Motivation: What It Is and How It Works
Scientists define motivation as your general willingness to do something. It is the set of psychological forces that compel you to take action. That’s nice and all, but I think we can come up with a more useful definition of motivation.
What is Motivation?
So what is motivation, exactly? The author Steven Pressfield has a great line in his book, The War of Art, which I think gets at the core of motivation. To paraphrase Pressfield, “At some point, the pain of not doing it becomes greater than the pain of doing it.”
In other words, at some point, it is easier to change than to stay the same. It is easier to take action and feel insecure at the gym than to sit still. experience self-loathing on the couch. It is easier to feel awkward while making the sales call than to feel disappointed about your dwindling bank account.
This, I think, is the essence of motivation. Every choice has a price, but when we are motivated, it is easier to bear the inconvenience of action than the pain of remaining the same. Somehow we cross a mental threshold—usually after weeks of procrastination and in the face of an impending deadline—and it becomes more painful to not do the work than to actually do it.
Common Misconceptions About Motivation
One of the most surprising things about motivation is that it often comes after starting a new behaviour, not before. We have this common misconception that motivation arrives as a result of passively consuming a motivational video or reading an inspirational book. However, active inspiration can be a far more powerful motivator.
Motivation is often the result of an action, not the cause of it. Getting started, even in very small ways, is a form of active inspiration that naturally produces momentum.
I like to refer to this effect as the Physics of Productivity because this is basically Newton’s First Law applied to habit formation: Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. Once a task has begun, it is easier to continue moving it forward.
How to Get Motivated and Take Action
Many people struggle to find the motivation they need to achieve their goals. They won’t because they are wasting too much time and energy on other parts of the process. If you want to make it easy to find motivation and get started, then it helps to automate the early stages of your behaviour.
Schedule Your Motivation
During a conversation about writing, my friend Sarah Peck looked at me and said, “A lot of people never get around to writing because they are always wondering when they are going to write next.” You could say the same thing about working out, starting a business, creating art, and building most habits.
- If your workout doesn’t have a time when it usually occurs. Then each day you’ll wake up thinking, “I hope I feel motivated to exercise today.”
- If your business doesn’t have a system for marketing. Then you’ll show up at work crossing your fingers that you’ll find a way to get the word out (in addition to everything else you have to do).
- If you don’t have a scheduled time when you write every week. Then you’ll find yourself saying things like, “I just need to find the willpower to do it.”
An article in The Guardian summarized the situation by saying, “If you waste resources trying to decide when or where to work, you’ll impede your capacity to do the work.”
Setting a schedule for yourself seems simple. But it puts your decision-making on autopilot by giving your goals a time and a place to live. It makes it more likely that you will follow through regardless of your motivation levels. And there are plenty of research studies on willpower and motivation to back up that statement.
Stop waiting for motivation or inspiration to strike you and set a schedule for your habits. This is the difference between professionals and amateurs. Professionals set a schedule and stick to it. Amateurs wait until they feel inspired or motivated.