A couple of weeks ago I was in Ari, a trendy neighbourhood in central Bangkok.
As I walked down from the skytrain, there was an older gentleman passed out asleep on the sidewalk. He was balding, perhaps in his late fifties, and he was selling limes for about $0.75 for a pack of seven.
As I passed by it hit me — I had seen him before, selling limes, last year.
He would sit there from early morning to late at night, often falling asleep. To be honest, it didn’t look like he was all-there in the mental health department.
When I had first seen him last year, the girl I was going out with at the time had asked me to buy limes from him because she felt sorry for him. And I did too.
And it’s not just him.
Whether it’s the hunched-over old woman serving food at a street side stall, or the farmer who sits in the back of a pickup truck for hours to sell his produce in Bangkok for literal cents… every now and then I see people in situations that are sad and to be honest, heart-wrenching 😢.
Whenever I come across one of these people there’s a range of emotions that I go through:
- I’m extremely grateful for what I have.
- I’m p*ssed off that we live in a world that is abundant and yet stuff like this still happens.
- I get incredibly motivated to work hard on the right things and to get my act together more.
Which brings us to motivation.
Why does seeing something like this make me (and others) motivated to better our own lives?
And is it necessary to experience or encounter human suffering to be motivated?
I believe that it isn’t, and that there are other ways that we can generate our own motivation so that we can get what we want out of life and hopefully never find ourselves in similar situations.
Here’s how motivation works.
Table of Contents
- Let’s Define Motivation
- Nine Motivation Hacks You Can Use Right Now
- Hack 1: Solar flaring / “Just five minutes”
- Hack 2: Timeslices, pomodoros and flowtime
- Hack 3: Reward systems
- Hack 4: Get inspired or motivated
- Hack 5: Share what you’re going to do with others
- Hack 6: Substances and supplements
- Hack 7: Environmental cues and design
- Hack 8: Physical movement
- Hack 9: Vision boards and reasons why
- Applied Motivation: Setting Up Your Reasons Why and Vision Board
- Motivation Dichotomies and Non-Contradictions
- 1. Internal vs external motivation
- 2. Pain vs pleasure
- 3. Positive vs negative motivation
- 4. Contentment vs hunger
- 5. Own standards vs comparison
- 6. Absent and present feedback loops
- 7. Responsibility vs excuses
- Standalone Principles of Motivation
- The Inner Game of Motivation
- Virtues and Motivation
- What To Do Next
Let’s Define Motivation
Our motivations are the reasons for our behaviours.
They are the leverage that we use to get ourselves to do things.
They are what remind us to do better, be more and to do what we must.
They are what wake us up in the morning and get us excited to start the day.
They are also what keep us going when things get tough.
There are both negative and positive aspects to motivation.
Motivation is also part of the time management stack at the inner game and mindset level.
What is the purpose of motivation?
It’s worth asking — why do we need motivation in the first place?
We need motivation so that we can perform the actions that we need to, when they need to be done.
This could be:
- Actions you have to perform.
- Actions you should perform.
- Actions you don’t really want to perform but still need to.
- The supercharging of actions that you already enjoy performing.
And we need to be able to perform all these actions consistently. As James Clear says in Atomic Habits, we need to be able to complete small actions consistently over time to see really changes in our lives.
Motivation helps us with all this by minimising the excuses we make and reducing the friction in our actual doing of things.
Nine Motivation Hacks You Can Use Right Now
I want to explore motivation in detail in this guide, but also understand that some people just want things they can use right now to get motivated.
So let’s get these out of the way.
Most of these hacks are designed to reduce the friction of starting something and to generate momentum, which is why they work.
Hack 1: Solar flaring / “Just five minutes”
Solar flaring is where you take the task that you have to do, and either:
- Start on a small part of it, or
- Start on something else that’s easy but related to the main task.
As you start taking action, you complete the small/easy part, then move onto the main task and explode into doing it.
This is a psychological trick to overcome the initial friction of starting because once you are in motion you will likely stay in motion and continue on.
The small part of the task or easier part of a related task gets your brain “in the groove” so to speak.
The term “solar flaring” comes from a couple of friends of mine, and they describe it as a solar flare on the surface of the sun. It starts as a small anomaly, but then explodes with massive energy.
A variation of this is to tell yourself that you will do the task for “just five minutes” to overcome the initial friction.
But then you find that five minutes in, you’re ready to complete the entire task.
Hack 2: Timeslices, pomodoros and flowtime
Whether it’s counting down or counting up, the rhythm of working for a certain amount of time and then taking breaks is effective and can help you get started on something and continue on with it.
Hack 3: Reward systems
You can create a simple reward system for yourself to motivate yourself to do something.
This is in the form of “if I do X, I can have Y”.
The most common one I see in the business world is:
“If I just finish THIS, I can go home / call it a day.”
You need to intelligently choose what that reward is, but for a final push on a piece of work or something you have to do, this can be quite effective.
Hack 4: Get inspired or motivated
Seeing other people overcome their challenges and succeed can motivate us to overcome our own challenges.
This is why reading inspiring stories, watching moving videos or reading great quotes can help us get motivated.
The reason this works is because by viewing or reading these things, we pump our own emotional state with excitement and drive — and this is motivation.1The same effect is experienced when you attend a personal development seminar or event.
It seems cheesy but it works.
Just be wary that you can become desensitised to this over time.
Some examples that I like:
- r/getmotivated on Reddit.
Hack 5: Share what you’re going to do with others
Sharing what you are going to do with others can work as motivation/pressure to actually follow through with it.
According to Robert Cialdini, this works because of the principles of commitment and consistency.
Personally, I think it works because it plays on either your shame or your guilt.
Shame is more common in Eastern cultures, and is similar to losing face for not doing something you said you were going to do.
Guilt is more common is Western cultures, and is the result of not meeting a standard or expectation.
If you are shameless, guiltless or emotionally rock solid, then this particular motivation hack doesn’t work as well.
Hack 6: Substances and supplements
Can things you eat or drink help with your motivation?
Yes, they can.
Some people like to snack while they work on something. They say it helps them get through the day and get things done. I think this is a slippery slope as eating has other effects, like adding calories to your food intake.
And of course there’s coffee, which flat-out just works because of its caffeine content.
My personal compromise is to drink a lot of green tea, which also has caffeine.
There are also pharmaceutical-grade alternatives that absolutely work, like Adderall, Ritalin and Modafinil. All I’ll say is that they do work, but I don’t recommend them and don’t ask me any more about them 🙃.
Hack 7: Environmental cues and design
Seeing certain cues in your environment can help you overcome the last-minute friction you have for doing something.
Technically, this is more in the area of habit formation, but it also works quite well as a motivation hack.
The possibilities here are endless, but here are some good examples.
- Actual prompts like:
- Documents on your desk that need to be worked on.
- Post-it notes.
- Task reminder notifications.
- Calendar appointments.
- A packed gym bag by the door or on the passenger seat in your car.
- Good music.
I’m currently listening to this playlist as I write this.
Here are a couple more I listen to regularly to help with work:
- Good lighting.
I invested in some smart lights last year when I moved house. Apart from being very impressive for when I have company over, they also work as great environmental cues for doing certain things.
This is how I’ve set them up:
- Focus (almost white) lights on before sunrise when I’m doing early morning work.
- Relax (50%-60% warm) lights on around 5pm just before sunset. This reminds me that the day is winding down but that it’s still productive time.
- Red lights in the evening to wind down and get ready to sleep.
Hack 8: Physical movement
I learnt this from Tony Robbins.
It looks like this:
The reason this works is because our physiology has a huge impact on our emotional state. And by pumping up our mood this way, we gain the energy we need to get started on something.
Over the long term, being physically fit, having good energy levels and getting quality sleep makes motivating yourself easier as your energy will be good all the time.2This is why health and energy is the foundation level of the time management stack.
Hack 9: Vision boards and reasons why
These are our own personal list of reasons for doing things and for the things we want.
We will look at both in detail in the next section.
Applied Motivation: Setting Up Your Reasons Why and Vision Board
Your Reasons Why is one of your Personal Ops Documents.
It is something that you review every morning and evening, or whenever you need to, to remind yourself why you do what you do.
Some people refer to it as a motivation page.
Some people like to assemble it as pictures instead of words, and that is known as a vision board.
Here’s how I recommend structuring it:
Purpose: * Reasons related to your mission and purpose that remind you why you pursue them. Health: * Reasons related to your health. Wealth: * Reasons related to money, finances, wealth. Social: * Reasons related to your friends, extended family. Relationship: * Reasons related to your partner/SO. Learning/Growth: * Reasons related to your learning and growth. Family: * Reasons related to your immediate family. Experience/Lifestyle: * These are the general reasons not related to any particular area but are part of your vision for your life. * A popular example is: "The ability to travel however I want, whenever I want and see the amazing world around me." Dark Energy: * Reasons related to missed opportunities and potential. * Reasons related to where someone has done wrong by you. Material Things: * Things you want to buy/have in your life.
Motivation Dichotomies and Non-Contradictions
Let’s go deeper into the structure of motivation and how it works.
Motivation is best presented as a series of dichotomies.
In the West, these would be considered paradoxes. There is an emphasis on looking at things in terms of black and white, right and wrong.
In the East, these are known as non-contradictions. Oriental philosophies believe that paradoxes are fine and natural.3For more, see the Chinese concept of yin-yang. This is where two seemingly opposite things exist together, in harmony.
And this concept applies to motivation — two seemingly opposing aspects of motivation exist, and yet both serve to help provide us with motivation.
The dichotomies are:
- Interval vs external motivation.
- Pain vs pleasure.
- Positive vs negative motivation.
- Contentment vs hunger.
- Own standards vs comparison.
- Absent and present feedback loops.
- Responsibility vs excuses.
Let’s deconstruct each of these.
1. Internal vs external motivation
Do you drive yourself or let your external circumstances drive you?
External (or extrinsic) motivation is the most common orientation in this dichotomy.
It is where we use and let circumstances outside our own minds encourage us to do things.
This could be benign, like friends or a mastermind group encouraging us to succeed.
It could also be not-so benign, where something outside our control forces a situation upon us.
There is nothing inherently wrong with external motivation, despite most performance coaches and consultants preferring internal/intrinsic motivation.
External motivation can be as mundane as a work deadline. It can also be serious, like being laid off from work and having to find new employment.
Internal (or intrinsic) motivation is the ability to get yourself to do things with nothing but the power of your own mind. It can be thought of as willpower, or volition.
Many performance coaches consider this the “ultimate power”, as you can generate action and momentum on-demand.
Internal motivation usually comes from the standards that we hold for ourselves.
If we get more specific, it happens when our inner game aligns correctly for a certain thing that we want to or need to do. This means that our mission, our identity, our values, our beliefs and our capabilities all line up behind a certain action or task.
A great example of this is from one of my friends who shall remain anonymous. She woke up one day and realised that she had gained 10 kg from overeating and under-exercising. She works in the health field, has never seen herself as an overweight person and values her health highly… so she decided to do something about it — and just did.
That’s internal motivation.
2. Pain vs pleasure
I believe it was Tony Robbins who said that most people would rather avoid pain than seek pleasure.
But when it comes to motivation, the reality is that both work.
Seeking pleasure is the less popular of the two.
It is phrased as “I want chocolate” or “I want to be in better health”.
It is seeking to improve your circumstances, and rarer than avoiding pain because it usually relies on intrinsic motivation.
Whether it is wanting to be physically healthier, financially secure or just wanting to eat something in particular, wanting something in positive terms is using pleasure as motivation.
Avoiding pain is the more popular motivator of the two.
It is phrased as “I don’t want migraines anymore” or “I don’t want to see him today”.
My experience from earlier about seeing people in unfortunate and tragic (and honestly, inhumane) circumstances is an example of me wanting to avoid certain future pains.
The pains can be emotional, physical or psychological. Avoiding embarrassment and not wanting to lose face is avoiding pain. Handling a medical condition that hampers your quality of life is avoiding pain. The fear of missing out (FOMO) is avoiding pain.
3. Positive vs negative motivation
Positive or “light energy” motivators are the happy reasons you do something.
These reasons usually go alongside seeking pleasure.
The clearest example of this is your purpose, which is usually phrased in positive terms.
My purpose is to live life at the highest level that I can, and to help others do the same.
Other people have purposes to inspire others to do better and live better.
Reminding ourselves of these positive reasons is how we can use positive motivation to get things done.
Negative motivation is also known as “dark energy”.
It is the recognition that sometimes the world is dark, and that bad things do happen and you don’t want them to happen again. This goes alongside the avoidance of pain.
All the emotions that constitute dark energy and negative motivation go back to the emotion of fear — and in certain circumstances, can be a motivating force to keep you going.
One of my mentors described it to me as having a lion made of dark energy chained to you at all times. You don’t need to let the lion out all the time, but when you do, the savagery of the motivational energy you get from it will leave you and others in awe.
4. Contentment vs hunger
Contentment is being happy with what you have. It is related to gratitude.
Hunger is wanting and aspiring to be more.
We usually associate hunger with its negative side — consumerism — but it can also be seen as doing the right things for the wrong reasons.
It is possible to be content in some things and to hunger for other things.
This seems obvious when spelt out, but many people miss this.
People who are “hungry” are not black hole consumption machines.
One of my close friends is content in his relationship and family life, yet he works hard because he hungers for better circumstances so that his children can have a better start to life. That’s his motivation.
Contentment and hunger can happily live side-by-side and there is really only a problem if you are content in everything. When that happens, you will find that your motivation dies.
Note: Happiness is not the same as contentment. It exists further down the chain, like this:
5. Own standards vs comparison
Your own standards are the expectations you have for yourself.
They affect your motivation by acting as a benchmark for when you are not living up to your own expectations, and push you to adjust.
They are the basis of intrinsic motivation.
Comparing yourself against others is the other side of this non-contradiction.
You can and should intelligently and rationally compare yourself against others and their standards every now and then. This can be motivating and can help you adjust your own standards. It is also necessary for living in the modern world.
This is not the same as trying to meet the expectations of others to please them — because f*ck that. Never live by the expectations of others or to please others.
Comparison in this case is more about recognising that intersubjective reality exists, and that it is beneficial to recognise that it does.
Imagine that you lived based purely on your own standards. At first this is not bad, as you would be intrinsically motivated.
What would be bad is that you would have no idea what intersubjective reality is — are laws real? Do you need to use money to buy things?
Taken to its logical conclusion, living purely by your own standards is a one-way ticket to non-achievement and potentially crazy-land.
You don’t have to try this for yourself. Author and thinker Eckhart Tolle spent the better part of two years doing exactly this. You can read about his experience here.
If you rationally compare yourself to others’ standards every now and then, you can answer questions like:
- Am I doing enough?
- Am I working hard enough?
- Am I doing the right things?
- Am I on the right track?
At the same time though, too much comparison does not help you. There is no point always trying to keep up with the Joneses — doing so is simply placing your reference points for life in the hands of other people, which can only lead to unhappiness.
Where you want to be is in the middle ground of non-contradiction between your own standards and referencing those of others.
As a personal example, at time of writing one of my high school classmates recently interviewed now-US President Donald Trump.
I have no doubt that upon watching the interview everyone in our class had two thoughts:
- Swan’s a legend.
- The bar has been raised.
None of us are beating ourselves up for not being the first to interview the President of the United States, but at the same time we are all looking at our own standards and asking if we’re really living them, and whether they need to be raised.
6. Absent and present feedback loops
One of the best motivators you can have is a positive feedback loop where you do something, then are rewarded for doing it.
One of my friends who recently started working out more does this with her fitness tracker data — the number of calories she burns every workout goes up daily, and this acts as motivation to continue on.
When you are starting on something new this feedback loop can be absent. But in your mind, you know that it’s absent because you’re just starting, and this acts as motivation to encourage you to do more and try more to make some kind of feedback loop happen.4You can also rely on the other motivation techniques in this beginning phase.
It is also possible to have negative feedback loops, which act in much the same way as negative motivation.
7. Responsibility vs excuses
Every now and then you will make excuses for not doing something. No one is immune to this, not even me.
A question I’m often asked about this is:
Should you beat yourself up about it?
i.e., should you take full responsibility for it?
Some people go to one extreme and are never hard on themselves for failing to do something. Others go to the other extreme and are much too hard on themselves.
I have some well-meaning friends who like to tell me that I take on the responsibility for situations too much, that there were extenuating circumstances and so on. These are the same friends who have problems “getting motivated” with almost everything — it’s almost always someone else’s fault to them.
The correct approach is the middle ground, the non-contradiction.
You don’t need to beat yourself up for failing to do something, but at the same time you cannot simply brush it off as the fault of others and not take your share of responsibility.
It is worth recognising where you should have done better. But there is no need to damn yourself for eternity because of a failure to act on something.
You can also frame this in more positive terms by simply examining where the responsibility lies for what has happened. Some of it will be with you. Some of it will be with others or the situation.
People who have difficulty doing this have a deeper problem — something is broken in their inner game. The danger of not being able to hold yourself responsible is a detachment from reality, and an inclination towards excess hedonism and laziness.
Standalone Principles of Motivation
Up to now we have covered the dichotomies that form the structure of motivation, but there are also other standalone principles to motivation.
- Friction reduction and process design.
- Hustle culture.
- Sexual transmutation.
1. Friction reduction and process design
One of the more common reasons for why we procrastinate and “need motivation” is because the start of a process has friction.
It thus goes to reason that reducing friction at the start of the process or in the process itself can help us generate the motivation we need to do something.
The nine motivation hacks covered above almost all do exactly this — reduce the startup friction for doing something.
The longer-term application of this is to use processes, systems and models that have little to no friction in them. Models like the time management stack and productivity stack, or processes like batching tasks.
Simply having a frictionless system in place for something means that you’re more likely to do it. This doesn’t directly affect motivation, but nevertheless, it does help you get the task done.
A good example of this is a morning ritual that acts as a default way to start your day. Simply having it means that you’re more like to follow it and more likely to start your day in a productive state of mind.
2. Hustle culture
If this guide was written 10 or 20 years ago hustle culture would not be a common concept.
But thanks to the Internet, it is.
Hustle culture describes people who are hardcore in their aspirations to do more, be more and outperform others. This could be university students starting businesses while studying, or adults working 9-to-5 and doing a “side hustle” for extra income.
My personal take is that hustle culture is the modern-day expression of American individualism and the pursuit of the American dream.
I use the word American dream because it is instantly recognisable to most of us — the opportunity for prosperity and success, and a chance at upward mobility.
I don’t use it because it is specific to the United States.
And as I write this, the American dream has lost some of its shine in the US proper. But thanks to the Internet and social media, it is alive and well in other places, like China, where the “Chinese dream” is — surprise, surprise — about the opportunity for prosperity and success and self-made men and women.5New York Times (2018). The American Dream Is Alive. In China. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/11/18/world/asia/china-social-mobility.html
Some people may find hustle culture annoying but it is not a bad thing.
Yes, it can be taken to extremes, and that is annoying.
But it is a worthy addition to anyone’s motivational arsenal.
It is great to be around people who hustle. It is great to connect with people who hustle. And it is great to be someone who is doing things, going places, and aspiring to be more and do more.6If that’s what you want. To be fair, you can be quite happy without any of that.
3. Sexual transmutation
It has been said that the great driving force of civilisation is the human sex drive.
Great works of art, epic volumes of literature, amazing technological advances and entire civilisations have been built out of man’s desire to get laid.8Historically there has been a focus on the male sex drive but let’s chalk that down to a lack of gender equality throughout historical record. More realistically, it is the human non-gender-specific need to reproduce that has built what we have today.
I’ll use the stereotypical example of a modern man to illustrate.
He works hard to build his career and make money. He works out to look good. And he does all this to attract the woman of his dreams… even if she won’t give him the time of day at the moment.
No. Other. Motivation. Required.
It is not an exaggeration to say that a man will expend a huge amount of resources and do whatever it takes just to get lucky.
Now this is interesting in theory, but how does this actually apply in real life to motivation and getting things done?
There is a great deal of confusion around sexual transmutation, so let’s make it simple.
The process looks like this:
- Your biology and upbringing tells you what you are sexually attracted to.
- This generates an incredible drive to get with that which you are attractive to.
- Instead of wasting this drive through things like pornography or masturbation…
- Take a breath, then focus in on the things you want to get done.
i.e., when you feel the urge to chase after someone, have sex with someone or log onto your favourite adult video site… just sit down and do some work instead.
It really is that simple.
And if you do this, you’ll find that you have a near-limitless source of motivational fuel for whatever you want.
Human sexuality is a deep, dark, moist rabbit hole that can lead to existential crises and many questions that should not be asked.
It can get really confusing, really dark and you really don’t need to go there.
It is more productive and better for your motivation to keep it simple and to use what works.
The Inner Game of Motivation
As with most parts of the time management stack, motivation has an inner game component.
Having a strong inner game for motivation is the foundation for having intrinsic motivation.
When your purpose, identity, values and beliefs all align, it looks like this:
Let’s look at each of these pieces and how they affect your motivation.
Your purpose is something that you should believe in.
When this is clear to you, you will find little resistance and incredibly drive in doing things, because they are meaningful to you.
Your identity supports your purpose. It consists of many pieces, which are covered in this guide to your personal ops.
Your values should support your purpose and what you do. If they don’t, they can be changed. Or maybe what you are doing needs to be changed.
You should know what your values are and how what you are doing relates to living them.
There are literally hundreds of useful beliefs that can help with your motivation, and many are dependent on your personality and character. Beliefs are the icing on top of the cake when it comes to motivation — your purpose, identity and values are far more important.
Here are some:
- I am a generator of energy, not a consumer of it.
- Good things tend to happen to me.
- The journey is the destination.
Virtues and Motivation
I write a lot about virtues because I believe that they are important to living the lives that we want in today’s world.
Collectively they act as a system for living — for reconciling the different things that we want to be and how we want to live.
They are one of your personal ops documents.
With this in mind, some virtues are more important for motivation than others. And these are:
- Being inhuman (dark energy).
- Hyper-competitiveness (a modern virtue).
- Right action.
The flip side of virtues are our vices, which you want to avoid. The ones that relate to motivation are:
You may be asking, “This sounds great and all, but how do I actually apply these vices and virtues to be more motivated in my life?”.
Here’s what that looks like.
Let’s say it’s the end of the workday, around 5pm.
You have a choice: You can call it a day and go home, or you can give things another couple of hours to push through and clear a few extra things.
This is where you ask yourself: How do I live virtuously here?
Perhaps you can channel some dark energy and be inhuman with the tasks you have to do.
Perhaps you want to be the top sales person this month and channel your hyper-competitiveness into doing a few more calls.
Perhaps you believe strongly in responsibility and take that on to push through.
Perhaps you resign yourself that something absolutely needs to be done today and follow it through to resolution.
Similarly, when you are not motivated, you can ask what vices you would be committing by not doing something. Are you:
- Giving into excuses?
- Being lazy?
- Seeking out desire and excess hedonism instead of being responsible?
- Indulging yourself?
Virtues and vices are not just philosophical or abstract concepts — they are things you can strategically and tactically deploy to generate the motivation needed to do what you need to do, and more.
What To Do Next
This has been a long guide.
You’ve learnt about motivation hacks, the structure of motivation, dichotomies, inner game, and even the human sex drive.
How do you apply this right now?
First, sit down and create your own Reasons Why document or Vision Board.
Second, reference the list of motivation hacks as you need to.
Third, think about the dichotomies and principles of motivation presented. As you read over each one, think about how they exist in your own life and provide you with motivation.
Lastly, take a look at the systems, processes and models in your life. Start to build the dichotomies and principles of motivation into them so that they generate motivation for you.
Most of the systems, processes and models that I write about already have these principles built into them and you can find them here on the articles page.
- The same effect is experienced when you attend a personal development seminar or event.
- This is why health and energy is the foundation level of the time management stack.
- For more, see the Chinese concept of yin-yang.
- You can also rely on the other motivation techniques in this beginning phase.
- New York Times (2018). The American Dream Is Alive. In China. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/11/18/world/asia/china-social-mobility.html
- If that’s what you want. To be fair, you can be quite happy without any of that.
- Wikipedia. (n.d.). Need. https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Need
- Historically there has been a focus on the male sex drive but let’s chalk that down to a lack of gender equality throughout historical record. More realistically, it is the human non-gender-specific need to reproduce that has built what we have today.