self improvement

Self Motivation Through Non-Obligation

I think there are two ways of motivating yourself.

One is “internalized external authority”.

You create an authority figure in your head. It tells you what to do. It tells you when you’re good enough. And it tells you when you’ve screwed up.

To motivate yourself using your internalized external authority, just embody that voice for a moment. Work out some nice juicy judgements about yourself, as in: “You haven’t been working enough! You need to do this better! Get a better grade! Get a better promotion!”

Then, return to your main self and start working. If you slack off, use your internaliszd external authority to whip yourself into further action.

This method actually works. Most people use it to some extent or another. The trouble is, it robs you of the inner stillness needed to access states of inspiration and true creativity. It’s probably best used in a corporate context or in similar environments where being a well-trained, highly focused worker is valued.

I was born with a natural resistance to this type of motivation. Personally, I feel that what you lose from this path is bigger than what you gain. In fact, I once swore that I’d rather live on the streets than follow this sort of path.

Self Unschooling

There is another way. I follow a self-directed version of the parenting/schooling approach known as Unschooling.

In Unschooling, parents choose not to exercise authority on their children. Their faith is that when children are left to their own decisions, they will eventually learn to be responsible by themselves. This philosophy has been vindicated by its results; unschooled children grow up healthy, happy and excellent at co-existing.

To Unschool yourself, remove that “inner parent” and give yourself the freedom to work out your own boundaries.

It won’t be easy to start with. You will basically go through the same process as children do when their parents suddenly switch from a conventional parenting style to Unschooling.

In these situations, children tend to “act out” against their previous imposed boundaries until they have finally worked out their boundaries for themselves.

For instance, if they were always obliged to limit their television intake, they will start watching television all day.

If they were obliged to limit how much cake they eat, they will eat all the cake they can find.

If they were obliged to be nice to their sister, they’ll be cruel to their sister.

A catastrophe right? But… wait…

After a few weeks of watching television all day, the child finds out that television isn’t so interesting after all, and finds a new interest to fill their time. Perhaps they start woodworking, learning skills that will help them for life.

After eating far too much cake and getting sick, they find their own limits on how much cake to eat. Perhaps they’ll start eating more vegetables just to feel healthier.

After hurting their sister, they see the consequences of their actions and feel remorse. They realise they have their own inner moral compass that guides them away from such things.

Learning To Self-Regulate

When you condition someone to react to punishment and reward, you deny their ability to self-regulate. Yet that ability is there, and is smarter and more sensitive than any external authority could be.

We are taught to depend on external authority. That’s why we internalise a voice of external authority. When there isn’t anyone around we tell ourselves what to do.

When you silence that voice, you must finally learn to self-regulate. First you’ll do the opposite of what your internalised external authority was telling you to do, and then you’ll learn from experience where your boundaries are. More than learn, which sounds more intellectual than this is, experience will help an inner guide congeal inside you. It’s like learning to ride a bike; you can’t think it, you have to experience it.

For most people, this process is dominated by laziness. Most of our life we have been using the voice of internalised external authority to force ourselves through school and work. So when we don’t have that voice, our immediate reaction is to do nothing.

It will take you some time to get through this stage. How long? I can’t say… It took me about 3 years, but I was running on instinct and was only cloudily aware of why I was doing what I was doing. I think if you dive into inaction with a full awareness, and remind yourself constantly not to beat yourself up for it, and remember you have a right to define your own boundaries through experience, it should take much less time.

Finding Yourself

There’s a phrase for this which sounds far better than “inaction”: finding yourself.

Do what you can to support yourself in this time. Live a minimalist life. Go WWOOFing. Go to India or Thailand. Sell your car. Sell your house. Get a well-off girlfriend. Sleep on the streets if you think it will help. Do whatever it takes.

The important thing: reject both internal and external authority voices. Apart from that, do whatever you like, whatever you feel drawn to.

At long last, you’ll be rewarded with two things.

The first is the understanding that earning money is something you want to do, not “have” to do.

The second will come sometime later.

It’s a grace, an inspiration. You’ll find something you want to do. But not just anything.

There will be a motivation that burns inside you, and as you do it, you realize that the fuel to this fire has no end. It’s something you want to do, not have to do, and yet it will be a source of monetary support if you if you want it to be.

I’m living this new stage now, and I can tell you, life has never been so exciting.


Sophia Gubb is a blogger and dreamer with revolutionary tendencies, currently based in Berlin, Germany. She writes about ways to make life better, both on the personal level and on larger scales, at



6 Responses to Self Motivation Through Non-Obligation

  1. Essentially, you’re talking about drifting as a means to finding yourself. This may work for some, but it’s not for everyone. Inaction and lack of self-discipline are the cause of many people’s troubles.

    My natural tendency is towards procrastination and inaction — and that dominated my entire adult life up until a few years ago. I was getting nowhere in life and becoming an angry bitter individual.

    What stopped that downward spiral? Action. Self-discipline.

    I didn’t find myself and *then* start taking action. I found myself THROUGH action. It was only when I started taking concrete steps — regardless of their direction — that I began to see a change in how I viewed the world and realized how I wanted to live.

    My philosophy now is take action first (not blindly) and course correct along the way. Calibrate. Your actions define you more than anything else in life . . . so make them worthwhile.


  2. Dan Erickson says:

    Great article.  My brother’s daughter is already involved in the “unschool” movement at 13 years old.  She spent a month during the school year at a writing camp.  

    Although I’m fairly driven, which might equate to the “old model,” something has changed.  I don’t write and and share my stories and songs because I’m driven.  I don’t force myself to do it or adhere to strict deadlines.  But I think, because it’s “who I am,” as Trevor mentions below, that it just comes.

    But I also agree that we must start out with specific action, not obligation, but action.  In time, if one creates habit, we just do.

  3. I’ve actually never heard of this method before and I find it really interesting. I can see how it could work, but it does seem like something incredibly terrifying. I suppose it is because it goes against everything that most people seem to rely on and do instinctively. Thanks for making me think, Sophia!

  4. John Ezetta says:

    Sophia… wow, you couldn’t have said it any better!!! This is soooooo true… I did this too when I was growing up, I decided to do my own thing (play video games to escape the social scene), and after moving out on my own, within a year I realized it isn’t what I wanted to do all my life, that it wasn’t healthy! That I needed to better myself… it’s so interesting how you explained it all, because it’s all true!!! Thank you for this reinforcement in your knowledge…

  5. Johnny Crosskey says:

    I think what your proposing, in theory, makes sense. Sometimes you have to strip everything to see what you are meant to do. It’s also true that we don’t have to lead the lives that people think we should lead. It comes with a bit of a risk though. Finding yourself through unschooling can take some time and some pain. I guess it comes down to your threshold for uncertainty you can handle. What comes on the other end could be beautiful and authentic. 

  6. Student says:

    I completely understand where you’re coming from. This is my exact development as an individual and student, and the feeling of knowing what you are doing, and that I can get paid for what I want out of life is wonderful.

    Yes, It does take self-discipline, but there is no internal voice saying “do this.” There once was a voice like this and for a long time I was sad. I knew what I must do, but sometimes I just couldn’t.

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