On getting my arse in gear: In defence of motivational sayings

I love motivational slogans. I love their pithiness, their optimism, their bite-size portability and their inevitably cheesy array of colourful, artistic backgrounds. I have a couple pinned up around my desk at work and in recent weeks I’ve been Googling them on a daily basis, saving my favourite ones with an enthusiasm somewhere between obsession and glee.

But honestly? My first instinct is that I’m a teeny bit embarrassed to admit it.

As much as personally, they spur me on and keep me going, it often appears that chilled nonchalance that the most well-adjusted, cool kids seem to affect without thinking, doesn’t chime too well with a cheesy slogan or five.

From where I’m standing, it often seems like you’re supposed to get the results you want – whether that’s (say) writing for a national publication, eating healthily or doing more exercise ‒ without breaking too much of a sweat, sacrificing any element of your social life, feeling sorry for yourself, or really kicking your own arse.

If you’re a real success, it often feels, you’ll do something because you love it, because it comes naturally, because you were born to do it.

Especially in my industry, journalism, where people chase a story with grit, or write a winning features piece, or craft a hilarious comment based on their own life, where everything has a neat story arc, a personal story, and all the ends finally dovetail in quite nicely, without too much hassle.

Granted, it’s better to be nonchalant than a desperate, arrogant arse.

But neither are you supposed to admit that actually, you live your life according to someone else’s one-sentence maxims.

The kind of thing a lot of people say if you talk about “following my dreams” and “positive thinking”.
The other thing they say is “BOLLOCKS”.

It seems far too naïve, too childish, too simple. As you get older, society seems to say, you’re supposed to get more cynical. More unshockable. More disappointed. More negative. More “realistic”, more hard-hitting, more focused. “Positive thinking” slogans?  That’s all a bit too cheesy and contrived, thanks.

And although in some ways, I agree  – for example, I love comedians who create hilarity out every day, mundane situations, and I’m a great advocate of the “gotta laugh or you’ll cry” maxim when things get tough.

But personally, adopting a totally cynical viewpoint – where cold, cruel “reality”, rather than bumper stickers, lead my mental state ‒ doesn’t lead to realism for me.

It leads to near-crippling depression, where the world stops being manageable and appealing, and becomes an overwhelming wall of negativity, pain, tragic events, bitchy comments, jealousy and insurmountable obstacles.

Without intervention, my inner monologue is a scary, doom-filled rant filled with sadness and self-sabotaging sniping. Every day, I have to fight to keep positive. It’s a skill I’ve tried to learn, via meditation and mindfulness and positive thinking.

But I’m aware that to some, this makes me naïve, laughable, fluffy, silly and a bit odd. Basically, they think it’s largely bollocks.

It’s not quite up there with the hippies who think happiness comes from finding your chakras, abstaining from anything fun and eating only lentils. But close enough.

And yet, to me, it feels necessary. Because, far from finding that things come naturally to me, I struggle.

On paper, I’ve had some “success” that would appear to say otherwise – the luck and privilege I was born with, a great education, a good job, a few great friends, a lovely boyfriend, various half-baked hobbies that I love.

But on a daily basis – call it depression, call it lack of self-esteem, call it good old over-privileged laziness ‒ I have to kick myself out of bed and force, yes, FORCE, myself to get things done.

Eating Nutella from a spoon, and other stuff I’d do on a daily basis if left to my own devices

Left to my own devices, I would probably go to bed at 4am, get up at midday, watch food programmes while eating tinned tomatoes on toast followed by chocolate, maybe write something about something I saw in the news, do some painting, go back to bed, sing along to the radio, and waste hours on blogs and websites searching for the bigger picture, some higher meaning or hilarious quote.

And then I’d go back to bed, feeling far worse than before. I’d maybe lose interest with this around six weeks in, and get more done, but I doubt it. Sound at all familiar?

I know I’m not the only one to struggle with motivation, laziness, procrastination and self-hatred (and find it hard to get out).

But often, when everyone else is up and out, flying high at their job at the same time as managing a family, cultivating some serious style, writing insightful articles for all my favourite magazines and papers, swanning about the place as a natural size 6, maintaining functional and committed long-term relationships, buying pets, affording rent, planning amazing holidays, recording albums, and just generally getting shit done, it’s so easy to discount your own fortune and successes.

Some people seem to not get as bogged down in this as me, and wonder why I care so much. Others feel the same but manage to rub along quite nicely regardless. But me? So often, it seems like I’m my own personal brand of loser.

Fair enough, I agree. BUT….

And underneath all this is the realisation that I am SO DAMN FUCKING LUCKY, so privileged, so unencumbered by poverty, worries, death, destruction, hunger and all of those ACTUAL REAL problems in the world, that I have absolutely NO BUSINESS feeling sorry for myself and should just GET THE FUCK OVER MYSELF.

Which, although it should, doesn’t really help all that much. As anyone who’s ever felt even a bit depressed will know.

Recently though, things have changed.

I haven’t found myself dipping too deeply into that black cave of despair.

I’ve been able to stop myself beating myself up, found myself being more productive when it comes to things that matter to me – getting painting done, writing more for this blog, aspiring to be and do more at work even when it seems impossible, and most amazingly, sticking to a tough exercise routine day in, day out*.

And largely, it’s all because of the bumper stickers. The motivational sayings. The cheap and cheerful, cheesy snippets of inspiration that beam from within their small, square lines.

They remind me that other people have felt like I do. That other people struggle with getting shit done too. That other people have to pick themselves up, over and over, even when it would be easier to just stay in bed, bullying yourself or distracting yourself from the stuff you’re not getting done. The things you haven’t achieved.

They remind me that it’s never too late to start, never too difficult to begin, never the right time to give up. They’re easily-learned, and memorable, and that means they pop into my head easily, at random moments of self-doubt.

Maybe they’re just quick and easy ways to remind myself to question my inner thoughts – a kind of brightly coloured, tangible mindfulness technique.

Some are, without hesitation, way too cheesy, and more a hindrance than a help. And sure, they lack philosophical depth or debate, and are basically just an over-simplified version of sensible, common sense.

But to me, a quick Google finds endless sources of motivation: there are so many of these slogans that I can choose the ones that resonate, and discard the ones that don’t.

In find that getting stuff done is as much a challenge as actually giving myself permission to realise that I’m allowed to be scared, and allowed to be unsure, and allowed to need a daily kick in the backside EVERY SINGLE DAY.

Recognising that I can’t do it all without outside inspiration is most of the battle for me.

When it comes to my own goals, I need something that is personal to me, that I can follow for myself, without necessarily needing someone else to lean on.

Because I hate relying on other people for motivation.

Not only does it put an unfeasible amount of pressure on them, but what happens when they don’t say the right thing, or leave, or aren’t there one evening? Do you kick off and give up? Or do you look within yourself and realise the motivation has to come from you?

It’s bloody difficult, but ultimately, you have to do that last one.   

For me, looking for that help from within myself is FINALLY ALLOWED, and what’s more, motivational slogans make it accessible and easily-done.

They’re quick, simple, colourful and inspirational.

Some days, they’re the only thing that gets me up, forces me into my workout clothes, keeps me going through the cardio and the strength training*, keeps me painting when I’m not happy with the piece, forces me to see work positively, congratulate rather than covet others’ successes, and not eat that piece/bar of chocolate when I’ve already had a three-course meal.

30 Day Shred workout DVD

30 Day Shred workout DVD. 30 days, 3 levels, all kinds of hell

(*Confession time: For the past three weeks, I’ve been doing Jillian Michaels’ notorious 30 Day Shred DVD, and it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, physically. Despite half-arsedly doing yoga and Zumba on and off for years, I have NEVER worked out EVERY DAY my whole life. But, much to my own AMAZEMENT, so far, I’m 19 days in and counting, with 11 more still to go. And I know I’m going to finish it.)

Suddenly, I’m feeling proud of my track record – a feeling I am SO NOT USED TO. For others, this workout, or getting a painting finished, or updating my blog, or doing well at work, would be absolutely nothing.

For me, it’s quietly fucking awesome. And that in itself, is SERIOUSLY fucking awesome.

Some would call it cheesy. Many would call me a spoiled brat, or self-obsessed. Others would despair at my gullibility and naiveté.

Sometimes I wonder how I got so silly and whether I just need to snap out of it (my parents, for example, and at least a couple of my good friends, would be totally bemused by motivational slogans – they’re far more of the “cold, hard reality” school of thought).

But you know what? They really work for me. Maybe I should put THAT on a bumper sticker.

7 things motivational slogans help me remember

  1. Breaking big goals into smaller, daily steps is more productive than trying to do one huge thing at once
  2. What’s in the past is done. Focus on now and tomorrow, that’s all you can do
  3. You’re not alone, or the only one to have felt like this
  4. You can make new habits, and you’re not necessarily defined by your old ones
  5. Just because something feels too hard, doesn’t mean it’s a dead end or a bad idea
  6. Never give up. Even if things seem hopeless or a bit crap, stay positive and keep going forward. Things will improve, even if you don’t know how yet
  7. Your goals are your own. Who gives a shit what everyone else is doing if it makes you feel bad. Stick to what you love and what you’re doing, and you’ll feel much happier long-term
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