Don’t Motivate Yourself, Lead Yourself

Course Correction, Decision Making, Goal Setting, Thinking Tools

There was a theme in the questions that members of the Thinking Lab asked me this week. They all involved some form of, “how do I motivate myself?”

I’ve had an epiphany. This is a mistaken way to conceptualize the problem. Motivation is an effect, not a cause. When you lack motivation, it is a symptom of a deeper problem.

For example, a client wrote to me that he wasn’t able to get in more than about 5-6 hours a day of deep intellectual work. He thought he needed to motivate himself differently.

I wrote back that 5-6 hours a day of deep intellectual work is the most that anyone I know can sustain on a regular basis. Intellectual work is exhausting.

Somehow his task is misconceived. To troubleshoot, there are three areas to look at:

1. Integration to a longer term goal

How does this task advance me to achieving a goal that I personally care deeply about achieving?

So often, people take on tasks because they think you have to do them, or the task meets some criteria that someone else has set. You feel you have to do the project because it’s required for a class, or your boss told you to do it, or it’s the only way you see to get the credential you need to take the next step in your career.

In these cases, I find that the thinking about the task stops just when it should start. Why is this task so important? How will this advance a goal that matters to you? Presumably, if someone else has figured out that this is the thing to do, it is of value.

If indeed, this is the logical next step, then it must also be a step that is in principle valuable to you. If you don’t experience motivation to do the task, you have clear evidence that you do not know how this fits with your values. And so why do you think it’s the logical next step? Why do you think it’s right?

Introspecting the conflicting motivation can help you clarify your values, establish the relationship of this task to your deeper goals, and as an effect of that clarity, leave you in a place where you are either motivated to do the work — or at least willing to do the work, because you are convinced your effort matters.

2. A delimited objective

Has this task been defined properly? A well-set objective is something that you are morally certain you can complete in less than 2 weeks, and if you complete it, you will see objective progress toward an important long-term goal.

Sometimes people don’t set objectives at all. They have no clear ending point in the relatively near future, Instead, they just say, “I’m going to put 8 hours a day on this every day until I’m finished with the goal.” This is the “Just do it” approach to work, and it fails sooner or later, especially when you have a particularly complex, long-range goal.

Other times, instead of setting an objective, they just make a list of tasks to do, without any strategy for making sure that the smaller tasks will add up to the longer-range goal.

In both cases, you eventually burn out because you never get any closure on the bigger goal.

In these cases, the solution is planned evolution — you need to figure out the scaled down version of the goal that you can complete soon. This has the effect of putting a finishing line within sight. Everyone gets a burst of energy when they can see that they can finish something that matters with just a little more effort. It’s finishing that gives you satisfaction. It’s repeated finishing that makes work a constant joy.

3. Effective use of resources

There is always a limit of time, energy, and money. Always. This is not a problem to bewail, this is a fact.

Most people recognize that they have limited money, and a lot of people recognize that they have limited time. But fewer people really grasp the limits of energy.

One exception is top athletes. LeBron James and Roger Federer are reported to sleep 12 hours a day. Why? To maximize the energy they have during a game.

They need that energy, not so much for their muscles as for their brains. Top athletes are not burning more calories with their muscles, they’re burning more calories with their concentration. Concentration takes physical energy.

It does so for thinkers, too. If you are tired, you cannot think straight.

Actually, the issue is wider than that. To think clearly, you need free mental “crow”1 space, you need energy, and you need access to the ideas being triggered from your subconscious. If you are overloaded, you can’t think straight. If you are tired, you can’t think straight. If you are tense, feeling pressured, or otherwise suppressing, you cut yourself off from critical information and you can’t think straight.

Most of what I teach helps you to manage mental resources. Some of the tactics I teach help you to conserve them. For example, interrupting strain and struggle — which will wear you out in no time — can help you be much more effective. Other tactics help you refill resources — such as the tactics to clear overload. And some help you figure out how to do more with less.

* * *

The bottom line — if you are not motivated to do the tasks that you believe are right to do, you need a strategic approach to doing your work that ensures you have tied it to your vision, delimited it so you can finish something soon, and are working within your resources.

In short, you need to lead yourself.

Great leaders inspire the team with a clear, achievable vision, they carve out well-defined tasks for team members to do, and they support their team members with the resources they need to do the tasks — and/or they help with the creative problem-solving to figure out how to complete the task with available resources.

It’s wonderful when you can work with a great leader who does this for you. But if you are responsible for your own work, these are skills you need for yourself. The effect of self-leadership is that you will be motivated. It is the cause. Motivation is the effect.


1. “Crow” Space is the capacity of focal awareness. Read more about it in my article What is “Crow” Overload?

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