On Motivation

What is motivation? How do you define it? Why does it seem to come and go, how can it be so unreliable and yet so important?

1. A reason or reasons for acting or behaving in a particular way.
“Escape can be a strong motivation for travel”

The above is the Oxford English definition. A “reason for a behaviour” as a description is at best vague, but it emphasises the transient nature of the beast. Motivation is a tangible statistic, which can be both positive and negative and is a constant state of flux.
The danger of this fluctuating resource is that it is one on which many people rely. A characteristic that is in such a constant state of flux cannot truly be considered one to be safely relied upon. Daily tasks come in two loosely-definable categories – those that bring us joy, and those that are demanded of us whether pleasurable or not. The former are often those that we choose, are often short-term reward oriented and often destructive in nature.Motivation comes readily for a task that is fun. It is on hand, waiting to be applied, and for the majority of people it is easy to go and do something that you enjoy. You will never find it arduous, find it Sisyphean, to put your nose to the grindstone for a task that you find rewarding, pleasurable, satisfying and challenging.
Where the difficulty rears its head is in finding the motivation to undertake a task which is less joyful. In this instance it is fleeting and ghost-like, and whilst it may be there at one moment it will readily desert you at the next opportunity.
At this time of year, motivation is almost a given. “Resolutionists” as such people are described are the epitome of motivation’s greatest benefit, the power to encourage drastic change. Sadly though the majority of these individuals who are fuelled by motivation fall off the wagon as rapidly as they joined it, which in turn is the major weakness.
I tend to refer to this as the Getting Awesome fallacy. High-performers are no less guilty of this, they merely do it in a more dramatic way. The Getting Awesome fallacy is the resulting occurrence when trying to make dramatic lifestyle changes too fast. If someone wishes to improve their diet, their exercise regimen and their home habits such as watching too much TV or not reading enough, any attempt to change all of these facets at the same time is highly likely to be doomed to failure. Yet Resolutionist culture brings back a cyclical yearly re-occurrence of such goals, from which very few people seem to learn the essential lesson to see sustainable change.
The lesson is best summarised in Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit” which will, I’m sure, be subject of a book review in weeks to come. With such goal setting whether it be it in terms of habits or merely skills, drivers and goals, the bane of Getting Awesome is the ancient art of two boring yet essential words – Focus and Discipline.
In The Power of Habit it is discussed as the concept of Keystone Habits. To quote a Tim Ferriss question in terms of how he prioritises, “which task once completed will make all the others either easier or unnecessary?” What this means is direct your limited motivation to the change or activity that will make the most cascading difference. Imagine filling the top glass in a pyramid of champagne flutes, rather than one in the middle of the pile. You want the change to have a domino effect in the activities that take place in your life.
One of the key starting points is exercise. Having a valid exercise regimen cascades into every other aspect of life. Feeling fit and healthy, mobile and able enhances ones ability to think clearly, reduces stress, promotes positive hormone activity throughout the body, increases health and well-being and improves ones self-worth and self-confidence. It is a great place to start.
Focus is maintained by Discipline. Motivation is fickle, fleeting and will disappear when you want it most – and discipline is not. A friend recently asked me “Give me some motivation to go to the gym. How do you find it so easy?” I replied, “Why do you need motivation? The way I make sure I always go is that going to the gym is not a choice. It is a requirement. The only question is what I’m going to do.”
Self-discipline is the iron rules that you set for yourself. It is the backbone that everyone wants, but many are not strict enough to impose on themselves. Imposed discipline is from an external source. It is someone telling you to do something, and when that external influence leaves it will be gone as rapidly as motivation.
Find your focus, and find your discipline. Combine the two and be unstoppable.


  1. Pingback: On Delayed Gratification – Journal of a Developing Man

  2. Pingback: On Desire and Effort – Samuel K. Norton

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *