The myth of motivation

Is motivation important to get things done? Can we trick our minds to feel motivated to do essential things?

The myth of motivation

We often struggle with getting things done. The primary reason is lack of motivation. But is motivation that important to get things done? Can we trick our minds to feel motivated to do essential things? I was watching a productivity masterclass on skillshare from Ali Abdaal, and he shared some interesting thoughts on motivation. Let’s find out.

For most of our tasks, we start with a thought that we want to get this thing done. For example, “I want to study”, “I want to exercise”, or “I want to read a paper”. This is just a thought. Then there is action. This is where we actually do that task. But in between, there is what we call motivation. Kind of a barrier that sometimes prevents us from being productive. It goes like this: “I want to exercise, but I don’t feel like doing it right now”. And we end up doing something else that we “feel” like doing.

This is not the right way to approach things. We should completely eliminate the middle barrier of motivation. Motivation in that sense is a feeling, and we should not rely on feelings to get important things done. Mainly because feelings are temporary. It changes over time. Tasks are important on the other hand. A five-year-old acts according to what she feels like. Most of my audience is older than that.

Instead, we should just try to be more disciplined and just do the tasks. Having a calendar helps with that. A TODO list is another tool that can help, but it doesn’t work for everyone. Accountability is an even better way to make sure that we stay disciplined. At our work, we are accountable to our manager. Hence, we end up doing what needs to be done (at least most of the time). The hardest part is being aware of our feelings and recognizing that we are delaying actions because of them.

There are mainly two ways to manipulate our feeling of motivation. Punishment and reward. Punishing ourselves for inaction is in my opinion more effective than rewarding ourselves for the action. Some people recommend putting actual money on the line. For example, if I want to read a paper every week, I can give one of my friend 500$ and tell him that he can use that money if I skip reading paper for a week for next couple of months. It seems scary. But that’s what makes it work. There are some websites that would donate the money if we fail to do our decided task.

Another approach is to reward ourselves for action (rather quickly). If we think about it, we only need motivation for the tasks that don’t give us pleasure (mostly short-term pleasure). We rarely need motivation to watch a Netflix or YouTube. We are always ready to play our favorite game. Such tasks are fun to do. But most tasks that give us long-term gain, don’t give us short-term pleasure. We do recognize such tasks. We want to do them. But we end up giving more weight to our “feelings” and end up procrastinating. One way to feel motivated is by trying to make that task more fun. Sometimes this can be easy, like listening to music while studying. But for most of the tasks, we really need to work hard to make them more pleasurable. Adding a reward right after the task also helps.

Coming back to the main idea, that motivation is just a feeling, and we should rather learn to not let it take over for important tasks. We don’t do tasks because we don’t feel happy. In fact, it goes the other way around. We do the tasks first and doing them makes us feel happy. Sometimes just the feeling of completing the task is good. Once we start the task, we get the energy and motivation to do so.

Personally, I rarely lacked motivation for my studies. But thinking more about that, it was the discipline that helped me more than the motivation. The way my parents raised me, I was hardwired to follow a routine. It didn’t change when I went to university. From the outside, it seems quite boring to plan the day and stick to the plan and do what we decided to do at the time when we decided to do. But that has helped me a lot. Consistently doing our important tasks piles up the benefits. The same way, the disadvantages of consistent inaction also piles up. Although those disadvantages are mostly absence of advantages and hence are harder to notice.

Preparing for exams also goes like that. If we stay consistent, we do a lot better with very little efforts. But if we don’t, we end up cramming, which is never good (even if it sometimes works). Surprisingly, on a day before exam, we don’t need motivation. We end up studying even if we don’t “feel” like studying. Perhaps that relates to the negative reward of facing the consequences of scoring low on exams. But either way, it proves the point that motivation is indeed a myth.

Hope you liked this. Stay tuned for more!

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Video: Paradox definition

Quote: “We assume the order of operations is: body gives me energy, I do stuff. But it seems the order really is: I do stuff, my body gives me energy.” From What if You Have it Backwards? by Nat Eliason.