I’m Day 3 into a big writing project, trying to finish my book on power which seems to have been taking an eternity.

I awoke on Day 1, and noticed I was nervous. I’ve got a deadline, and it’s a tight one. As I was waiting for my computer to boot, I started writing motivational aphorisms all over my whiteboard, and listing the hardest things I have ever accomplished – things I thought I could never do (interestingly, the University of Zurich Latin exam is at the top).

This made me curious about what I do to motivate myself. What kind of inner coach do I have? How do I push myself? Deal with doubts? Keep going even when there’s a stiff headwind? 

This actually has a lot to do with power,  power on the inside. Power on the inside is one of our first uses of power. How we push, motivate, encourage, criticize, support, cajole, and talk to ourselves on a day-to-day, minute-by-minute basis is very serious business. One of my favorite stories was reported in a book by Laurence Gonzales, author of Deep Survival. Gonzales interviewed people who had survived extreme life and death situations – trapped in wreckage, lost in the mountains, adrift for weeks in the seas. He found that each and every one of the survivors he interviewed described an inner voice who took charge and forced them to keep going, to stay awake, or to remain calm. The voice wasn’t always friendly; it was often ruthless and unsentimental, but it came up whenever they panicked, started to give up, or got emotional thinking of loved ones who they would never see again. The inner voice said, “No!” It just wouldn’t let them give up. Subsequently these survivors credited the inner voice with surviving their ordeal.

Self-talk is always there, not just in life and death moments. It starts the minute we wake up, and have to leave the warm bed, turn on the shower, answer difficult emails, make breakfast for the kids, and endure traffic, running in the cold, or routines we dislike.

Looking at what I wrote on my whiteboard I realized that my inner voice was a tough love kind of voice. And that the deadline I have, the deadline that is making me anxious, is a good thing. A very good thing. Without a deadline, without a real, outer, frightening pressure, my brain just spends too much time entertaining fears and doubts: Can I? Will I? Is it good? Is it too this? Too that? And then before I know it,  hours have gone by, and maybe I feel better about myself, or maybe I don’t, but the fact is, I still haven’t written anything.

So a deadline for me is like an inner voice, the voice of Yoda – Do or Do Not. There is no try. The Deadline is No Try.

Deadlines change my thinking. Here’s how:

  1. I’m not deliberating about my chances which means I’m taking myself seriously.
  2. I don’t buy my own excuses. There’s something exquisite about questioning my own excuses. It’s like opening up the sky, questioning the meaning of life, overturning everything I’ve held holy.
  3. I don’t give myself the option to do it “when I feel like it” or “when I have energy.” The whole point is to be able to do things precisely when it’s not easy. it’s such a relief not to be held hostage by moods, physical, mental, or otherwise.
  4. I find reserves I didn’t know I had.
  5. I get past thinking edges, and discover thoughts and ideas about things I hadn’t seen before

This afternoon, during one of my few permitted breaks, I caught a tweet from Brain Pickings with Margaret Atwood’s ten rules of writing Number seven put a big smile on my face. Especially the last sentence.

Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.

Don’t whine. That made me smile.

So, what gets you going? What would you write on your whiteboard?