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Most of the thing we do that are related to self-improvement have an activation cost - it’s harder to exercise regularly, read books and work on yourself than to binge watch TV series all day. But, once you’re already doing those things, it’s easier to keep doing them.
The thing is that a lot of the things we should do to live well just aren’t motivating enough on their own. You know you should do them, but you often fail to. However, when you do have a goal that deeply motivates you then that enthusiasm often helps overcome the activation costs in other areas of life.
We usually believe that effort will be draining and that it's better to save our energy for when we really need it. Yet, more often than not, the opposite is the case: when we really use our full effort for something that truly matters to us, we feel more energized, not less.
The paradox is that life is often easiest when it is hardest. When you’re working on a pursuit that may fail if you don’t take it seriously, you find the energy to take it seriously. And you find the other troublesome things in life that needed effort weren’t so hard either.
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Some theories of motivation claim we're naturally biased. It may happen because we can't consider all the angles. At other times, as the world advance, the usual criteria no longer apply.
There may be only a few exceptional people like Elon Musk because we can't grasp the idea that one person can create wealth or drive progress. We don't notice opportunities and more easily dismiss them.
If you think motivation is mostly rational, pay attention to what motivates you. You might not feel motivated because your current opportunities aren't that good.
If you think motivation is biased and nudging is necessary, create rules, systems, and habits to move you ahead. If you can't motivate yourself for months or years, your project may be at fault.
How much we can change ourselves can be explored by looking at the extremes.
Studies involving identical and fraternal twins (even reared apart) showed that most parts of our nature are partly heritable. Intelligence may be as high as 80% heritable, but 50% is the standard number of many of the domains, including personality.
However, being heritable isn't the same as being fixed. There might be a difference between inheriting different capabilities versus different preferences.
While genetic research stands out in favour of rigidity, there is contrary evidence.
When Ivan Pavlov and his dogs led to the discovery of learned behaviour through repeated exposure, and Edward Thorndike discovered the Law of Effect that stated that rewarded behaviours tended to increase, many psychologists were impelled to separate psychology from armchair introspection and formulated their theories as mathematical formulas.
Donald Hebb realised that existing theories were too focused on reacting to the immediate environment. Thoughts, ideas and goals could be just as strong for triggering action as sights and sounds.
Together with John Atkinson, they noted that the study of motivation had undergone a "paradigm shift", where motivation couldn't be seen as how actions get started, but how the organism decides to change its behaviour from one thing to another.