Staying Motivated On A Long Journey

long road aheadMotivation is often hard to sustain. It’s normal to feel highly motivated for a short period of time, but how long can you keep it up? If you’ve ever been highly motivated to go to the gym, to study, to go the extra mile at work, and so on, only to find that motivation dwindling with time, this article is for you.

When you feel motivated, completing your task is a breeze. You just do it. Emotionally, you feel like you want to. And there’s nothing that can get in the way of that. We won’t be getting into any of that here. On the other hand, there are many things you know you should be doing, and deep down you want to be doing. But you can’t bring yourself to take action, no matter how badly you may want it. Your will to succeed is simply not translating into the effort you should be putting in. There is simply no motivation there, or it’s short-lived.

This article is about those times. It’s about the times you want a desired-result, and when wanting it just isn’t enough to get the job done.

As a paradigm, let’s stick with the gym example. You know working out is good for you. You get healthier, look better, and feel better. Yet for some reason, this knowledge doesn’t motivate you to hit the gym as one might think it would. Picturing the body you want doesn’t work either. Sure, it might drive you to the gym a couple times, but after 20 workouts and realizing you’re still nowhere near your goal, you’re going to become discouraged.

Logically speaking, the realization that going to the gym and working out will lead to the exact goal we desire should provide all the motivation we need. But that’s not really how it works, is it?

And this is exactly what Motivation Hacker is all about. If we were as logical as we think we are, we would never waste a minute procrastinating. We would never come up with excuses to avoid doing things like hitting the gym, studying ahead of time, or going the extra mile at work. But we do. All the time. Without even realizing it (i.e. unconsciously), we use defense mechanisms to distance ourselves from unpleasant thoughts and tasks.

Therefore, coming up with a list of reasons why going to the gym is important is useless: You already know what the benefits are. This approach doesn’t work at all because it’s not the conscious side of our brain that drives action.

The unconscious, emotional, primitive side of our brain drives our actions. The key word in that sentence was unconscious. This refers to the operations in the brain that occur outside of consciousness. The implication here is that we don’t truly know what motivates us most of the time, which can make it difficult to, well, find out what motivates us. So here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to show you the problem with the outcome-oriented, conscious-approach described above, and suggest a much more efficient approach. Of course, this approach will require a different mindset, but we already know that only different approaches lead to different outcomes.

The problem with the approach above is that it is far too outcome-oriented. The focus isn’t on how to work out efficiently and having fun working out: it’s on getting a six-pack. You don’t focus on how to study more efficiently, you focus on getting high grades. You focus not on being more valuable to your employer, but on only putting in effort where it might get noticed and appreciated.

There are two problems with this outcome-oriented approach. The first one is that if we unconsciously associate the desired goal with a handful of negative feelings, we’re going to avoid it. This might sound unfamiliar at first, but we actually all do this. And it all happens unconsciously. If “getting a nice body” is associated with “long, dreadful workouts”, it is going to be avoided. If studying hard is associated with high-anxiety (and it will be if you’re a chronic procrastinator), you will avoid it until the last possible minute, confirming your (false) notion that all studying leads to high-anxiety. Get it?

Secondly, there are two types of motivation. Extrinsic, and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is motivation that arises from external rewards: money, a strong academic record, a fit body and so on. Intrinsic motivation arises from taking pleasure in the activity as opposed to the rewards that may come with it. An outcome-oriented approach revolves around extrinsic motivation. The issue with extrinsic motivation is that when a goal is set too far into the future, and we cannot directly sense that the effort we’re putting in today is contributing to those goals, we will lose our motivation in the long run. We want to make quantum leaps. Our mind fails to understand the notion that although we might not always see our progress directly, by putting in a little bit of effort every day, the results will inevitably find their way in our lives in the long run.

This is why intrinsic motivation is so much more powerful than extrinsic motivation. This is why you should completely forget about the results and focus only on the process. When you can, make the process as enjoyable as possible. When this is difficult to do, as it often is with dry tasks like paperwork or reading uninteresting material, break the task down into the smallest steps you possible can. Start off with only 10 minutes a day, or more, as long as the number is realistic and achievable. Your mindset while working shouldn’t be focused on the results at all. Focus only on the process. Read that next page, do that next set of 12 reps. Focus only on doing, and not what you’re going to get out of it. When your expectations are too high, i.e. something along the lines of “this hard work better pay off”, you’re going to be greatly discouraged and possibly quit when you don’t immediately see the results you think you deserve.

Remember, this concept can be applied to anything, but it will work best on tasks you’re avoiding. If there are certain tasks where external rewards work for you and continue to work for you, don’t change what you’re doing. But when you constantly find yourself procrastinating or avoiding something, it becomes the perfect time to take your eye off the results and focus on the process.

To go back to the classic gym example, what if you worked your butt off for a week, hitting the gym 5 times in that span, and not seeing a single result? You still look the same. You still feel the same and weigh the same. Discouraging, no?

Before you workout, ask yourself if you would be ok with the amount of effort you’re putting in not leading to immediate results. Before you study, ask yourself if you’d be ok with putting in an hour of work and still not really understanding what you’re doing. How about two hours? If it’s ok: you’re focused on the process and you’re on the right track. You will get there eventually. The best part about a process-oriented approach is that success is actually the result of consistent effort: as long as you focus on the process, the results will blossom as a by-product anyway. If it’s not ok, you’re focusing too much on the outcome. And this is a huge double-edged sword because by focusing more on the outcome than you are on the process, your motivation will dwindle and you’ll never achieve the results you desire so greatly. In other words, focus on the outcome, fail to achieve outcome.

If I could summarize this article with one quote, it would be this:

It’s not the will to succeed, but the will to prepare to succeed that makes the difference.

And what’s the “will to prepare”? That’s right: A process-oriented approach.


  1. Amazing article, you opened my eyes to a whole new approach!

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