Archive for the ‘Motivation’ Category


The Motivation Checklist


A week ago I asked the Internet what it does to “cultivate their motivation,” rather than just treat it like an unchangeable thing that you just have to hope you’re lucky enough to have. I received three different responses, from three different perspectives.

Sam focused on “an implicit belief that I do not have either the time, resources or ability to do what I want to do well.” Matt separated the question into short term and long term. I’ll leave his thoughts about the long-term for another day, but his short term focus was on powering through in order to get started. Eran focused on “appreciating how awesome what you’re doing could be, how much better your life could be when you’re done, and even how much you’ve already accomplished is key.”

I think that all of this is good advice, and I wanted to see if I could integrate them together into something a little systematic. I went to my library of psychology books to see if something worthwhile already existed by an established psychologist, but that was a failure. If anyone has a good lead, let me know.

I think motivation is a product of essentially two things, which Sam and Eran are dealing with, respectively: a belief that the goal one is pursuing is 1) possible to you and 2) worth the effort. There’s a lot of important detail to each, so, for example, “possible” doesn’t just mean having the materials or connections but also having the time.

The frustrating thing about not having motivation is that the cause of the problem doesn’t necessarily present itself. You just know you’re bored and then have to dig a bit to figure out why. I don’t know that this list is comprehensive yet, but next time you’re in a low motivation situation, I hope this can be helpful.

Questions relating to the goal’s worth
-Do I know what I want? It’s surprising how often people just fall into a goal without questioning why they are doing it.  
-Do I know how this action gets me what I want? And is the action a meaningful step?
-Is the goal specific, real and concrete to me? Or is it vague and abstract?
-Is there a limit to how much time, energy, money I will be spending on this thing? (ie Do I know the cost?)

Questions relating to possibility
-Do I have the time needed for the goal?
-Do I know how to measure how well I’m doing? And do I know where I am now?
-Do I have the skill needed? This can mean knowledge, effective habits, muscle memory.
-Do I have the money, relationships, reputation, or other resources needed?

If you can pinpoint exactly where the problem is, you can start to figure out what to do to solve it. In looking at the list, I realized a problem with my own motivation in this blog–I don’t know the time cost. I have a rough estimate regarding the time it takes for a weekly post (around four hours per week) but not regarding how long I will keep it going. Let’s say I will just focus on the next month and reevaluate then whether I reup. That’s three more posts this month. I have three quality post in me.   

So, Internet, what am I missing from the above list?


The McFly Effect


Anyone who has seen the Back to the Future Trilogy remembers the scene where Marty starts a fight because a bully calls him “chicken.” (Or the one where “chicken” taunts him into a bad business deal. Or the one where he’s tempted into a drag race. As a friend joked, Marty doesn’t actually have a psychological problem, he has a kill word.)

I had the same sort of problem for a while. Where Marty was held hostage by challenges to his courage, I was held hostage by challenges to my skill. The challenge didn’t even have to be intentional, as I could also be set off by a stray remark that something was hard or that a different person was really funny or intelligent (which, by implication, might mean that I was not particularly funny or intelligent). Under the grip of proving myself, I have taken on projects way out of my depth, declined to accept much needed help, engaged in stupid dares like eating a half-cup of wasabi all at once, and perhaps worst of all, stewed in frustration and self-pity instead of getting to know some pretty funny and intelligent people.

The funny thing is that this problem was actually rooted in something really, really good: my desire for skill and joy at times when I am able to do something. My appreciation for times when I’ve had something insightful to add to a conversation, for example, became neurosis that I should always be adding something insightful to a conversation, even when I was exhausted or the others in the conversation knew far more about the subject than I did or I simply didn’t actually have anything interesting to say on the subject.

The reason I’m sharing this is not self-disclosure but because I don’t think I’m alone on this one. It’s a problem you see often in ambitious people: a desire for something good somehow becomes twisted into pain and neurotic behavior at evidence of not having it (or not having as much as others). My particular variant was a desire for skill, but there are many others.  Common examples are number of friends, success in one’s career, respect, and money.

I think that the problem here is one of self-judgment. It’s hard to know how to judge one’s accomplishments and, by extension, one’s worth as a person. Do I have enough skill/friends/success/respect/money? Well, how could I decide when enough is enough? In absence of a clearly defined way of judging oneself, comparison with others is at least a common standard and might be a natural default standard.

I’ve seen a few different ideas about what the healthy standard could be, but this post is getting a little long now to discuss them all. I think it’s going to be a topic I return to a few times on the blog.  

So that I’m not completely opening a can of worms without closing it back up, I’ll end with how I got over my own problem. I realized that what I was expecting from myself was impossible: I was essentially demanding omnipotence in all situations. Obviously, that’s crazy. A person has only limited time and resources with which to develop a skill. When faced with someone else’s ability to do something, such as a backflip, that I’m not able to do; the correct thing to do is ask myself what would be involved in my developing that skill. Would I prefer to spend the time and energy (and healing) on perfecting a backflip or on learning more about psychology or watching a film? I’ll admit, learning how to backflip is tempting and I may actually attempt to learn how at some point, but it’s just not where I want to spend my time now.

I think the same pattern works for all values. The question is not “Do I have enough” but “Would I prefer to spend the time and energy to achieve this particular value, or would I prefer to spend my time elsewhere?” If the answer is that you want to do the work, make a plan. If the answer is that you don’t, then that’s fine. Accept and enjoy your current state. Everything else, just let it go.

So the standard then becomes not whether I’m happy with the current state of anything but rather whether I am happy with my choice of commitments. Am I building the skill I want, engaged in the kind of job that should give me the money I want, working toward the kinds of accomplishments I want? If so, then congrats; you win.

I’m not certain that’s it, and there’s definitely more to develop, but I submit the idea for your consideration.

[Hat tip to Sam Applebaum, whose concept of value neurosis clearly informed this post significantly. I might be dealing with the broader category?]


How Do You Inspire Yourself? (Yes, You, The Person Reading Right Now. I’m Asking.)


Last week’s post on inspiration sparked a comment that deserves further development. In my opinion, only the awesome power of the Internet is up to the task. I will build on your comments to write next week’s post.

Eran Dror wrote:

“One very obvious fact that I think men especially tend to forget is that emotions, including motivation and inspiration can be cultivated. Sometimes instead of simply trying to get back to work from where you left off, the best approach is to engage in some activity specifically designed to rekindle your motivation. That can be anything from reading an article on the topic, or trying to come up with some fresh insights. I found that my biggest obstacle was learning to recognize my own emotions as a distinct roadblock that had to be addressed separately and not just ‘powered through.'”

So, Internet, what do you do to cultivate your motivation?  Reading an article or coming up with fresh insights? Or something else entirely?

PS This is not my post for the week. That would be cheating.


Inspiration is Perishable


Over the last week, I’ve outlined two blog posts that have excited me, about topics that I think are important and I feel I have something worth saying about. The problem is that now that I have some time to actually write them, I just don’t have the motivation to do so.

The title of this post comes from a short essay in a great book called Rework, by Jason Fried and David Hennemeier Hanson of the company 37Signals. The idea is to act on your inspiration when it strikes because it won’t be here tomorrow, no matter how potent it might be right now. If that means working well into the night, rearranging your plans, whatever, then go for it.

There’s definitely merit to this idea, but it’s not really practical in most situations. I write this blog in the margins of my life, mostly on the weekends and in the subway to and from work. It’s necessarily a secondary priority to my job and my girlfriend. If the only way I could do good work on the blog was to drop everything else, I would choose not to do good work.

So I am often in the position of having to return to work I’ve started earlier, and that brings me to the question of why the motivation perishes. I think it’s this: motivation results from a belief that you have something worthwhile to gain from taking an action. To truly be motivated, that needs to exist not just as words in your mind but as a clear and tangible vision of what you have to gain and how, the clearer and more tangible the better. The challenge is that this vision depends on a lot of supporting factors, including your recent experiences with the problem, experiences of your own success in related circumstances, relevant knowledge you have about the moving parts. All of this was in your head at the time of the inspiration. In the meantime, other experiences, facts, and thoughts have taken their place.

So I am often in the position of having to return to work I’ve started earlier, and there are two simple strategies I follow.

1) Give up and move on.

This is a variant on “Inspiration is perishable.” If I don’t have the inspiration for what I said I’d do before, what do I have the inspiration for? That’s actually the strategy I am successfully doing in this post. I had something outlined about interactions with others, but it’s been four days since I was confused by a coworker that I thought was too flippantly dismissive of another coworker’s perspective, and I’ve moved on. Maybe I’ll write about how to think about others’ opinions the next time a similar situation comes up. In the meantime, my outline has been captured, so some progress has been made should I return.

2) Commit to ten minutes.

The secret of this is that it helps to recreate the original mindset, those experiences with the problem and your own successes, all that relevant knowledge. This may sound like a lot of work, but I think for a lot of people, this happens fairly automatically when they actually force themselves to sit down again. The inner monologue sounds something like, “Okay, let’s get this over with. What was I trying to do again? Okay, I wanted to write a blog post about dismissing others. Why was that again? Oh, yeah, Jane was making fun of George’s good idea. Why does she do that? I think it’s because she’s just so focused on checking things off that she oversimplifies things. Oh yeah, I was thinking that a lot of people do this.” And so on. One question begets the next, and all those answers make up a mindset. Nine times out of ten, you lose track of the end of those ten minutes because you’re off pursuing your inspiration.

Now, those are the simple strategies for recreating a motivated mindset. I think they’re really effective for a lot of people a lot of the time. But clearly there are often bigger issues. If there weren’t, I wouldn’t have much of a blog to write. So expect more on this subject. When I feel like it.


J.K. Rowling on “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination”


Someone should make a book collecting the great graduation speeches by successful people. I really appreciated Rowling’s point about stripping your life down to the essentials and ignoring others’ wishes for you. That said, I don’t think it’s necessary to fail to do so, though it does make a good story.

The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination | Harvard Magazine.


Be Like Gravity


From the coach who turned around Agassi’s game, in Agassi’s book Open: “Quit going for the knockout, he says. Stop swinging for the fences. All you have to be is solid…Be like >gravity,< man, just like motherfucking gravity…Perfection? There’s about five times a year you wake up perfect, when you can’t lose to anybody, but it’s not those five times a year that make a tennis player. Or a human being, for that matter. It’s the other times.”

I’ve been repeating this phrase “Be like gravity” to myself a lot recently, ever since reading Agassi’s book a few weeks ago. It’s been running through my mind particularly on a big project I’m currently working on–a class built around a complicated role play with a lot of moving parts. Sometimes I get tired or discouraged at the difficulty and my emotions rebel at the idea of going further. When I remind myself to be like gravity, everything changes. I find myself recommitted and refocused, ready to do some good work.

So what’s the big deal here? What does it mean to be like gravity? Well, what do we know about gravity? It’s powerful, powerful enough to keep you on this planet and to keep the entire universe in motion. It’s also unwavering. You cannot argue with gravity, cannot expect it to let up. It is simply a fact of life, and you have to accept and adapt to it. Which would you rather face off against if you were a tennis player: an emotionally volatile Agassi that is just as likely to self-destruct as beat you or an Agassi that simply will not let up?

To “be like gravity” is to bring your best to the table every time. The opposite, which I’ve seen in myself and I think is common, is to work in surges. It’s the romantic idea that it’s all on the line this time, so this time I’m going to bring my A-game. As Agassi’s coach puts it, it’s swinging for the fences, going for the knockout, putting it all on the line. And it usually means trying to act well above your actual ability, in an impassioned but fairly uncontrolled way.

The teenager in me is kicking up in protest right now, because it feels like I’m advocating mediocrity or a boring but consistent existence. Is this shift in thinking part of the process of settling down to live an uninspired life? I don’t think so. I think I’m advocating the kind of mentality that is required to pursue exciting, ambitious goals. Those kinds of goals are always, necessarily long-term.

The exciting stuff isn’t won and lost on one moment; it’s won and lost by how persistently you hammer away at your exciting goals. Even the short-term or one-time goals are actually long-term goals in disguise (but that’s for another post).

I also don’t think that being like gravity means that you aren’t living a passionate life. Passion is the fuel for all work worth doing. If you are showing up, checking off your work, and going home; that’s not being like gravity. It’s not bringing your best self consistently, which requires passion and focus. I think I’m just advocating bringing that passion to the table persistently, instead of erratically.

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