Productivity: How To Motivate Yourself Without Being Mean

After considerable trial and error, I’ve come to one big conclusion about my inner drill sergeant: my life is better without him, and the work I produce feels truer when I’m not laboring under his stern gaze.  To truly feel creative, passionate, and vibrantly alive in your work, negative self talk, punishing consequences, and emotional manipulation can’t come to the party. The good news is that you can put your inner drill sergeant in the back seat while you retake the wheel. Here's how.

I love spin class.

It’s dark, it’s sweaty, and the music is out-of-control loud. Since it’s not socially acceptable to go to the club at 8AM and sober, and since I am an old lady who’s usually in bed by the time the clubs open, I get my booty-shaking fix at the gym, and it’s not uncommon to see me straight up dancing on the stationary bike.

So, yeah, I really get into spin class. Which is why the new teacher really bummed me out. 

“Faster, ladies!” he screamed at the co-ed class. “I can still see those thighs jiggling.”

Um…what? No. First of all, don’t yell at a woman about her thighs. Don't comment on a woman's thighs, period. And second, is this supposed to make me want to pedal faster? I kind of want to pedal slower now just to show you that you can’t boss me around.

“Let’s go,” he yelled, hopping off the bike to walk around room, smacking everyone’s handlebars with a towel. “Let’s burn off those calories! You want to look good for bikini season, don’t you?”

Dude. It’s November. And I have a bikini body whenever I choose to put my body in a bikini. This drill sergeant nonsense does not work on me and my carefully cultivated sense of self worth.

Between rolling my eyes and sighing theatrically, I looked around the room at the other cyclers. It was working.


They were pedaling faster than normal. There was an intensity and an energy to the class that wasn’t usually there. It was different, but I wasn’t sure it was better.

I started my cool down and hopped off the bike. As I splashed water on my face, I noticed my heart was still pounding even though I was just standing there. To my utter horror, I looked in the mirror and realized that I felt guilty. The teacher yelled at me and after the initial flush of rebellion, I felt weirdly bad for disappointing him, getting off the bike, and losing his approval.

Which was slightly absurd as I had just met him and really didn’t like him in the first place.

But it was still there. That contraction. That feeling in my chest of knowing that in doing something that felt right to me, I had broken the rules.

I brushed it off and headed home to get ready for work. Later that day, I was sitting at my computer feeling tired, hungry, and uninspired. 

I know I have to get this video done today, but it takes so much effort, and I don’t know what I’m doing, and I just. don’t. wanna.



After staring at the blank screen for three minutes and checking Facebook twice, a different inner monologue kicked in:

Let’s go. Are you kidding me with this? You have a deadline. You know you don’t have time to waste. God, you are so lazy sometimes! Are you really feeling uninspired right now in the job you yourself created? Nope. You don’t get to feel uninspired. You should feel grateful. Get your shit together. Get it done.

Hmmm. I paused. I don’t think that’s actually my voice. It sounds way more like the new spin teacher’s drill sergeant voice. Oh crap. I think I accidentally unleashed my inner drill sergeant. Actually, I think I unleash my inner drill sergeant a lot. 

It was a wild realization. I had walked out of class when someone else used insults to motivate me, but I was unconsciously doing it to myself—all the time!  I’m all about tough love when needed, but calling myself lazy when I actually just needed a break isn’t loving at all—it’s mean. I would never motivate a friend or client like that, so I realized I might need to start talking to myself the way I talk to other people: with compassion.

After considerable trial and error, I’ve come to one big conclusion about my inner drill sergeant: my life is better without him, and the work I produce feels truer when I’m not laboring under his stern gaze.

To truly feel creative, passionate, and vibrantly alive in your work, negative self talk, punishing consequences, and emotional manipulation can’t come to the party. Most of us grew up with some version of “do what I say or else” from a parent, teacher, preacher, or other authority figure, so of course the drill sergeant voice comes out when we need to channel our inner authority to move things forward. The good news is that you can put your inner drill sergeant in the back seat while you retake the wheel. The bad news is that if you’re new to positive self talk, this might feel scary as hell.


If I don’t motivate myself with scary consequences, will I ever get any work done again?

If I don’t yell at myself about being fat, will I eat only pizza for the rest of my life?

If my inner drill sergeant isn’t yelling at me, how can I be sure something bad won’t happen?


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And it is legitimately scary to replace your inner drill sergeant with a new voice, but that’s only because the new voice isn’t proven yet. The more you use and trust the new, compassionate voice saying “you got this,” the easier it will be. I think of my inner, compassionate voice as a wise old grandma who also happens to be a kickass life coach. Kind of like Oprah, but older and magic.

You can call her your inner motivational speaker, inner wise woman, pocket Oprah, or whatever else fits her personality. The goal is simply to channel her instead of the drill sergeant when you need that boost of motivation.

Here are a few ways to embody your inner wise woman in real life.

Treat yourself like a 2 year-old. 

This includes plenty of boundaries, snacks, and naps. You would never scream at a 2 year-old kid for acting like, well, a 2 year-old. Adult humans aren't that different from toddlers when it comes to getting their physical needs met and getting shit done. Both toddlers and you require supportive routines and boundaries, plenty of nutritious food, and adequate rest in order to avoid meltdowns and tantrums. Your Inner Drill Sergeant wants you to think that you should be able to push through these reasonable physical needs, but your Inner Wise Woman knows the truth. 

If they could speak, they might say something like this:

Inner Drill Sergeant Says: “Naps are for sissies! I don’t care if you only got 4 hours of sleep. Suck it up, sister!”

Inner Wise Woman Says: “Sweetheart, you look tired. Don’t you think this will go smoother when you’re rested? Let's put you down for a nap.”


Get intimate with your intentions.

Your Inner Drill Sergeant doesn't want you to think too deeply into the tasks you're trying to accomplish; he just wants you to move, move, move! Your Inner Wise Woman beckons you to feel into the task at hand and connect it to something deeper. When something needs doing, she first asks "Why? What is the deep, true reason behind this project? What is my intention here?" If you don’t have a compelling enough reason to complete the task at hand, of course you’re not feeling very inspired and motivated to move forward! Your Inner Wise Woman knows that connecting your actions to your mission, passions, and purpose motivate you way more than meanness.

Inner Drill Sergeant Says: “Stop being an entitled brat and just do your job search already.”

Inner Wise Woman Says: “Darling, I know how important it is for you to have a job that lights you up and serves humanity. Setting aside time specifically for your job search serves your mission by helping you connect with the people you’re meant to work with.”

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Within reason, release what doesn’t inspire you.

If you are consistently uninspired and unmotivated to take action on a particular task, activity, or project, it may be time to let it go. You don't have to let it go forever, and it doesn't necessarily need to cease existing altogether, but it may be in the best interest of the project—and you—to kill it off or hand it over to someone else. This could look like hiring a virtual assistant to do your books each month or finally telling your boss that you're not the right person for this project. It could look like not trying to make 6AM yoga class happen and signing up for the 6PM class instead. It could look like hiring a housekeeper or cleaning service, or simply releasing your attachment to having your house perfectly clean all the time. Most of what we do on a daily basis is way more nonessential than we assume.

Inner Drill Sergeant Says:  “Get it done now! I don't care how long it takes—I want that inbox at zero!”

Inner Wise Woman Says: “It sounds like cleaning out your inbox doesn’t meaningfully contribute to reaching your goals, my dear, and I can tell it really drains you. I give you permission to release it or assign the task to someone else.”


Let your environment serve you.

No one feels inspired and motivated when they are stuck in a profoundly uninspiring environment. You don't need to berate yourself for this. Simply change the environment so that it feels more inspiring and motivating to you. Create a motivation playlist, work with a colleague, or add colorful supplies to your workspace. Be wary of the stink think that says “I work in an office, so I can’t do that.” Control what you can by asking yourself, "what’s one tiny change I can make to my environment to make it feel more exciting and energizing?" 

Inner Drill Sergeant Says: "You don't have time for fluffy stuff! Move on, brat!"

Inner Wise Woman Says: “Of course you don’t feel motivated, my love! You’re in a dingy cubicle. Let’s brighten up the place with a few plants and picture frames. You deserve to feel comfortable and happy.”


Tap into your desires.

Whenever I'm waffling on whether or not to go to a social gathering, I always ask myself “how will I feel when I'm headed home?” If the answer is energized, connected, and light, I go. If the answer is drained, exhausted, and resentful, I stay home. I desire to feel buzzy, engaged, and confident in general in my work, so when I lack motivation for a particular project, I simply ask, "what would the buzzy, engaging, confident version of me do right now? How would she handle this situation?" The goal here isn't necessarily to get the "right" answer—it's simply to stop creating so much resistance by moving in the direction of your desires instead of upstream, against them.

Inner Drill Sergeant Says: “Stop being such a whiney baby. You have to wake up early to exercise or you’ll be fat.”

Inner Wise Woman Says: “How will you feel after going to the gym, my love? If going makes you feel the way you want to feel, then going is a great choice, and I’ll support you by holding you accountable.”


Motivating yourself with meanness might work in the short term, but it will also burn you out, and the work you were put on the planet to do is simply too important to fizzle and crumble because of burnout. More importantly, you are too important to fizzle and crumble because of burnout. The Inner Drill Sergeant may use threats and insults to get you moving, but your Inner Wise Woman's gentle advice will see that you end up where you're trying to go.


Ready for clarity without the meanness?

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