Staying Motivated: The Watercourse Way

staying motivated

“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?

Photo by Per Ola Wiberg

22 thoughts on “Staying Motivated: The Watercourse Way”

  1. I’d say the first one is really the key here: make sure it’s something important. From there, part of the motivation will come naturally, and the rest you can find ways to generate it. But of course, your goals must be important for you, not for other people. I’m talking about intrinsic meaning here.

  2. Very useful advice you have given here. Making it your intent works the best and do that with playfulness (don’t take it seriously advice) then it’s a done deal. Life is supposed to be fun, Innit?

  3. This is a good article and is very insightful, Mark.

    I think it’s very easy to be motivated at the beginning of your process (e.g during the honeymoon period), but it’s harder to sustain the motivation. You have some good tips here to stay on track.

    Of course, there’s also the realization that maybe the ladder you’ve been climbing towards is on the wrong wall, but that’s when you really need to review and make adjustments along the way. Is your passion still the same or have you been on the wrong path? Being too focused on achieving the goal, rather than enjoying the journey is very important.


  4. Nice post Mark. I like how you used the the analogy of water going in a downwards flow to doing what we need to do in order to reach a goal. Sometimes when we force what we do to happen, then it may seem like forcing water to go upwards. It’s just not going to happen. But if we develop an attitude do something that we feel is meaningful or important, then the process becomes a lot more easier and enjoyable. That’s why often people say do what you’re passionate about.

  5. Nice post.

    Going with the watercourse is the easiest way to go. The importance of the goal you want to reach is your own source of motivation. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Knowing where you are going is so important. I know that as over the past year or so I have easily allowed myself to be distracted from what i thought was my path.

    Enjoying the journey is one of the secrets. If I am not enjoying what I am doing I also find I lose focus as well as productivity

    thanks for a great thoughtful practical post.

  7. We all can build our character if we know how. Things can be important to us, still we don’t do it. Why? Because we are stuck with the same thoughts and the same images of our self in our minds. We should start from there!

  8. When someone can take complex thread and weave a tapestry that is pleasing to the heart, I’d say you have a masterpiece. Thank you for your desire to share! Here’s a squish from my heart to yours! Yay!

  9. The power of this post is “the difference between a goal and an intention”. This is a philosophical mind twist that I need to get my arms around. Simple, yet fascinating.

    Combine that with understanding what is truly important and you have a deadly combination for success.

    Thanks for making me think a little differently today.

  10. Tim Brownson asks a fun question about quitting smoking:

    Do you want to quit? Or do you want to want to quit?

    As you said, most people making a resolution don’t really want to change. They only want to want to change. If they *really* wanted to change, it wouldn’t be much of a struggle :)

  11. I like this idea of the watercourse way. It puts me in the mind of the teachings of Abraham (spirit). They often speak of turning downstream towards our joy. For me, if achieving a goal feels like the struggle of paddling upstream in a raging river, I’m letting go of the oars.

  12. Very inspiring article, thanks for sharing this! Think about the ultimate outcome you’re hoping for, rather than the tiny steps that don’t really show the big picture. One thing we’ve found that helps is to create a conscious intention that will help guide you toward your big picture outcome.

  13. Nice post! I’ve never sat down and pondered what the difference between a goal and an intention really is. Thinking about it know I can see where you’re coming from.

    Plus, I’m a natural at not taking things too seriously. :p

  14. I love the intention and the examples you used, what also helps me is to write them in my notebook that I review everyday briefly, and from what became challenging goals at the end of last year, they are now on their way to becoming reality.

  15. Wow great article and great blog. I stumble upon it and it rings true. It’s funny because I’m trying to get something accomplished and I wanted to get some answers. This article showed me that on the right track, I just have to keep going. Thanks!

    1. Isn’t it wonderful how the universe provides the answers we need just at the right time, if we only pose the questions.

  16. I agree that intentions have much to do with staying motivated, but for some reason when I think of the word intentions, I think of the phrase “I intended to do that” but never did. Sometimes you just need someone to tell you that you can. I have noticed that family members are usually your biggest nemises in goal setting. Stay positive and surround yourself with people who you want to become like.

    But like you said, I always want to get up real early in the morning (like they tell us to do) to catch the worm, but I actually find more worms in the evening. Stay motivated and keep up the great blog!

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