I can’t explain it.
That feeling of complete hopelessness. My inability to get up and start when I knew my life was going downhill. The fire on my ass was getting closer and closer every day, and I needed to do something quick.
But I just… couldn’t.
It’s one of the most terrifying, soul-draining experiences a human being can endure.
Thrust into the life of a community college freshman, I wasn’t prepared for the work load and my grades were plummeting. My friends had all gone off to different colleges many miles away — I was alone.
I drowned out the thought of my miserable existence with video games — sometimes 12+ hours a day sitting in an old wooden chair — and consumed ungodly numbers of Hardy’s burgers chased with diet Pepsi like clockwork. This almost always left me unable to get anything done by the time I fell asleep.
I knew exactly what I was doing to myself, and I hated it.
But every time I tried to start a task, something always stopped me. It felt like my whole body was going to catch on fire any time I tried. Something had to change, and soon.
I needed to learn how to start.
So I wrote down a vivid description of what my life would be like 5 years down the road if I didn’t start fixing it now — right now.
Most people can derive motivation from their dreams — a future vision of themselves once they’ve achieved all their goals. Not me. That reality wasn’t real enough.
But you know what was?
The fire that was going to burn me if I continued to live in my state of stagnation. I recognized it by the smell of my singing flesh.
So on a warm Monday evening in September 2016 after returning from a grueling day of fixing emails and printers at work, I sat down at my desk and fired up my gaming computer out of habit. My fingers were ready to log back into World of Warcraft. But right when my brain was about to log itself out for the night, I stopped and asked myself:
“What kind of hellish existence lies ahead of me if I keep doing this?”
I closed the game, opened a Word document, and started pouring ideas onto the blank page.
And as I was writing, I was thinking to myself:
· What kind of relationships will I have in 5 years?
· What will my career be like? Will I even have a job?
· What will my peers think of me?
· How badly will my mental health deteriorate?
· What negative emotions will I feel on a day-to-day basis?
For the next 90 minutes, I pounded out a gargantuan 3,000-word document that provided a glowing description of the suffering that lay ahead of me if I didn’t get my act together.
“Thoughts of hopelessness will plague my mind every day. I will no longer have the motivation to get up and better my life. I will begin to drown in my own loneliness, and I won’t have anyone to turn to. My job will be soul-draining — if I even have a job at all. And if I manage to find a relationship, it will quickly fail due to the fundamental flaws in my character and self-esteem.”
I was describing my future. I was describing my hell.
But miraculously, it worked.
Every time I read the document, it provided me with this powerful, fear-induced motivation that pushed me to start the tasks I knew I needed to complete.
- Am I browsing Reddit instead of doing homework? Refer to the sheet and open your books, Aaron.
- Does it look like a bunch of coked-up kangaroos had fought to the death in my room? Better read that sheet and get to cleaning.
- Should I skip writing today? Oh, no. This is punishable by DEATH.
From the outside, it looked like I had finally learned how to get up off my ass and find my motivation. Like everything was going to plan — but don’t be so easily fooled.
There were a few serious problems with this mode of being.
I was living in a constant state of anxiety.
Before I articulated my nightmares, my anxiety only surfaced once or twice a week. I did my best to keep the future out of my thoughts. But now that hellish vision had been burned into my consciousness.
I wasn’t starting tasks because I was “inspired”; I was starting them because I feared what would happen if I didn’t. And as a result, the quality of my work suffered.
I wasn’t moving forward.
And worse, I couldn’t seem to finish anything.
Starting a task was no longer an issue — I had conquered that system. But finishing?
That was a whole other story.
My life became a series of starting — then quitting — various things that I thought I’d like to pursue. Professional web designer, social media manager, iOS app coder, you name it. But I could only force myself to run up hills for so long until my legs began to give out. So how did I finally stick to one path?
I detailed what my future could look like if I stuck to a goal I cared about.
It was 1 AM.
In a particularly messy fit of anxiety, I sat down on the same wooden chair I had squandered so much time in not long ago, and I closed my eyes. And after about 5 minutes of silent meditation, I asked myself:
“If I made every necessary sacrifice to reach the highest goals I could achieve, what would my life look like in 5–10 years?”
As soon as my fingers smacked the keyword, the words started to flow again. Except this time, I was looking towards the light instead of back at the dark.
For three straight hours — eyes shut the whole way — I articulated the tangle of thoughts and emotions that comprised the messy vision of my future.
I tried to capture as many details as possible:
- What would a day in my life be like?
- What kind of positive relationships could I have?
- How would my career — not just a job, but a career — play a part in my everyday life? Would I enjoy it?
- What would I do in my free time?
- How many people could I help in my position?
And by the end of my writing session, I had flipped the script.
No longer did I have to rely on a dark place to find the will to continue moving forward. If my work was suffering, if I felt demotivated, I had something to look to for guidance.
The darkness gave me something to run away from, but the light gave me something to reach for. The left and the right, the hot and cold, the caution and fearlessness, all working together.
Soon after I finished writing, I got back to work.