Warning! Don’t Expect to Be Motivated by Motivation.

I really dislike the word “motivation.” I try never to use it.

In writing Better Than Before, my book about habit change, and in talking to people about their desired habits, the term “motivation” came up a lot.

And here’s why I don’t like it: People use the term to describe their desire for a particular outcome (“I’m really motivated to lose weight”) as well as their reasons for actually acting in a certain way (“I go to the gym because I’m motivated to exercise”). Desire and action are mixed up in a very confusing way.

To make it even more confusing, people often say they’re “motivated” to do something when what they mean is, “My doctor and my family tell me that I need to quit smoking, and I know it would be healthier and cheaper to quit smoking, and I wish I would quit smoking, but I have no desire to quit and no intention to try to quit. But am I motivated to quit smoking? Oh, sure.”

People often tell me that they’re highly motivated to achieve a certain aim, but when I press, it turns out that while they passionately wish they could achieve an outcome, they aren’t doing anything about it. So what does it mean to say they’re “motivated?” No idea. That’s why I don’t use the word.

In fact, people aren’t motivated by motivation.

Expert advice often focuses on motivation, by telling people that they just need more motivation to follow through. This may work in a certain way, for certain people (see below), but not for everyone.

The bad result of this advice is that some people spend a lot of time whipping themselves into a frenzy of thinking how much they want a certain outcome, as if desire will drive behavior. And it rarely does.

Instead of thinking about motivation, I argue that we should think about aims, and then concrete, practical, realistic steps to take us closer to our aims.

Instead of thinking, “I want to lose weight so badly,” think instead about the concrete steps to take, “I’ll bring lunch from home,” “I won’t use the vending machine,” “I won’t eat fast food,” “I’ll quit sugar,” “I’ll cook dinner at home at least four nights a week,” “I’ll go to the farmer’s market on Saturdays, to load up on great produce.”

Of course, in Better Than Before, I argue that it’s a lot easier to follow through with such steps consistently if you make them into habits.

The great thing about habits is that you don’t need to feel “motivated!” And that’s important because again, motivation doesn’t actually matter much, if what you mean by that is “How badly do you want this?”

In my forthcoming book, The Four Tendencies, I do talk about how thinking about reasons for action can help some people to act, and how desire does help some people to act — but that’s not the same as motivation.

For Upholders and Questioners, thinking about reasons helps.

For Rebels, thinking about desire helps.

For Obligers, outer accountability is the crucial element. What does this mean? It means that Obligers are the least likely to be helped by thinking about “motivation.” And guess what? They’re the Tendency that talks most about motivation! They keep trying to amp up their motivation, and then they get frustrated because that doesn’t work. Nope. Obligers should focus on systems of outer accountability.

So whenever catch myself saying or writing, “I’m really motivated to do ___,” I stop and think: “What do I want, and why do I want it? And given that, what steps can I take to achieve my aim?”

Because we really can’t expect to be motivated by motivation.

  • Amy Christensen

    I often say that anyone is capable of anything thing wish to accomplish-you simply must decide to do it. It’s fine to be “motivated” but until you actually commit to an action, you are going to have a whole lot of motivated nothing.

    • gretchenrubin

      Hmmm….what’s your Tendency? This is a strategy that works well for some people but not for everyone! From this comment, I predict that you are not an Obliger.

      Gretchen Rubin

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  • StatMomma

    This post reminded me of a statement in the SIde Tracked Home Executives (Pam Young and Peggy Jones) first book to the effect that if your motivation to change your ways and clean up your house is to show your bossy mother-in-law that you can do it, that will work. So maybe it’s not that the word “motivation” is a problem, it’s that people get stuck looking for the right motivation instead of moving on to the actions that motivation should provide the energy to actually DO.

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  • Breaking down my big dreams, desires and wishes has always been tough for me. I am a day dreamer at heart and can see big picture outcomes, but all throughout my life I have struggled with moving forward because I didn’t have the skills to deconstruct my dreams into practical, actionable steps…which led me to think I wasn’t “good enough” or “able enough” to accomplish what I wanted. For that reason I have to constantly work at defining and being specific in my goals, and the steps I need to take to get there. Truth is, when I take the time to do this, I am FAR more successful in my life. Looking forward to the new book 🙂