Staying motivated by designing better goals

  • One solution is to tilt the playing field if your temporary motivation is strong enough, keeping in mind that there will be lots of little bumps.
  • An alternative can be to smooth the bumps by reducing friction to your goal.
  • Another is to block the easier routes to help you stay focused.
  • Better though is to design a new path for your goal that will flow where you want it to go. The person who gets in shape doing an activity they love (skiing, hiking) might not need so much motivation to get there.
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Self Improvement


How motivation works inside the brain

Our brains are parallel computing systems. Billions of neurons and trillions of synapses all fire independently. Yet, we can only take one action at a time. For example, we can't sit and jog at the same time.

The basal ganglia is situated in the brain's neocortex and receive inputs from many cortical regions, such as your frontal cortex (thinking, working memory) and motor cortex (physical actions). It controls which action to support based on which set of activities will lead to the best rewards. But the system is very short-sighted.

Motivation is just a kind of system.

If you can understand the system, you can change it and use it to gain a better outcome.

Motivation can be compared with water flowing downhill. Water will always flow in the path of least resistance. If there's a slight lip of land, the water will pool because it can't get over the hump.

Our motivations are similar. We want to be rich, fit, intelligent and successful, but the action to get there requires some effort (uphill). Our impulse is to procrastinate instead.

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Why we fail to motivate ourselves

Two factors contribute to a lack of motivation.

  • Lack of drive. The object of our goals may just not be worthwhile.
  • Pain from progress. Something might be in the way of our progress. It may be fears, but most often, it is drudgery, effort or boredom.

The two factors can work separately. We may have a few problems but little drive and thus don't move ahead. Or our goal could be very desirous, but a proportionately large pain can hinder us from moving forward.

The first views on motivation
  • At first, psychologist William James thought that only the initial act was conscious, thereafter behaviour was a spontaneous cascade of habits. He suggested we struggle with motivation when there are competing ideas.
  • Sigmund Freud theorised that we are largely unconscious of what drives our behaviour.
Effort as Energy Expenditure

Effort represents an investment of a fixed resource, like calories.

For this reason, running takes more effort than sitting. It takes more calories and strains muscles and joints. If you run non-stop, you will need to eat more to stay alive, and you will wear your muscles out.

However, effort as energy expenditure does not fully answer why we struggle to take action, as effortful tasks, such as playing tennis, is more fun than doing nothing.

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