Artist's Inspiration

The Physics of Motivation


“BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!” my annoying alarm clock blared. 6 am and it was time to go to the gym…at least the time I was supposed to go to the gym. For over a year, I had been going to the gym diligently 3x a week no matter what. Now when gym day rolls around, I find myself crafting excuse after excuse:

Grandma’s staying with me. I should be a good host and stay with her.”

Whoops, woke up late,” I’ll say innocently, “Guess I can’t go to the gym without being late for work.” (Never mind that I purposely stayed up late the night before just so I could justifiably use this very excuse.)

“What,” I wondered, “could explain this gradual dip in motivation?”

Since I’ve noticed my inability to stop hitting snooze, I’ve been trying to decipher the physics of motivation: Why had I been so reluctant to hit the gym? to do other things like write and go to meditation classes? What causes people to lose the motivation to pursue their goals?

I suppose it’s hard for anyone to sustain drive over the long haul. Inevitably, life shows up and interrupts our routine. We start working 50+ hour weeks and can’t make time in the mornings. We have a huge midterm paper due. There’s nothing wrong with adjusting our routine once in awhile.

But as any former fitness nut knows, it’s hard to pick up going to the gym regularly once you stop. Just like anything else, habits require momentum; once we interrupt our momentum, it’s hard to gain that thrust again.

Think of Newton’s laws of motion: an object at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force.

Once we stop following our established routine of going to the gym 3x a week (or writing every day or practicing violin for an hour, whatever it is), we’re like a rolling ball that gradually comes to a stop:

Aw, I don’t want to practice today, I’m tired/hungry/not in the mood. I’ll start again tomorrow…”

But what happens? We say the same thing tomorrow and the next day and the next day until we’re making more excuses than actually getting anything done. We have lost momentum and come to a stop. The only way to regain speed is for us to be acted upon by an outside force. Here are a few ways to overcome inertia, recover your motivation and get moving again:

1. create a sense of control

In his compelling account of productivity, “Smarter, Better, Faster: The Secrets to Productivity in Life & Business,” Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and contributor to the New York Times Charles Duhigg argues those who feel in control of their lives possess higher levels of determination. Why? Because if you believe your actions directly impact your life, you’ll feel as though your choices make a difference. Not only do proactive people who feel in control possess more drive and motivation; they are generally happier, more successful and even live longer. Conversely, those who feel like victims of circumstance will feel incapable of redirecting their destinies and suffer as a result.

The key to sustaining motivation, then, is for us to find a way to feel in control. Say you have a particularly tedious task on your to-do list, like responding to a few emails. To maximize your motivation, allow yourself to exercise some control in completing the task. Which email do you want to answer first? Perhaps the easier ones that require less of a thorough response? Or maybe you want to tackle the lengthier messages first? Either way, giving yourself a choice will boost motivation and increase the likelihood that you get it done.

2. ask yourself “why?”

In his insightful blog post “20 Ways to Not Become a Real-Life Half-Dead Adult,” 20-something expert and hilarious author Paul Angone makes an insightful distinction between two types of passion: a passion can be a hobby or interest (as in, “I love painting” or “I adore fantasy football”) or it can be a hobby or interest that meets a real need (as in, “I’d love to eliminate the achievement gap in inner city schools”). For Angone, passion must be tied to something bigger than ourselves in order for our lives to be meaningful.

As I go through the sometimes mundane ins-and-outs of my daily life, I often wonder: Is my life bereft of this latter kind of passion? I have preoccupations and interests, but do I have things that drive me? I missed writing when I knew something was at stake, when I knew I had something important to share. Same with teaching. If we’re not careful to connect our daily labor with internal meaning, our work is in danger of becoming aimless and hollow.

Consider each lesson I have with a student: when I recall the significance of every lesson, when I utilize every question as an opportunity to teach students how to solve a particular type of problem and thus add another tool to their belt of test-taking skills, work is rewarding, validating. However, when I fail to connect my daily work to any broader objective, the same lesson feels boring and trite, the work feels mundane, and I feel listless and unfulfilled.

So is fulfillment simply a matter of attitude?

In one study, when 3 factory workers were asked what they did for a living, each gave a different response. One replied, “I go to work”; the second, “I make a living for my family”; the third, “I make products that make people’s lives better.” All three men performed the same job, but only one of them felt truly fulfilled in his work. Why? Because he connected the ins and outs of his daily labor with a significance greater than himself. The first man understood his days at the factory merely as time punched in; the second found a little more contentment by framing his work as a means to support his loved ones but the third man-by realizing the implications of his labor-understood that the seemingly trivial task of working with his hands was actually quite important.

We only lose enthusiasm for our goals when we stop asking ourselves why we’re striving for them. If we force ourselves to go to yoga class 3x a week without pausing to ask ourselves why we engage in the activity, our motivation will dwindle. Stern self-discipline might work for awhile, but after a few weeks we’ll start making excuses as to why we can’t put our yoga pants on.

The key to keeping up motivation is to connect our small, trivial actions to a larger purpose or goal. When we ask ourselves the simple question “why,” going to bikram yoga is no longer a torturous hour of sweating profusely in a 100+ degree room- it’s a step on the path to losing 20 pounds and finally being able to touch our toes. When we ask ourselves “why,” jogging on the treadmill is no longer a half hour of hell-it’s a means of building our toughness and stamina so we can eventually accomplish our lifelong dream of running a marathon.

Often times, the monotony of routine conceals the greater significance of our efforts. If we ask ourselves “why” we’re taking a certain course of action, we can sustain our motivation over the long-term. 

3. draw clear lines 

How many times have you made a beautiful, revelatory, paradigm-shifting resolution only to try and talk yourself out of it five seconds later? “I’m going to run 2 miles a day!” we triumphantly declare, hopeful and determined to finally achieve our ambitious goals. Fast foreword 3 days later and we’re binge-watching Netflix on the coach.

“I deserve to take a break, just for today,” we tell ourselves, “we’ll get right back to running tomorrow…”

But what happens tomorrow? Instead of lace up our running shoes, we spend tomorrow debating whether we should run or not.

I call this the negotiation process. Rather than take actual action toward realizing our goals, many of us squander our precious (and limited) hours debating whether or not we should take action toward our goals. Drawing clear lines means establishing non-negotiable rules for ourselves. If we decide to quit smoking, we don’t smoke: not once in awhile, not when we’re drunk, not “just this once.” If we resolve to train for a marathon by running 2 miles everyday, we run everyday no matter what. Debating with ourselves depletes our limited energy reserves. By drawing clear lines, we make it impossible to waste energy negotiating with ourselves.

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