not get there. Deadlines are for people who aren’t sure they’ll get there. When water flows down the side of a mountain, it is certain to reach the sea – sooner or later.

When I was a kid, I loved Mathematics and Science, and I took every opportunity to learn about them. Even on holiday, I took textbooks with me and read them on the beach. It was what I wanted to do! I wasn’t fixated on an exam or using my learning for some practical purpose – I was just enjoying the journey. And in the end, I did well and went to a very good university. But the doing well was almost a by-product. If I had tried too hard to get to the destination, it would have been difficult and boring, and I think there would have been less chance of success.

So by all means, keep an eye on the destination, but make sure it’s somewhere you really want to go, don’t push too hard, and be gently persistent. How can you fail?

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