I do Strategic Planning in Advertising. In the past few months I’ve been specializing in understanding consumer behavior and motivation to offer better, more relevant solutions for my clients. Understanding how something works allows you to hack its rules to achieve something, so this is everything I know, understand and apply about human motivation, and some tips I personally apply into my life it’s going to be a bit long, since there is much to cover, so get yourself comfortable.
Grow awareness of your every day reality, understanding of how your brain and personality work. Be honest with and listen to yourself. Be lazy, it’s ok to be lazy. Learn from the mistakes of others and, overall, realize that there is no right or wrong in this life, just what you want to do with the brief moment you spend in this plain of reality.
1. Motivation is a tool
Motivation is treated by some people as some magical entity, as some sort of ‘muse’ (as ancient greeks would call it) that whispers in your ear and magically allows you to push through whatever you need to do. This is utter and absolute nonsense and basically the main reason why most people fail in their goals.
Motivation, as many, many other characteristics in human behavior, is a tool acquired through the eons by the evolution of our species. Why are we here on earth? for the same reason any other species is here, to perpetuate it’s species, however ‘motivation’ is what makes us humans absolutely unique on this planet. No other species has the motivation to drag giant blocks of rock hundreds of miles to construct a temple to keep a god happy, no other species seeks to explain the nature around it, no other species has the motivation to find means of expressing themselves through art and music or the motivation to establish a global economic system as complex as the one we’ve developed. Motivation rallies behind every single significant effort our species has made and motivation’s role is to keep us alive, giving us the illusion of meaning, so we can mature, reproduce, take care of our offspring and not die in the process. Motivation is an evolutionary tool to keep us alive.
Why do we need motivation and other species don’t? Other species don’t have something that we have: a developed brain cortex.
Our brain cortex has allowed us to achieve some very awesome stuff. It’s the area responsible basically for our ability to reason, from basic maths to very complex probability and statistical calculations (which we use to predict outcomes of our options and choices, and is responsible for convincing us that buying a lottery ticket is a good or bad idea). This ability to reason also brought us many issues, namely existential issues. Ducks don’t wonder why they are here, cats don’t seek for a meaning to their existance, dogs don’t think about finding a job to provide for their pups until they reach maturity. Even Coco the Gorilla doesn’t really understand why we complicate ourselves so much. Therefore, we evolved motivation as a self sustaining mechanism, for us to make sense and endure what is, objectively, a very, very, very disappointing reality, surrounded by a galaxy (and a nature) who’s become a very efficient killing machine, and yet, a quarter of a million years later, here we are. So motivation, as a tool, works.
So, tip #1. Motivation is not a fleeting feeling, is not an emotion, is not a fucking muse. It’s embedded in your genes, it’s like hunger or sleep, it serves a purpose in keeping you alive.
Now, speaking of hunger or sleep, onto the next point.
2. Your body is a machine
The human body is very, very awesome in how complicated it is. However, objectively, is also very dumb. Here’s the thing, your DNA carries a set of instructions that tells every cell in your body what it will do for the rest of its life (which is not very long, depending on the cell itself, by the way). Your body self heals, self repairs, self cleans and self sustains, all you have to do is keep the resources it needs coming in (air, food, sleep, sex, water, social interactions, etc).
What’s really awesome about the body is that it’s the only machine that, the more you use it for something, the better it gets. Humans have not made a single machine that does not start degrading as soon as you start using it. Your body defies all logic and, technically, physics (a machine that gets more efficient the more you use it?). This is mainly because our body’s capability to adapt to any circumstances.
You have heard of all this crazy lifestyle choices. You know about all the freaky diets people commit to, people that don’t sleep, that sleep too much, that eat too much, too little. How is that possible if all humans share the same biology, structure, organs and literally 99.5% of our DNA with each other? This is thanks to your amazing body’s ability to adapt. Your body will adapt to anything, “good” or “bad”, because your body has no morality compass to know what is actually good or actually bad. The body is unable to make rational choices since… you know… the brain kind of does that.
The point to this is that you get good at what you do often. You play FPSs video games a lot? You’re going to get good at visually recognizing fast moving objects. You like to pick heavy stuff up and then put it back down? You will develop a specific kind of strength and endurance based on how often you do it. You like thinking dark thoughts, sleeping all day and feel terrible? Well, your body gets very good at that too. In fact, sometimes he gets exceedingly good, at a degree that it builds a physiological or psychological dependency on the stimulus. Done something for long enough time, you can either live a very fulfilling existence or ruin your life beyond repair, and that’s a fact.
So, let’s recap. Motivation is a tool and your body is a machine that gets good at what you repeatedly do, so… the next step is to repeatedly exercise motivation , right?
3. Motivation is unreliable
Motivation is not an end, it’s a means to an end. Motivation is unreliable, because it’s just a tool of your psyche, but you think you need motivation because you want to achieve something, right? You wanna get in shape or finish your homework, not ‘get motivation to get in shape’. That’s like wishing for a million bucks, you don’t want the money, you want what the money enables you to do. What if you could just have what you want to buy, without doing the monetary transaction? Would money still hold any value to you? Of course not.
So the next step is to repeatedly practice whatever you want to achieve and stop thinking that motivation is what you need, motivation is unreliable and will not always be there when you need it. Relying on motivation is just giving you excuses to fail, which by the way, sets up the next tip.
4. Embrace failure
Accept that failure and unfortunate things are a reality of life. In an objective view, life and the unvierse, as concepts, don’t rely on concpets such as ‘success’ and ‘failure’. We have grown into a culture which holds many ethical and cultural ideals around the concepts of good vs evil, when in reality everything is a mixture of both, and in fact, good cannot exist without evil. Some eastern philosophies actually focus more in an objetive balance regarding our place in the universe, like the concept of Karma, for example, which just states that actions have consequences, and this consequences are neither good or bad, they are what they are.
Embrace failure. “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness; that is life” says a quote by fictional character Jean-Luc Picard. You will fail, you will fall of your horse, you are going to want to give up on your goal, bad stuff will happen, you will face unforeseen consequences, accept it, embrace it. As long as it doesn’t kill you, you can still live to try another day. Remember that there are people out there facing much more worse odds than you and still pull through.
Failing is important because it also lets you understand if you really want what you’re striving for. So, the rest of the time that you are not failing, you are going to want to be achieving something, so lets focus on that.
5. Build the path of less resistance
So, how to repeatedly do something you want to achieve? There’s a lot of tricks and techniques out there and most of them will work only if they comply with one condition: It needs to be harder for you to fail than it is to get it right. If your method gives you way to easily fail, you will fail… at least faster since… you know, you might fail anyway.
Many times i’ve heard, from other people that “they don’t have what it takes, and that they wish they had my discipline”. I want to smack them in the head every time I hear that.
The truth is that, beneath all discipline and all motivation, there’s some degree of laziness and procrastination. I’m very, very lazy, and odds are that so are you. So instead of finding excuses to do it, remove every single excuse I have to NOT do it.
What this means is that you should set up and plan your life around what you want to achieve, being realistic and honest about what you want and how bad you want it, looking for the easiest way to do it. If keeping stuff in post-it notes is easier than spending hours finding something you lost, that’s the path of least resistance. If going work out is easier for you than to stay home and be unproductive, that’s the path of least resistance.
There’s a reason why it says “build” in the name of this tip, is not a choice, you have to construct around the daily habit you want to instill in your life. For example, is easier to wash one dish, when you’re done using it, than washing 40 smelly dishes at the end of the week.
“I choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.”
Be lazy, and choose the option that will allow you to accomplish something without that much effort. Be smart, take shortcuts, accept your own handicaps and walk around them. Use apps, set up reminders, organize your house, tell your relatives about your goals and just stop sabotaging yourself out of your goals. Don’t want to eat in excess? Don’t keep extra food in your home, don’t have it accessible. You have made your body dependent of your current lifestyle and your body will cling to it as hard as you can, because IT’S ITS JOB to do so. Excuse your body for doing what YOU WANTED (voluntarily or involuntarily) and understand that you’re doing something you haven’t ever done before, and even if you have done it before, you haven’t tried it as many times to do it correctly, or for as long.
Also know that the harder you’ve been at something, the longer it will take to change it, so the longer you have to stick to your guns and the easier and smaller changes you need to do in your life in order to achieve your goal. How do you think your body will adapt to such a drastic change? A question that coincidentally takes us to the next tip.
6. Progressive overload
Progressive overload, in fitness, is the concept of doing small incremental changes to the weight you lift. The physiological reason behind this is that, as I already stated, your body gets incrementally good at what you do repeatedly. You don’t step the first day in the gym and try to lift 200 pounds (…well you can try) however, that muscly dude CAN lift 200 pounds, how does he do it? He’s 99.5% your clone, if he can do it you can do it too. Well, what you don’t realize is that he wasn’t born lifting 200 pounds. One day he was a skinny dude and he began by lifting whatever he could actually lift, maybe 2 or 5 pounds.
Well, building a habit is no different than building muscle. You can TRY and fix your life overnight, but… come on, be serious. I know you’ve tried it and I know that you wouldn’t be reading this if you had succeeded. Keep in mind that EVERYBODY has to start somewhere, even if they don’t want to admit it because they don’t want to be reminded of when they felt bad, self conscious and failed.
Heed Jake’s immortal words:
Also, as an extra, don’t underestimate the power of self-suggestion. It is indeed a very, very, very, very powerful force, don’t be afraid to figuring out how to hack it for your benefit.
7. Learn from mistakes
Not YOUR mistakes, learn from the experiences of others. Lemme explain.
There is a psychological bias that states (called the Optimism Bias… so much for technical jargon) that basically makes human beings think that just because bad stuff happens to someone else, for some reason, if doing that exact same thing, exactly the same way, it will work for them. Ain’t we dumb?
We have THE INTERNET at our reach. You can literally research about ANY subject you can think of. Research what successful people have done, but specially research for what they have done WRONG and DON’T DO THE SAME THING.
Don’t listen to fat people for advice about losing weight. Don’t listen to poor people for advice on how to get rich. Just because it sounds good to you, just because it confirms a certain belief doesn’t make it right (That’s a bias). Want to sleep right? Understanding how the sleep cycle works can get you a long way. Want to get in shape? Understanding how metabolism and muscle growth works helps. Want to become an awesome lightsaber jouster, there are forums and communities for that. Ask for advice, listen to everybody else’s mistakes and treat that experience as your own, find flaws on their methodology and question fucking everything you don’t understand. Don’t think of this as extra work, think of this as being smart, because you, like me, are lazy. So put the effort of find the easy way to do it.
8. Have heroes
You need role models, guys. Just remember that your heroes are humans, like you, and fuck up, but still they must have excelled at something to be your hero, right? So use that as inspiration (not as motivation, mind you. Having a hero does not make you take action).
A Hero issomeone you want to BE, someone you wish you were. He or she doesn’t need to be perfect, you are still you, but heroes are really importante because humans have a very hard time imagining things that we haven’t seen before so you NEED a reference for who you want to be or achieve. It’s the idea behind the concept that everything is a remix, and well… You are a remix of everything that you want to be.
“I invented nothing new. I simply assembled the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work. Had I worked fifty or ten or even five years before, I would have failed. So it is with every new thing. Progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready, and then it is inevitable.”
You have the advantage of trying AFTER your heroes, heroes or “inspirators” (that’s a word?) have already suceded and therefore also failed, so use that knowledge for your advantage and do what they do right and at least make different mistakes, since the ones they did you know the outcome of. You might invent 1 thousand new ways to suck at something, but at least they are NEW. Don’t repeat others mistakes. Treat their mistakes as yours and don’t do exactly the same thing they did expecting a different outcome.
9. Willpower is a limited resource
This is an unproven psychological theory that states that physiologically, willpower is a limited resource in your brain, maybe even tied to a specific neurotransmitter that you actually run out of. Like many other psychological theories this one might be wrong, but you should still pretend is true (self-suggestion, really, try it).
This tip ties itself with the one about the path of least resistance, and the way it works is that you should only use willpower for when you actually need to make a difficult choice. Really difficult choices, like choosing whether or not you want to keep your job or convincing yourself to talk to your crush, or having to choose what to have for dinner when your crush just says “whatever”, not petty stuff like choosing what to have for breakfast, what to wear today or which route take to your afore mentioned job. All those meaningless choices don’t need willpower, and if they do, you’re doing it wrong.
You should be saving your willpower for those super hard habits you need to change to improve your life, because even with everything laid out for you to choose the path of least resistance, you will STILL need willpower more often than not, specially for drastic changes that need long time and, well… strong will.
Take some time to plan your choices ahead of time. Don’t want to waste time choosing what to have for breakfast? Make a shopping list for one or two things and just buy that, just have that at home. I either eat a three egg mushroom omelet or oatmeal with mixed berries. I don’t have money to buy anything else (because I already used it to pay debt or because I moved it to an account that makes it a bit more complicated for me to spend it). Mark Zuckerberg (and apparently Obama) wears the same outfit every day because he has much more important things to worry about. Apps like Waze, Eat This Much, Sleep Like Android or Jefit can help you manage those mind numbing decisions so you can focus on the important stuff, because you need to value your Willpower, and you know what you actually need it for.
10. Know what you value
A while ago, we talked about brain and how motivation is an evolutionary tool. There is another one, which we have thoroughly developed more recently and that is, simulating in our frontal lobe what the outcome of our choices will be.
Every time you face a choice, you simulate posible results in your brain, and then choose the result that you think will me more beneficial to that situation. Choosing one thing over the other is what we define as something having ‘more value’ than something else. Value is a completely subjective metric and depends on your education, cultural influence, personality, context and many other variables. In sum, you value some choices or experiences above others.
Being aware of your own perception of value allows you to make “better” choices, because it also makes you more aware of the consequences of said choices and know if they add value long term based on what you want to accomplish. Yes, you could eat that whole pizza now, but do you value this instant gratification over your long term goals? Thinking about you allows you to think of the bigger picture, and thinking beyond petty every day choices.
So, there you have it. Absolutely everything I know about human motivation and motivation-oriented behavior in 10 simple bullet points. Hopefully it might help you develop your own theories or understanding of why you do things and what works for you.