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Ask Why: How to Motivate Yourself to Keep Going When Things Get Hard

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” ~Friedrich Nietzsche

My father was an amazing man. I’m sure most sons think that about their fathers, but it’s a belief held by more than just myself. I’m not saying he was a great father, but he was a great man.

He was a Vietnam veteran, a carpenter, and a social paragon in the small town I grew up in. Our neighbors declared him the “Mayor of Bluebank” (the road he lived on.) His funeral was one of the most attended events that our small town in Kentucky had ever held.

Dad believed in working hard, and, true to his word, his health began to sharply decline after having a lung removed (the unfortunate “cure” to lung cancer caused by Agent Orange exposure). He passed away on Veteran’s Day, 2012. A cruel twist of irony.

I had the pleasure of working with my father on many projects, from building homes to cutting staves at a sawmill. I was fortunate to learn what a real work ethic looks like by working with Dad.

When Things Seem Impossible

Even though Dad isn’t here to give me advice, I still ask myself what he would do when I’m faced with something that seems impossible.

“I feel too tired to work today…”

“Where will I find energy to tackle this project?”

“I don’t know where to start…”

Everyone faces situations that seem impossible at times. It’s an unfortunate lack of grit and resilience that’s common to my generation.

Luckily, I have one invaluable piece of advice that I managed to get from my father before he passed away.

Advice on Working Hard

When I was in my late teens and doing irresponsible crap, I once asked my father how he worked so hard. He enjoyed socializing on the weekends, but he seemed to enjoy working his butt off just as much (even with the occasional hangover.) I didn’t understand it.

His response stuck with me. He smiled and told me, “Stop asking how I work so hard, son. Ask me why.” His response was rhetorical; he didn’t want me to actually ask him “why.” His point was that the reason he worked was how he found the energy to work.

Dad’s wisdom didn’t quite click with me until my son was born. I’d always had what I considered an inherited strong work ethic, but it wasn’t truly tested until I was kept up all night for weeks on end with a crying baby.

Babies, a Day Job, and a Side Gig

It can be lonely at 3:34am, especially when you’re awake with a crying newborn. The three minutes and fifty-five seconds it takes to heat four ounces of refrigerated breast milk can seem like an eternity when you want to go back to sleep.

Once I manage to get the boy fed and back to sleep, I crawl into bed to wink before the alarm goes off at 6am so I can get ready for work. Quietly.

In situations like this, energy at work can seem fleeting. You know your job performance is suffering, but you manage to grit your teeth and get back to it. Somehow. Your shift takes forty hours longer than it used to, but you push through.

To top it off, I write articles in my downtime. That means research, writing, editing, submitting, promoting, etc. Work ethic seems like a stupid thing when the beautiful Siren of Sleep is calling you.

Staying Strong to Get Things Done

Fortunately, I remember the lessons that my father taught me. Not just, “If you’re early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late. If you’re late, you’re f*&^ed.”

All I have to do is ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” when I feel like giving up.

“Why am I working overtime at my day job?” So I can keep the heat on this winter for my family. So I can put food on the table.

“Why am I pushing myself to write another article?” So I can build a business and legacy for my son. So I can spread ideas and wisdom.

“Why am I feeding this thing that causes so much exhaustion and frustration?” Because it’s my son and I love him. I want him to grow up so I can teach him how to be a great person.

Why Is “Why” So Powerful?

Asking the wrong questions can get you stuck. We want to avoid questions that carry negativity.

When you ask yourself why you’re doing something, you tend to attach a larger motivator to your actions. This becomes your motivating reason.

Make sure you have a strong positive emotion attached to your motivating reason. When I ask myself why I’m doing something, it’s always attached to something large and promising, like my family and my future.

A Recent Time When I Needed This Advice

I was reading Smarter Faster Better, by Charles Duhigg, when I came across the following passage (edited for brevity):

Quintanilla had been marching for two days by this point. He had slept less than four hours. His face was numb and his hands were covered with blisters and cuts from carrying water-filled drums across obstacles. […]

“Why are you doing this?” Quintanilla’s pack buddy wheezed at him, lapsing into a call-and-response they had practiced on hikes. When things are at their most miserable, their drill instructors had said, they should ask each other questions that begin with “why.”

“To become a Marine and build a better life for my family,” Quintanilla said.

His wife had given birth a week earlier to a daughter, Zoey. […] If he finished the Crucible, he would see his wife and new child.

If you can link something hard to a choice you care about, it makes the task easier[…] Make a chore into a meaningful decision, and self-motivation will emerge.

My dad’s motivating reason was the same. He worked hard for his family.

For the Impossible

Going to work and writing articles with a newborn in the home is difficult, but I wouldn’t say it’s impossible.

For the tasks that truly seem impossible, it’s important to break them into more manageable pieces. If I want to build a business so that I can eventually work from home, I can’t tackle the entire thing at once.

Break your huge project into multiple SMART Goals—goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-based (even if you have a newborn in the home). Don’t forget to ask why you pursue your “impossible” goal. The bigger the goal, the bigger your motivating reason will need to be.

Check my goals again to see this tagging in action—I work overtime for food and electricity for my fiancé and my son. Not that big of a deal, still a big reason. I work on my articles so that I can grow my business and spread ideas. That’s a big deal to me, and ultimately a larger goal, so I have much larger motivating reasons.

Find a Motivating Reason

“Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.” ~John F. Kennedy

Whether you have one purpose or multiple areas of your life that can give you incentives to tackle the impossible, find a reason and hold on to it.

When things are getting too hard to move forward, when the baby is crying and you’re trying to get one more sentence typed out, when your day job seems like Hell and your alarm is the devil, just ask yourself why.

The impossible becomes possible when you break it into manageable pieces and fuel the fire in your belly with a motivating reason. You’ll come out the other side of the “impossible” as a stronger person with more grit and resilience than you ever thought possible.

Profile photo of Joshua Johnson

About Joshua Johnson

Joshua is an amateur philosopher, father, entrepreneur, designer (by education) and copywriter. Visit JoshuaGraphic.com for more articles on life and his latest adventures in video.

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  • It is important to keep on pushing when things get hard. But it is also important to feel your body and also know when to stop and rest. I learned that the hard way. I have worked so much for 5 years until I realized that I am missing out on life.

  • I completely agree, but sometimes rest isn’t an option (especially with a newborn). I have finally managed to fall into a good routine of focused work, caring for my child (and wife), and finding time to rest, but it’s still not an easy rhythm.

    Fortunately, “pushing through” when it comes to caring for my son may be difficult, but it’s also a piece of life that I never feel like I’m missing out on, regardless of the stress.

  • ccrgirl

    Great article! I also asked myself a lot of WHYs when I gave birth to twins and the answer always was: because I love them and want best for them. Even when I could hardly stand on my feet or think clearly due to exhaustion, I managed to find a silver lining. Thanks for reminding me of what it feels like to have a newborn (or two 🙂 )

  • Thank you ccgirl! It’s hard for me to imagine what twins would be like, though my wife and I have discussed it at length (the hypothetical “what if”). ONE is exhausting enough for me, and I know that my wife works harder than I do to care for our son.

    Watching her with him has given me a newfound respect for mothers. I do my best to lighten the load by taking over some parental responsibility any time she needs to get some rest or go out for a movie with her best friend. It’s the least I can do. 🙂

  • Well written, Josh. Its great to have that one thing that pushes you every day because without it, why work so hard? This is a great topic and starting with why was one of the best things ive done. For those even without a seemingly big why, its a matter of perspective. The important thing for me was to keep in mind was that why’s change over time but we must always be connected to them.

  • wow, this article blew me away…and motivation is something that I have a huge fascination with.
    I remember years ago somebody saying online that the, ‘why’ has to be big enough for you to push through the barriers. And then, late last year/early this year, a huge piece of the jigsaw puzzle came to me…My, ‘why’ had to be sooo big, it seemed unrealistic, yet very exciting. That is the, ‘why’ that I now use. In fact, I would say that if your, ‘why’ is realistic, it’s not big enough.

    Thanks for reminding us on how motivation works.

  • SaraClaire Mattera

    Very well written! I read tinybuddha.com every morning and this is definitely one of the articles that will stay with me.

    I automatically can relate because my father has an amazing work ethic and I always question how he does it. After reading your article it finally makes sense to me and your words inspire me to give it my best as well, especially when life throws curve balls.

    Great article Josh!

  • I agree completely. Having a purpose (or reason “why”) doesn’t mean that you can’t evolve over time. I don’t know how many times I’ve changed directions, but I always do it with a clear intention.

  • Hey Julian, thanks for the compliments! A good motivating reason definitely has to be major. If you aren’t striving for something great, then you won’t have a good enough reason to make the trade-offs and hard choices that are inevitable.

    On the other hand, my dedication to family isn’t exactly an unrealistic “why”, but it’s important enough for me to push through the most difficult decisions and keep me going. I suppose some parents don’t see their children in the same light, but I don’t understand parents like that.

  • Thank you very much SaraClaire. 🙂 Parents know the drill, that’s for sure! I’m glad I could shed some light on your father’s work ethic.

  • beth jones

    Thanks for writing this. Lately everything has seemed to be just a chore and reading this reminded me to ask why am I really doing it. The answers really motivated me.

  • Thanks for replying. Just for clarity, When I say that my, ‘why’ had to be unrealistic, I wasn’t referring to parenting in general, so I apologise if you felt that I was referring to your, ‘why’. That wasn’t my intention. What I mean’t was, as I had been severly unmotivated for many years, (thanks depression…) the only thing that would motivate me was to set my bar really high that it was in the, ‘unrealistic’ territory…. which is what helps me these days to get out of bed. I have huge respect for parents; I couldn’t get up in the middle of the night to look after a child, when I feel like a zomie…you guys do a brilliant job…I suppose I just need my sleep (thanks insomnia;-)
    Thanks for a great article…I found it really inspirational

  • Ah, no offense was taken. 🙂 I’m glad to have the conversation. Your take on motivation is an impressive one, and I think it’s important for people to understand that feeling like your tasks are truly going to make a difference will contribute more to actions than having a weak reason to do “just one more thing.”

    Oh, and sleep is still very important to me. 🙂 I nap whenever possible!

  • It’s also a great way to figure out why you SHOULDN’T do some things. If you don’t have a great reason to do something, why bother? Once you can prioritize the results you’d like to achieve, you’ll be able to make trade-offs with a clear conscience.

  • Brad

    This is fantastic. Your father sounded like a great man. It seems like the younger generation has lost this proud work ethic.

  • Deborah Hunter

    Thank You! I appreciated your insight and knowledge 🙂

  • Jörg Siefke-Bremkens

    The quota under the Picture isn’t from Nietzsche. It was made by Viktor Frankl, a Austrian Psychologist.

  • I’m inclined to agree, for the most part. I’ve met a few younger people with a phenomenal work ethic, but it’s a rare thing to find.

  • You’re quite welcome! Thank you for your support and kindness. 🙂

  • Frankl actually quoted Nietzsche – or at least, that’s what I found in my research!

  • Regina

    Nice article. Your father sounded like a great person and so do you. What I got from your article the most, among other things of course, was having grit. I notice that some people use this word in various contexts, and sometimes it seems it’s just being used more as a “buzz” word. But, I liked the way you have described it. In my opinion, grit is totally about the why. Sometimes, you don’t even know the why, but grit’s there, and if grit’s there, there is a why that runs so deep you didn’t even know it was in you. Thank you for sharing what your Father has passed on to you and what you will be passing onto your son.

  • I agree with your opinion on the “buzz” word of grit. It’s over-used and the philosophy behind it is underrated. But having a reason to exert sheer force of will to accomplish the seemingly impossible is the definition “grit” if there ever was one. 😀 Figuratively, of course.