How do you stay motivated when you’re not making any money?

In the comments for my previous post, two totally different people asked me what appears to be the exact same question:

Comments1

“How’d you get past that initial period when you weren’t making any money? How’d you stay motivated?”READER #1

“And how did you find the ‘grit’ to keep going during the early days?”READER #2

This comes as no surprise to me, because I’ve been teaching my students how to bootstrap a product for ages now, and people fail in predictable ways. This right here? One of the most fundamental difficulties of bootstrapping — hell, one of the most fundamental difficulties of all human endeavor, period.

How do you keep going?

It’s a question that begs for a list of tactics. But I’m not going to give you any — not yet.

Because the question is wrong

These two readers didn’t actually ask, “How do you keep going?”

Reader #1 actually asked “How do you stay motivated?” — which isn’t a question of action, but of feelings.

And Reader #2 asked, “How do you find the ‘grit’?” — which isn’t obviously about feelings, but is about some… quality… that is out there, somewhere, waiting to be found.

The

This premise makes for good TV, but it doesn’t make for a good life.

1: Why motivation won’t take you anywhere.

We all know what “motivation” feels like… but what is it, exactly? Well, it’s trite to talk dictionary definitions, but in this case it’s really interesting: Motivation comes from motivus, a Latin word that means literally “to move.”

Bam! We talk about motivation because it’s something that sets us in motion.

But… motivated isn’t a state of being, it’s a feeling. As any poet, lover, or parent knows, you can’t capture a feeling and hold it in a jar forever. No matter how motivated you are to do so. Feelings are fleeting. They slip through your fingers when you try to hold on. They’re unpredictable.

Feelings are like weather in your mind: Sometimes it’s sunny, sometimes it’s cloudy, and sometimes it rains, and sometimes that means something, and other times it means nothing.

Sometimes you feel motivated and then you do things. Sometimes you feel motivated and do nothing. But most of the time you don’t feel particularly motivated… and you still do things:

You don’t only feed your pets or kids when you feel like it. You don’t only show up for your loved ones when you feel like it. You don’t only do your current job (whatever it is) when you feel like it. Do you?

Then why would you set up your brand new baby business to live or die based on what side of the bed you woke up that morning, or how much starch you ate at lunch, or what kinds of emails are in your inbox?

How to stay motivated  Google Search

Don’t buy my explanation? Well, try this sentence on for size: “Oh, it’s raining. Guess I’m not gonna feed my cats today.” Ludicrous, right? Well, it’s no different than “I don’t feel motivated. Guess I’m not going to feed my business today.”

If you love your cats, or your business, you’ll do what you have to do to ensure their survival, regardless of how you feel in the moment.

Waiting for “motivation” to move your butt is just a clever way to avoid taking responsibility. Full stop.

2: Why you can never find grit.

Likewise, grit may be the subject of the latest pop psychology research, but that research isn’t about an innate quality, but what people do. It may be called Grit (personality trait) on Wikipedia, but the scientist who popularized the term describes it as “sticking with things over the very long term until you master them.”

Ladies and gentlemen, that’s not a trait — that’s a behavior. You can know “grit” by what a person does, not what they have. Can you “find” a behavior? No. You can only do it.

Popular techniques that fail miserably

So, now, with that out of the way, let’s talk techniques. What do assha—pardon me, thought leaders usually say about staying motivated?

Some combination of…

  1. Read inspiring things.
  2. Talk with with people who inspire you.
  3. Post reminders somewhere you can see them, like inspirational photos.
  4. Two words: Vision Board. (*barf*)

Now you can probably see the issue with this list, right?

These steps are all trying to manage a feeling — an internal state — and nothing about action whatsoever.

And you don’t need them.

You know perfectly well how to achieve without motivation or grit

Your kids or pets don’t starve when you’re having a bad day. You’ve got some source of income now — you haven’t been fired for just, you know, not showing up. You have friends and family who know they can count on you.

If you can manage these things, you already know how to work on your fledgling business even when it’s not making any money. So you can keep working even when it does.

SIDEBAR: Yep, it’s exciting when you start making money, and that alone can be motivating. But trust me — the high doesn’t last (thanks, hedonic adaptation!). So you have to learn to work without motivation, without money, to ever make it to making money regularly (so that making money actually becomes boring and therefore unmotivating again).

How do you keep going? You keep going.

It’s that simple: How do you keep doing something? You keep doing it. You show up. You do it.

So… what works for you, in the total absence of motivation? You know best. Chances are very good it involves structure — you feed your kids or pets several times a day, and you go to work every day, or whatever works for you.

What we did before our business was making money

We kept it pretty simple, really:

What we did was to work every Friday (and many Saturdays) on Freckle until it shipped, and then more often.

And yes, I made plenty of mistakes while we built our business on the side. There were months when I (foolishly) overworked myself, or committed too much to the consulting side of our business. At the worst, we let Freckle languish entirely for 2-3 months (twice). It hurt our business, for sure, but not as much as it could have. I’m not ashamed to tell this story because of what we did next:

We rolled up our sleeves, and fixed all the things we let go, including the embarrassing 2-month-old support emails we had to answer with apologies.

It took us 2 years to reach $15,000 a month in recurring revenue ($180,000/yr). In that long term approach, those few missing months — and the pain of feeling so embarrassed over them — were nothing.

What I’ve learned from experience is that manipulating feelings is a fool’s game.

Creating habits and setting up structures is the only way you can achieve long-term goals.

And that un-sexy but smart approach comes with an added bonus: Motivation, like many feelings, comes much more reliably after you take action, rather than before.

Help! How do I create good habits?

My top recommended resources:

  1. The Power of Habit (Amazon) — watch this video I made about it
  2. Tiny Habits.
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Further reading: I handpicked the other blog posts below. If you liked this post, you’ll find them useful, too.

Discussion

  1. Paul Yoder

    Reminds me of the quote from Albert Gray: “The common denominator of success — the secret of success of every man who has ever been successful — lies in the fact that he formed the habit of doing things that failures don’t like to do.”

    Reply
    • Amy Hoy

      “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” — Edison :)

      Reply
  2. Mark Roseman

    Agreed. But perhaps some of it is also about keeping yourself accountable? That is, when the habit isn’t 100% there yet, shame/guilt at having to confess you spent an entire day reading about Miley Cyrus might not be a bad motivator!

    Reply
  3. Naomi Niles

    This is excellent advice, especially for when you know what you need to do and are procrastinating it. Thanks, Amy. :)

    The main problem I personally have is when the outcome is unclear. I don’t mind putting in the work specifically, but I don’t like the feeling that I’ve wasted tons of time, illusion, and energy on something that didn’t pan out (who would, right?).

    Obviously, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get the results you’re looking for unless you have a straight line from a to b.

    I still look though for a way to overcome the fear that comes along with past “failures” and time wasted.

    Reply
    • Brandon W.

      I believe the best way to handle “failures” is to think about what you learned from the experience. They aren’t so much “failures” as “learning experiences.” And in business I find that to be particularly true.

      I speak from both personal experience and from the massive research I did in publishing my book on leadership for entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs are quick to blame external factors. The business failed “because the market turned,” or “because my investors didn’t supply enough money.” But the truth is that most things an entrepreneur could have changed or avoided. This isn’t because they’re “stupid” or incapable, but only that they didn’t have the knowledge necessary to foresee problems, plan for problems, or correct for problems.

      A “failure” is an opportunity to contemplate what went wrong then figure out how you could have foreseen, planned-for, or corrected-for that problem. (Talking it out with a mentor or more experience businessperson can help). And now you’re a more knowledgeable, prepared businessperson ready to take on the next challenge.

      None of us know everything. Failures are inevitable. It’s how we react to those failures and what we take away from them that determines whether they’re really a “failure” or something very, very valuable.

      Reply
      • Naomi Niles

        I totally agree, Brandon. The main issue I wonder about is fear of wasted time. Time is more valuable to me than just about anything else right now for various reasons. I suppose that’s a fear of failure in disguise though, right? ;-)

  4. Shayna

    “How do you keep going? You keep going.”

    That perfectly describes my journey during the first 5 months of my business, before I was making any money. Unfortunately I wasted a lot of mental energy on “is this ever gonna pay offffffff” whining.

    Then it did start paying off, and now it’s the exciting and fun part of using the keep-going-ness to build up profits.

    The ONLY effective motivation tool I’ve used has been to sell a product (a course) before I had actually created it. Of course this won’t work for every business model, but knowing that I had paying customers expecting the next lesson tomorrow enabled me to produce extremely effectively regardless of my mood or circumstances.

    Reply
  5. Jovica

    It’s hard to stay motivated, I know this from experience. What motivates me are usually success stories from other people…

    That’s why I started a weekly newsletter called [redacted], where I share inspirational and motivational stories to keep you (and me) motivated and dedicated to your startups, side projects, products, etc.

    There’s ~ 1000 subscribers for now, and it’s only active for a couple of months, and so far, people like it.

    You can find it here: [redacted]

    Reply
    • Amy Hoy

      Hi Jovica, if you read the article you’ll see that inspirational content, like your newsletter, is one of the exact problematic ways to “motivate yourself” that I’m talking about. Also, please don’t spam my blog. Thanks!

      Reply
      • Jovica

        Hey Amy,

        My idea wasn’t to spam – but to share something for what I honestly think (and almost 1000 of others) can be useful to other people.

        I shared this only because I don’t agree with your article. If everyone who doesn’t agree with you is a spammer, well… that’s also saying something about you.

        Your advice in this article doesn’t work for me… I find that I work better when I’m motivated… and what motivates me is success of other people – or better say, when I see how other people make money. Simple as that.

        Please, feel free to remove my comments. Calling me a spammer is a pure insult, and I have to admit that I’m a bit disappointed.

        Kind regards, Jovica

      • Amy Hoy

        1. I didn’t call YOU a “spammer” I said, “please don’t spam my blog.”
        2. I didn’t say “don’t spam” because you disagree with me (nice one)…
        3. but because you posted self-promotional links in your comment and tried to sell my readership on it. Sorry, but it is what it is.

  6. Omar

    Dude, you spammed her blog. It’s OK. We all at times do crazy things for the businesses we love.

    Maybe we all need to get reacquainted with what spamming means. I’m sure you wouldn’t go into someone’s home/shop and start giving out flyers to yours. Even if you sincerely believed yours was better.

    Even with that said, I was about to check out your work but your reply to Amy turned me off as it should.

    You seem like a hard working guy and I don’t think you are some horrible person. We are all going to make mistakes but don’t miss out on learning from them. But hey, you may feel you didn’t make a mistake in first place. And in that case, ignore me all together. Crazy world.

    Reply

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