Motivation is an Ineffective Habit-Forming Strategy

When we fail to create a habit, we blame ourselves for being lazy or unmotivated. It seems logical. If we were motivated, we would do what we had planned to do, right? True, but motivation is an ineffective strategy for forming habits. First, it depends on our emotional state. Emotions are difficult to regulate, and consistency is an absolute necessity for habit formation. Repetition is the language of our basal ganglia, where all habits reside. Another reason motivation is a terrible strategy for developing habits is that it decreases over time. We don’t build motivation through repetition; we dilute it. We are less excited to do something for the hundredth time than we are the first time. It is hard to sustain motivation for any length of time, especially if the behavior doesn’t provide an instant reward, which good habits rarely do. We will discuss how to make good habits more rewarding later, but for now, let’s assume that most good habits aren’t going to produce the same instantaneous delight that a piece of cake will. Even our desire to eat cake will decrease if we eat the entire cake, based on the widely accepted economic theory of diminishing marginal utility, you’ll enjoy your first piece of cake much more than your last. The more often we do something, the less motivated we will be to do it.

I am not against motivation. I am opposed to the notion that motivation is a prerequisite for taking action. That type of thinking is a trap. People that are waiting for a lightning bolt of motivation never accomplish anything. Boredom is the biggest obstacle to achieving excellence. The repetition and time required to build exceptional skills make the activity less enjoyable. Artist like Pablo Picasso didn’t wait for inspiration, he said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working” Steven King describes writing like any other occupation. He says we should wait for the muse. He says, “Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon or seven ’til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up.”

If MOTIVATION is such an ineffective strategy, why is it so popular in the self-help space? I’ve discovered that a lot of popular things aren’t necessarily effective. A lot of ineffective strategies persist due to survivorship biasSurvivorship bias is the logical error of concentrating on the people that were successful and ignoring all those that weren’t. Only a small minority of people can push through the arduous initiation phase using motivation as their starting strategy; consequently, few people succeed in creating good habits. The voice of those that succeeded despite using the ineffective strategy of motivation drowns out the voices of those that failed. Few failures want to broadcast their defeat. Successful people, on the other hand, want to share their success. Many of them have the altruistic motive of helping others. Their success gives them a platform to inspire others. I applaud those that want to help others.

A great example is Gary Vaynerchuk, or Gary Vee, as he is known to his fans. He works extremely hard and says that the bigger your ambition, the harder you are going to have to work. He advocates hard work, perseverance, and patients. As an entrepreneur, these are essential qualities, but very few people can muster enough motivation, willpower, and discipline to execute through brute force. His brand of self-help is focused on discipline, hard work, and patience. He says, “motivation is simple, you either have it, or you can watch it.” Gary’s brand of self-help might lead some people to believe they aren’t successful because they lack motivation. I don’t disagree with his assertion that BIG DREAMS require a huge commitment, but I don’t think most people can muster enough motivation and willpower to begin their journey with huge daily obligations. They might work up to large daily commitments, but in the beginning, it can be a recipe for failure. I recommend people follow Robin Sharma’s advice, “Dream Big. Start small. Act now.”

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