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Eliminating Motivation by Doing the Right Thing

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Eliminate Motivation

Motivation and Productivity are both complex fields of human behavior. For every viewpoint that we present here on Asian Efficiency, there are dozens of others, many of which work just as well. Here’s one of them: eliminating motivation.

The idea of eliminating motivation was something I learned from some startup people in San Francisco a couple of years ago, though I imagine that the concept itself has been around for much longer. It’s a completely different idea to what we usually say about motivation – namely, that you need a good reason why, that motivation hacks are usually quite useful, or that something like the Pomodoro Technique is just what you need to get you started.

This idea goes by many different names. It can be called:

  • Just do it!
  • Doing the right thing.
  • Just taking action.
  • Taking right action.
  • Taking conditioned action.

Any of those will do. It is built on the premise that the whole idea of needing a push and constant convincing to do things that are rationally good for us, is a little bit silly. A deeper interpretation is that most things that are important to do are not a matter of whether we want to do them, but simply how long we put them off (procrastination!).

Quick Summary

  • A small dissection of motivation.
  • Doing the right thing.
  • A quick inventory for making this work.

Examining Motivation

Let’s take a closer look at motivation. This is going to highlight the characteristics of motivation that explain why we don’t need it, rather than an authoritative all-in-one coverage of the topic, which could be the subject of an entire book – like this one.

For most people, motivation comes and goes. Sometimes we are extremely motivated to get things done.

Clean the garage? No problem.

More paperwork? No problem.

Go out there and get that job promotion? No problem.

And sometimes, we just don’t want to do anything, no matter how much our brains scream at us that there are things that absolutely must be done.

This fluctuation between extreme motivation and a distinct lack of motivation is largely a cycle, and can look something like this:
Motivation Curve

You can think of this as your baseline level of intrinsic motivation – that is, motivation that comes from inside yourself, rather than pressure exerted from external forces. Everyone has a different baseline of intrinsic motivation, and if you learn to raise yours over time (you’re about to learn how), eventually you eliminate the “need for motivation” completely.

Downtime

Of course, there are more factors at play here. As we’ve mentioned before, everyone has limited amounts of willpower, discipline and self-control, and you need to renew them periodically through downtime.

Here’s an experiment to try: pick one day, and just don’t do anything. In fact, go out and indulge yourself as much as you like for that day. Want to go shoppping? Go shopping. Want to sit inside and play video games? Go for it. Want to down a box of Krispey Kremes? Give it a go (legal disclaimer: check with your doctor first).

Then go to sleep, and wake up the following day and see how you feel. Are you still “motivated” or drawn towards those behaviors? Or does some part of you feel like “OK, I’ve had my fun, it’s time to get serious”.

These activities, and downtime in general, is what regulates your motivation.

Without downtime:

Motivation Without Downtime

Motivation trends downwards without downtime.

With downtime:

Motivation With Downtime

Downtime increases motivation levels naturally.

Take-away: with regular downtime, you can maintain a certain level of intrinsic motivation indefinitely.

Values

But that’s not the only factor at play here. Our values – our sense of what is important and what is not – also govern our motivation levels towards certain activities.

Essentially, everyone has a hierarchical list of values, with what is important to them at the top and what is not at the bottom.

Knowing this list in and of itself isn’t very useful, but knowing that having values that align with goals (or vice versa) is quite useful. If you can hack your value system, and place higher values on things conducive to your goals, then you will find doing those things more “fun” and more gratifying, increasing your baseline level of motivation towards those things.

Now while we are all individuals, you aren’t likely to find people with vastly different values from yours inside your immediate social circles. Why? Because these people likely grew up in a similar cultural environment to you, and likely consume the same media and ideas as you – they are your friends after all. If you want to see different value systems, you just need to travel a bit, and when you meet someone who you cannot relate to, or it seems like what they’re doing or saying makes no rational sense whatsoever – that’s someone with a different value system.

This is the effect of well-aligned values on your motivation:

Aligned Values and Motivation

Alignment of values trends motivation upwards.

And this is what would happen if your values are not aligned:

Misaligned Values and Motivation

Misaligned values leads to lower troughs.

Values are also useful in explaining why a lot of people appear inherently lazy – they simply value different things in life. You know the type – never replies promptly to emails, you have to chase up multiple times on something you’ve asked them to do, they seem to be keeping busy but never produce results, they have problems taking the initiative on new assignments. It’s not that they’re lazy (well, they kind of are), but that they value different things. Don’t be surprised when you meet people who are happy that they have a stable job in a nice office with a modest salary and are able to go out for Friday night drinks once a week – to some, that is the ultimate alignment of their values.

Take-away: aligning your values and goals helps keep your motivation baseline rising with each action that you take.

Instant Gratification and Addictions

One of the more disruptive forces on motivation are activities that produce instant gratification, and often, addiction. This is simply a result of technological and societal development, and having more “stuff” to do in our day-to-day lives. Some examples: consumer spending, social networks, immersive video games, addictive substances, sugar, the pursuit of sex.

What these instant-gratification activities do is essentially create an incredibly motivating activity (usually through the manipulation of dopamine or hormonal chemistry), that drowns out your baseline motivation for anything else. A little like this:

Instant Gratification and Motivation

Instant Gratification drowns out baseline motivation.

You can also think of disruptive instant gratification activities as those providing enough basic human needs (emotional, psychological, societal, physical etc), that some would prefer to spend time in that activity rather than anything else. The classic modern day example or teenagers (and some adults) who would rather spend 16-20 hours a day navigating a virtual online world, where they get all their social, achievement and other needs met relatively easily, than doing so in the real world. Another example would be the use of substances to achieve altered states as an escape from day-to-day reality.

Now some people may argue that these activities are just part of everyday life, and aren’t really distractions. Here’s a thought experiment to try. If you take away all these things, what do you have left?

You’re probably left with 2 choices:

  1. Do activities and things that are “work” or “hard to do”, or
  2. Sit there and do nothing.

And it’s not normal to sit there and do nothing. So if all you have left is “work” (which helps further your life) but you find yourself doing other things, then those things are… distractions.

Take-away: minimize instant gratification activities and other addictive activities as much as possible to keep motivation levels stable.

On Elimination

Now we understand a bit more about motivation. It’s not that we’re eliminating motivation, it’s that we’re raising and stabilizing our baseline level of intrinsic motivation, and putting a few other things in place so that we don’t have to rely on motivation hacks or external pressures to help us get things done.

Doing the Right Thing

The simple action and take-away from all this is:

Do the right thing.

There is no sense of morality here – “right” is relative to what is right for you. The point is to take action and do what you’re supposed to be doing.

For example:

  • 5pm rolls around and you have 1 more page of a report to finish. The right thing is to stay an extra 10 minutes, finish the report, then go home.
  • It’s late at night and you’re looking for a snack. You could spend 5 minutes making something healthy (like eggs), or you could open up some cup ramen. The right thing is to spend the 5 minutes cooking, even if you don’t feel like it.
  • You wake up 15 minutes before your alarm is supposed to go off. You look at the clock and contemplate snoozing for another little bit. The right thing is to just get up and start your day early.

You get the idea – it’s about making the correct, rational decision that helps you towards your goals and what you’re aiming for in life.

It all comes down to your moment-by-moment decisions on what to do – and going for the right one more times than not. You don’t have to be the poster-child Efficient Asian to make this work. As long as you are picking the right choice, most of the time (>50% if you must have a figure), you are being more productive than most, and getting things done.

The only things that can really stop you from this are the disruption effects from instant gratification activities (covered above), and paralysis and uncertainty, which we’ll touch on here.

Uncertainty basically has the effect of stopping us from taking action by obfuscating what we have to do. It usually makes people throw in the towel and say “screw it”, and leads them in the direction of doing something else, usually something easier that they are certain they can do. Overcoming uncertainty is surprisingly simple – have clear goals, and write out a small 5-6 step plan before you start.

In case you missed that: write out a small 5-6 step plan before you start doing something.

Editor’s Note: We actually talked about this in our newsletter… 10 months ago. You can sign up for free right here.

An Inventory for Doing the Right Thing

Let’s look at what we’ve covered so far.

Everyone has a basic level of intrinsic motivation, and you can increase this level over time. Eventually, your level of intrinsic motivation will be so high that you won’t need external pressures or deadlines to motivate you to take action.

In order to make this work, we need to put a few things in place.

  • You need to have regular downtime to help regulate your intrinsic motivation levels and prevent it from going into freefall.
  • You need to remove or limit disruptive instant gratification activities or addictions. The best way to identify this is to ask the question “how many needs of mine does this address?”. If it covers a lot of needs in an artificial manner, it’s probably disruptive.
  • You need to have goals and targets in place, so you can identify what is the right thing to do, and what is not.
  • You need to have the right mindsets in place. This will be covered in this month’s newsletter (September 2012).

With that inventory in place, all that remains is actually going out and doing the right thing. And the more you do it, the easier it becomes. You can pick whatever analogy you like – building muscle in the gym, or turning the narrow path into a 6-lane highway. The result is the same – by doing the right thing again and again and again, your neural pathways become conditioned, and your level of intrinsic motivation rises over time.

In Closing

Whenever we’re asked to define productivity, we like to tell people that if they are taking action towards their goals more than 50% of the time, they’re being productive. This idea of doing the right thing, and not worrying as much about motivation or procrastination goes well with that. Sometimes you’ll do the right thing… and sometimes you won’t. Over time, you’ll do the right thing more and more – and that right there, is productivity.

Editor’s Note: The concepts in this article are further explored in this month’s newsletter (September 2012). Make sure you sign up here!

Photo by: JD Hancock

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

William Whipp September 16, 2012 at 10:26PM

In this article, it said “If you can hack your value system, and place higher values on things conducive to your goals, then you will find doing those things more ‘fun’ and more gratifying, increasing your baseline level of motivation towards those things.”

Rather than doing that, I hacked my goals to be aligned with my values. Unfortunately, this meant taking a 40% pay cut, but it’s worth it to get the sudden rise in the motivation curve that I experience every day. I highly recommend it — the money will eventually come back if you do what you love.

Reply

Aaron Lynn September 18, 2012 at 8:41AM

That works too :)

Reply

Kyle September 18, 2012 at 11:25PM

To me, it is impossible to just keep “taking right action” like a robot- we’re humans. Our motivation wanes a lot of the time and our concentration diminishes. I don’t think you can ever “eliminate motivation” because there is always something going on in the motivation circuits of your brain.

Reply

Aaron Lynn September 19, 2012 at 1:44AM

Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. And don’t forget the prerequisites listed in the article.

Reply

River July 24, 2013 at 9:02PM

This is really great stuff! I feel like a lot of what’s been stated has been experienced and realized by people to some degree, but actually consciously recognizing this way of looking at motivation is empowering. Thank you.

Reply

Aaron Lynn August 24, 2013 at 7:38AM

No problem River!

Reply

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