Motivation is Overrated

I feel fortunate.  In the past four years, I have enacted profound changes in my life.  I resumed going to the gym (a remnant of my football-playing days), began researching and taking my nutrition seriously, read countless books and audiobooks, and established a wonderful morning routine.  Occasionally, my friends will ask me.

“How are you so goddamn motivated?”

The truth is, I don’t think I am more motivated than the average person.  Vast abundances of New Year’s Resolutions prove that motivation is in very long supply.

I tend to dread January when thousands of people rich in self-improvement goals clog up gyms everywhere.  The gym in January is an overflowing well of motivation.

Sometimes I feel selfish.  I do sincerely hope that everyone who resolves to eat better, exercise more, lose weight, and improve their health succeeds.

But what happens in February?

The gym clears out.  Motivation dries up as the masses regress to their pre-January lifestyles.

What happened?

The biggest downfall of behavioral change is not a lack of motivation.  On the contrary, an overreliance on motivation can be one’s undoing (myself included).

Despite my personal progress, two aspects of my life remain lawless wastelands – food and alcohol.

I want one of those factory signs that read “___ days without an accident.”  For me, accidents are immoderate binges.  On average, I last about 7 to 9 days between “accidents.”

Often alcohol and food accidents go hand-in-hand. I get drunk, my prefrontal cortex loosens its vice-like grip on my behavior, and I consume with reckless abandon.

Each morning I wake up hungover, bloated, and disappointed with the three-kilogram jump on the scale.  I promise I will practice moderation thereafter. Yet 7-9 days later I repeat the same promises to my distended belly in the mirror.

I don’t lack motivation.  I know I want to change. I believe my problem is twofold – harmful habits derail my efforts and unsustainable goals court disaster.

The people who remain in the gym beyond February are not the ones with the most motivation.  Motivation is a fickle emotional state subject to flee at a moment’s notice. Every time someone embarks on a transformative goal, morale tends to be high.  The journey sounds exciting and the promise of future rewards proves enticing.

Yet two weeks later, our ship either flounders in a squall or stalls in dead calm winds.  We acquire unanticipated commitments that crowd out our goals. Invigorating novelty gives way to monotonous routine.  We feel sore, hungry, tired, or a combination of the three.  Many respond to this adversity with retreat.  They abandon the discomfort and creeping monotony for the comfort of familiar habits.

Our habits are changeable, yet we often do not persist long enough for our desired routines to take root.  Research suggests that habits can take as little as two weeks or as long as six months to develop depending on difficulty.

Most people who renege on their new routines do so while caught in a no-mans land between the early motivation-rich moments and the firm entrenchment of new normalcy.  Navigating this no-mans land is the key to effecting a lasting lifestyle change.

For me, the challenge of moderating my alcohol consumption may take years, if not longer.

Unfortunately, poor drinking habits have tread and retread my mind for years.  When I go out, I enjoy to meet up with friends, and I like to drink. However, when I meet up with friends, I am also prone to feel a bit anxious.

Eckhart Tolle describes this anxiety as a state of “needing to take something in.”  For some people, that means food. For others, it is a cigarette. For me, it is alcohol.  I cannot put these lapses of self-control behind me until I can calm the buzzing anxiety.  As years pass, I feel the anxious din subside.   However, it is still there. Perhaps it will never disappear, but I must develop better strategies to quiet my mind.

My other problem involves the goals I set for myself.  For many, the junkyard of broken resolutions reeks with unsustainability.

“I will lose 40 lbs. this year by eating 7 servings of vegetables per day and never eating sugar.”

“I will go to the gym 6 days a week.”

“I will only _______.”

“I will never ______.”

These resolutions are doomed to fail because people are doomed to fail.  Inflexible goals and routines that forbid errors are absolutely demoralizing and demoralization is the fastest and saddest path back to familiar (and often detrimental) habits.

This is my biggest problem.  I wake up the morning after an epic binge muttering to myself.

“Well, I’ll never do that again.”

Never is a fatal English word.  By uttering that single word, I seal my fate 7-9 days later.

The key is not to avoid failure.  Rather, the idea is to establish moderate, sustainable goals.

“If my office workers bring in a snack, I will treat myself to one (and only one) portion.”

“When I meet up with friends I will consume no more than three drinks.”

“When I feel a sugar craving and desire cookies, I will consume an apple or a cup of strawberries.”

This latter implementation intention has proven useful for me.  These kinds of goals are important because they allow room for error (and therefore more self-compassion).  Moreover, they provide a concrete plan of action.

“When I ___________, then I will ____________.”

Research shows these implementation intentions to be far more effective than vague, inflexible goals.

Motivation is great.  It feels good and can push us towards positive change in our life.  However, it is a fickle mistress sure to abandon us when we need her the most.

Our challenge is not to acquire more motivation.  Rather it is to bolster our hull, strengthen our sails, and anticipate motivation’s inevitable departure.

How have I done this in the past?

For one, I remind myself that the anxious anticipation of an action is normally worse than the action in reality.

“I feel tired.  I think I will skip the gym today.  It sounds too hard.”

“Enough of that talk.  Just show up.  If you walk through the gym doors and still too anxious, then you can go home. ”

99% of the time, once I show up I follow through with my intention.

Motivation is overrated.  What one needs to effect lasting life change is discipline.  Discipline carries us through the no-mans land of ennui into the trenches of habit. Discipline pushes us forward when we are tired, hungry, and yearning for our former moorings.  Discipline gives us the courage to face the seas for one more day.

If we have the courage to face the seas for one more day, then we will soon establish a new normal.  Momentum becomes our friend.  As objects in motion, we feel inclined to remain in motion.  Soon the activities of “motivated” people require no motivation at all.

Photo Corner


What am I looking at?  Why must I ruin my friends’ pictures with bewildered, off-camera stares?


I found this piece of graffiti in a local village.  It translates to “No Parking.”


I gotta love it when my students represent my state.


I had my first-grade students write comic strips for one lesson.  This comic was particularly scandalous:

“We have to divorce.”

“Fuck!  I love that word.  It’s the best word you said after saying ‘marriage.’ I have another seven wives anyway.”

“It’s okay.  Our son isn’t your son.”


Students tested their lung capacity for World Tobacco-Free Day.


“So you see children smoking’s bad.  Mmkay?”


2 thoughts on “Motivation is Overrated

  1. I like this new way to look at motivation. You’re right, it always dries up! But yes, discipline is what’s needed. It’s a rare resource, but it does the trick. I wish you the best as you search for the discipline to stop the habits that are causing your stress. I hope to hear more about that journey in future blogs.


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