Motivation: You Don’t Lack It, You Just Have the Wrong Goals

Motivation is a fickle thing. If you feel like you never have enough of it, your real problem is having the wrong goals. Here’s how to stay motivated in the long-term.

Most of us think about motivation like this:

I’m at Point A (couch) and I want to get to Point Z (going for a run). In order to move from Point A to Point Z, I need some fuel (motivation) to push me from A to Z.

Let’s call this The Fuel Theory of Motivation. It says that in order to do things, we need this psychological fuel called motivation to push us to our goals.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, this is the theory of motivation that most of us live by. And we think about motivation like this because that’s how it feels.

When we’re sunk into the couch watching Netflix after a long day at work, being on the trail in the middle of a run seems hopelessly far away, like we just don’t have enough motivational fuel in the tank to get us off the couch.

We wish longingly for one of those rare bursts of energy, enthusiasm, and motivation. But most of the time inertia wins out and we stay on the couch. Then we explain things to ourselves with metaphors like “My tank is just empty” or “I’m just not feeling it today.”

The assumption being that we’re lacking something, some kind of fuel source. And that if only we had more of it, we’d be able to push ourselves to get going.

Okay, this is one theory of motivation.

But like any theory, no matter how intuitive it seems, the only way to know whether or not it’s true is to look at how well it performs in real life. In other words, how useful is it?

If our success-to-failure ratio of accomplishing our goals is any indicator, I think we may have some issues with our Fuel Theory of Motivation.

To quote Dr. Phil: “How’s that working for ya?”

A New Way to Think About Motivation

In my own life, as well as my work with clients, I’ve found much greater success staying disciplined and accomplishing goals with a very different theory of motivation. I call it The Gravitational Theory of Motivation.

This theory says that it’s more helpful to think of motivation as something outside of you, not inside of you.

Better to imagine that certain activities and goals are inherently motivating, and as a result, they tend to pull us toward them like gravity. This means we don’t need to push ourselves toward our goals so much as let our goals pull us toward them.

Wait a second… That sounds nice, but if that were true, why doesn’t going for a run pull me out of the couch and onto the treadmill?

Great question!

The answer is, going for a run is pulling you. Because it’s something you value and care about, it is exerting a pull on your behavior.

The problem is, so are a few other things. And much of the time, those other things win out.

When I’m stuck at Point A (where I am), trying to get to Point Z (my goal), there is a natural pull toward Point Z. I can feel myself wanting to get up and head to the gym, for example, because I know there are lots of good things associated with me going to the gym.

It’s not that I don’t have enough energy or that I lack motivation. In fact, my problem here is too much motivation.

The comfort of the couch, for example, has a really strong pull in the opposite direction of the gym. Combine that with the pull of enjoyment at watching Netflix and together they pretty handily outweigh the pull of the gym.

Turns out, what I really need to achieve my goal is less motivation, not more.

Why Shifting Your Your Theory of Motivation Will Help You Reach Your Goals

Shifting from a Motivation-as-Fuel to Motivation-as-Gravity model will actually increase your motivation and help you reach your goals.

Here are three reasons why:

1. Motivation isn’t one thing. When we think about motivation as external and inherent to all sorts of activities, it’s a reminder that motivation isn’t really one single thing that we either have or don’t have. Instead, there are dozens if not hundreds of motivations acting on us all the time.

2. More Agency. A Major flaw of the Fuel Theory of Motivation is that it encourages helplessness. When we think of motivation as a quasi-mystical energy source that happens to strike us from time to time, it erodes our sense of agency and control over our behavior and encourages a pattern of waiting around for motivation to strike.

The Gravitational Theory of Motivation, on the other hand, says that motivation is wonderfully environmental. Because we can change our environment, we can largely control which motivations exert pull over us. This sense of agency and self-efficacy is the key to genuine productivity and contentment.

3. Less Negative Self-Talk. When we think about motivation as something external to ourselves, it decreases the likelihood that we start beating ourselves up for “being lazy,” “not having our Sh*t together,” “never sticking to our goals,” etc., which of course only make us feel worse about ourselves, and as a result, makes us less likely to take action toward our goals. Learn more about overcoming negative self-talk here

Putting it All Together with The Environmental Motivation Assessment

The Environmental Motivation Assessment is the best way to apply our new theory of motivation to help us better reach our goals.

Here’s how it looks in practice:

  • Pick a goal you want to be more successful in moving toward. Let’s say it’s Remember to compliment my spouse more often.
  • Picture the environment where you’re having trouble reaching your goal. For me, it might be at my house in the evenings immediately after getting home from work.
  • Think about that environment and all the aspects of it that have some kind of motivation pull on you. For me, when I listen to podcasts on my way home from work, I often get engrossed in the ideas of the podcast, which causes me to forget about my goal of complimenting my wife when I get home from work in the evenings. I also know that my kids are an opposing motivational force that pull me from my goal as soon as I walk through the door because they want me to start playing with them.
  • Neutralize counter-productive sources of motivation. I know that for me, getting lost in a podcast and playing with my kids as soon as I get home can easily distract from my goal of remembering to compliment my wife. To lessen or even remove those counter-productive sources of motivation, I might put a sticky note on my work bag each day that says “compliment.” Now, when I grab my bag out of the car before walking into the house I’m reminded of my goal and not distracted by the podcast. Similarly, the sticky note might have a little reminder underneath “compliment” that says, “Wife first, kids second.” This would nudge me to try and prioritize my wife first thing after getting home.

Everything You Need to Know

Whether it’s sticking to a diet, going to bed earlier, flossing, or making time to practice guitar, understanding where your competing sources of motivation are coming from is essential to sticking with your goals.

And often the best way to reach our goals is to stop pushing harder and get smart about removing the things that are pulling us in the opposite direction.

10 Comments

Demetria January 30, 2019 Reply

I found this to be an eye opener! It’s like you’re putting up little blinders from everything that can tip you off the track toward your goal. I really liked this article. I was look for something to help me get out of my funk, because I was being really hard on myself. I felt guilty for getting of track and not pushing myself hard. However, if I were to look at things the article states, I really could do without all the “you didn’t do it” . just put some momentary blinders up and focus on the gravity of your goals?

Nick Wignall January 30, 2019 Reply

Thanks, Demetria! Yeah, I think a really underappreciated part of effective goal setting and achievement is to look at things mechanically not morally. Achieving challenging goals is hard enough without adding all sorts of negative emotion as a result of being overly judgmental or critical with ourselves.

Good luck!
—Nick

Mike February 6, 2019 Reply

Hello
As a student I always struggled with my studting routine and always put things off till tge last minute until I read this wonderful article and it has really helped me with going forward and feeling good about myself.I wanted to thank you for your for helping me finally moving towards my goals.
You are awesome

Nick Wignall February 6, 2019 Reply

Mike, so glad the article had been helpful!

Thanks for the kind words and keep up the good work!

–Nick

Deji March 7, 2019 Reply

Well done Nick! I can relate so well with this. I have even put some of the techniques prescribed into action.. and with effective results too!

I’m done waiting on mysticak forces to dictate my life abd actions. Lol

Nick Wignall March 8, 2019 Reply

Thank you, Deji! And glad to hear it’s been helpful 🙂 Keep up the good work!

Atlas April 23, 2019 Reply

Nick, what a great post on motivation! Truly, motivation is a complex thing, and it must be cultivated on many fronts. And without a doubt, the most challenging thing for most people will be to remove those things that actually diminish their motivation. It is probably the hardest thing they’ll have to do, but it will be the most impactful for sure. Needless to say, it must be done.

Nick Wignall April 24, 2019 Reply

Thanks, Atlas! Good points!

infotitude August 15, 2019 Reply

Great Article. Really Like it and Share it to my social Media. I have write same article on Motivation Topics. Kindly check my website

Nick Wignall August 16, 2019 Reply

Thank you!

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