Revisiting Motivation

Revisiting Motivation:

I’m following up on my post a few weeks back on what it means to really implement habit change.  This post (and the one coming next week) focus on mental models that try to prime positive results.

My current thoughts are about motivation.  The connotations behind the word typically indicate a “surge” or “push” that gets us to finish our tasks.  This doesn’t actually seem very actionable of a model: We know motivation is supposed to be Productivity Fuel.  Now what?

Right now, I’m interested in models that are more suggestive of Next Actions.

I’ve heard motivation also described as “automatic plan generation”.  The idea here is that things we are motivated to do are things our brains easily make plans to carry out— and then we carry them out.  From this perspective, eating is something we’re motivated to do, because when we’re hungry, we start generating plans to acquire food.
This view has some neat interplay with both causal decision theory and trigger action plans, and I’m sure there’s more room for exploring the conceptspace here.  It’s also more actionable; when you need motivation, “forcing” your brain to generate steps to get something is indeed a concrete action.

Another model that seems to provide a better attitude is this reworking of motivation:

Energy + Opportunity + Reminder = Motivation

In this case, I’m viewing motivation as “the ability to get things done”.

I recently saw an article (which I alas can’t find at the moment) about how people tend to take on cognitively tasking actions when they are content, rather than our perhaps more intuitive assumption that they’d seek out more pleasure.

(I did find this article that generally supports breaks, but that’s not exactly what I’m getting at here.  Also, this formalization is definitely flawed and it misses out on the nice empirical backing Piers Steel’s Motivation Equation has.)  

Energy refers to your physical state, how alert and rested you feel.  Opportunity is about finding time to actually Do The Thing.  Reminder refers to some trigger that lets you know there is a Thing To Be Done.

The above equation is an extension of my thoughts on fighting procrastination.  If it is indeed true that we’re more capable of doing harder things when we’re in good states of mind, then being motivated to do X becomes a lot less mysterious.

Water, rest, food, exercise, a schedule, and a to-do list appear to approximate what you need to stay motivated.

With this (potentially completely unrealistic) breakdown, it’s no longer about finding some combination of mystical factors to generate  magical Productivity Fuel, but it’s just about optimizing self-care, time management, and scheduling.  


  1. Great thoughts on motivation. I recently started accomplishing much more than before and it is because my old motivation habits were improperly grounded. I realized that being motivated for happiness is wrong. We need to be happy in our day to day lives and find motivation to get things done you have always wanted to accomplish. Also I used to watch a lot of motivational videos but they only work short term. I mean very short term, so I stopped watching them. Great thoughts on motivation. I really like your formulas for motivation.


    • Hi Ethan,

      Thanks for commenting! It looks like you also have a penchant for self-improvement as well.

      Your thoughts on long vs short blog posts has some interesting ideas on optimizing for content delivery.

      (There’s also a slippery slope here about optimizing for reader “engagement”, but you tend to see that most in web serials, or anything that manipulates cliffhangers to keep people coming back. I suppose that’s one of the inherent directions that serial content could shift towards, that is directly related to the method of delivery, though.)

      Anyhow, thanks for stopping by!


  2. Hi Owen,

    I’ve encountered Piers Steel’s Motivation Equation before this, which is why I’ve thought about it previously. It has nice empirical backing, it works correctly in analyzing why people procrastinate, and it works really well in the real world. The problem I’ve encountered multiple times with this is that it isn’t exactly actionable – you can’t change the variables of impulsivity or delay in most situations, and changing value requires a lot of effort. Thus, while it is a good model for modeling procrastination, it isn’t exactly a good model for figuring out how to beat it.

    While Energy + Opportunity + Reminder = Motivation doesn’t exactly seem like a very realistic breakdown, it is, at the very least, actionable. But there’s something that bugs me about this – does it mean that if all the variables on the left-hand side are present, motivation is almost always the product? Personal experience (whoops argument from anecdote) tells me that there are plenty of times I have energy, the opportunity, and a reminder, but still fail to do work and procrastinate. So far, it doesn’t seem like these are the only components of motivation, but they are indeed major components.

    (forgot to address this previously: no you do not know me, but we have a mutual friend.)


    • Hi CJ,

      Yep, some people like Luke Muelhauser have written about Steel’s equation before, so it’s something I’ve thought about before, but not a lot.

      I definitely also don’t think that the equation I provide is strong (as I mentioned, it has no backing), and you’re right to say that it probably doesn’t hold up in different situations.

      For me, I’m interested in thinking more along the lines of “becoming more of the type of person who does X” (if that makes any sense), so I’ll keep iterating.

      Have you looked at Coherent Extrapolated Volition or Ideal Advisor Theory? Both are interesting ways of thinking about “meta-wants” and “popping out of the moment”, when you need to stop getting distracted, or get back to work. I was trying to capture the “essence” found in both of those models here, but I’ll need to think more (and practice more).

      Thanks for commenting!


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