Why Motivation Doesn’t Work

The Motivation Mindset And Its Discontents

“Discipline equals freedom” – Jocko Willink

When a task is painful and the outcome is uncertain, it’s often the case that motivation seems to somehow vanish. At such times, stepping away to improve our strategy seems like a reasonable way to rekindle and reconnect with the feelings that lead us to the work. This is one of the ways we fall into the trap of over-strategizing but it also speaks to a deeper misunderstanding of the role that motivation should play in achieving our goals.

When we approach our goals with what I’ll call the Motivation Mindset, we expect that our motivation to reach our goal will translate into motivation to do the work necessary to achieve it.  

For example, the motivation mindset assumes that because we’re motivated to learn French, we’ll also feel motivated to spend hours learning to conjugate French verbs. It’s also the reason people say things like, “he just didn’t want it badly enough.” when someone fails to achieve something. The flaw with this approach to our goals is that it places too much stock in the durability of motivation.

Motivation is a treacherous currency because it is a fundamentally forward looking emotion. It is a why, why you’re doing something. Motivation concerns itself with the future and because we are quick to discount the future in the face of difficulty, it is fundamentally fickle. As such, relying on motivation will almost never get you through the work required for a worthwhile goal.

An alternative, and in my experience superior approach is to approach our work with what i’d call a Discipline Mindset. Which is to say that we should expect that, irrespective of our initial motivation, discipline will be required.

Motivation and discipline differ in that if motivation is about the future then discipline is about the present. If motivation asks why, then discipline asks how? How will I get through the drudgery of conjugating verbs? By drinking a strong coffee and not getting out of this chair for an hour.

It is a subtle distinction, but I would argue it is a worthwhile one because in essence, a disciplined mindset creates more realistic expectations. The result is that instead of feeling like we’re doing things wrong because we’re bored, tired and pissed off, we can begin to recognize those emotions as signals that we’re doing exactly what we should be.

Discipline Creates Motivation

There is a further relationship between discipline and motivation that’s worth exploring. It’s how, in certain circumstances, discipline can lead to a renewed sense of motivation. This occurs when disciplined output provides high-quality feedback which in turn leads to truly productive adjustments to our strategy.

As we observe said adjustments creating real changes in the efficiency and/or efficacy of our work, the result is motivation to do more work. Which is to say that when we feel more confident that our plan will work or we’ll feel better while we do it, we feel motivated to follow through and execute.

Put in terms of the Sisyphus Matrix, motivation is the feeling we get when our perception of a task moves from Task t1 to Task t2:

This is why people spend, and often waste money on “gear” and its equivalent. It creates the expectation of a more pleasurable experience and thereby the motivation to take another shot at the work. Unfortunately, for things that require true skill, better tools often provide only a minor improvements to our process and our motivation quickly dissipates.

 

Authors Note: This piece originally appeared as part of the post Avoiding Procrastination – Genius, Productivity & The Sisyphus Matrix but in order to make it more accessible (shorter), I’ve republished it here. 

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