Motivation, what is it and how do you get it?

By Jon Rumens on 21 October 2019

Pieces of the puzzle

Us here at FocusMe are very proud of our amazing app. It’s been proven to be super effective in increasing your productivity and helping you achieve your goals. Whether that’s writing your own novel, getting that work project done in time, making it through your exams unscathed, we’ve got thousands of satisfied people who have achieved amazing results thanks to our app.

But we also realize that FocusMe, and in general the ability to turn off distractions and clear your mind, is only a small (yet very important) piece of the puzzle if you’re aiming for success.

There are literally hundreds of other concepts and ideas you could apply to get more (or any, if your standards are low) work done. As multitasking is such an awful idea, you can’t try ‘m all at the same time, and it’s quite hard to pick.

So what we want to do is to find the best ideas out there, make the selection, and help you apply them. Today we’d like to talk about motivation: an elusive and vague concept yet one that many still believe to be the key to success.

Motivation, and how you’ve got it all wrong

Success stands or falls with motivation. If you ask people who haven’t been able to finish what they started what the problem was, it’s likely that they will say that they weren’t motivated enough.

The person in question will feel he or she missed the right amount of drive, the spark that gets the engine going. This person obviously didn’t watch enough motivational YouTube video’s, and didn’t do enough self-affirmations every day (‘I can do it, I’m the best,…). He or she didn’t have the perfect playlist, forgot to listen to ‘Eye of the Tiger’ one day and then everything came tumbling down.

Say what, you didn’t go to a Tony Robbins seminar before starting your project? That’s just setting yourself up to fail.

This coffee mug is why you fail.

Or wait…

Do you see how ridiculous this might from the outside? Do you think all the greats in history had to do any of this to succeed? Leonardo da Vinci didn’t have access to YouTube nor Tony Robbins. Neither did Mozart, Hemingway, Tolkien or Muhammad Ali.

So maybe these aren’t prerequisites for success after all.

All these motivational speeches, walking over hot coals, saying self-affirmations, they’re useless. They feel really good in the moment. You get all riled up and filled with a sudden burst of energy, a feeling that you can take on the world.

Unfortunately, this feeling doesn’t last long. A few hours later, you’re back to your regular self and the instant dopamine high has crashed down again. You’ve come down from your gram of motivational cocaine. The sugar rush has ended.

What do you do then? Watch another YouTube-video? Buy another Tony Robbins-book? Invent new self-affirmations?

Hardly a durable, long-term solution if you ask me.

And this leads to my main point: motivation doesn’t come from external sources. As corny as this may sound: motivation comes from within.

What motivation is – and what it isn’t

The error in the line of thinking I explained above lies in the fact that motivation is usually seen as an external force, but also a prerequisite to start doing something. Without motivation, it’s supposedly impossible to start something, let alone succeed in finishing it.

This idea is fundamentally flawed. Motivation is not a pre-existent feeling. Instead, it is something that comes during and after the fact. You become motivated while you are doing something and after you finished doing it. Motivation is essentially a reward for doing something and being successful. It is a result first and a cause second.

When we succeed in doing something, our brain rewards us by releasing a shot of dopamine, which feels good. That basically starts an addiction to the behaviour in question. We associate the dopamine, the homemade drug, with the thing we just accomplished. We get addicted to this specific action, which makes our brain want to do it again.

Motivation isn’t self-affirmation or feel-good mumbo-jumbo. Motivation is chemistry.

Do you need to watch a Tony Robbins seminar to be motivated to have sex? Unless you have some kind of psychological problem, (or unless you’re only physically attracted to Tony Robbins), the answer is most likely no. Doing the deed feels good. That makes our brain really motivated to do a lot of it.

Does a smoker need to do positive affirmations before lighting up a cigarette? Of course not. At one time, he smoked his first cigarette, his brain rewarded him, and he got some motivation to smoke more.

We can best describe motivation as some kind of biochemical mechanism that is connected to a certain behaviour, that leads to us wanting to do it more.

The cool thing is that you can allow yourself to get addicted to almost anything, not just sex, food, gambling and drugs. You can create motivation for many different things, provided you create that initial feel-good feeling that comes with succeeding.

That first shot of dopamine will create the motivation that kick starts a productive habit. You can create motivation to learn a language, become an athlete or start a business. You can even create motivation to study an extremely boring subject, provided you know the right way to do it.

All it takes to become highly motivated is that small, initial success.

Another misrepresentation of motivation is that it is some kind of passive, ever-present force, something that’s running in the background of your operating system. It’s not that either. Motivation is an active force, something you create, instead of undergo.

Let’s talk about video games

Video games are the perfect example to explain motivation, because hardly anybody lacks the motivation to play video games.

Now, let’s think about it: why is that?

How is it that video games keep you glued to the screen? How do video game creators try to make sure you play the game from start to finish?

Most of the time, they simply apply the principle of small successes. You don’t start out fighting the final boss with only the weakest weapons and low health. Instead, when playing a game, you usually start off fighting weaker enemies, the ones that are easy to beat.

Before Mario fights a giant fire-spitting, hammer throwing dragon wizard in a lava pit, he jumps on walking mushrooms in a green meadow.

So what happens is, in the beginning, a game allows you to book small successes. Those allow you to build self-confidence and motivation. Then, over time, the challenges become more difficult and maybe even frustrating, possibly having you start over dozens of times again. That might cause some people to quit, but usually, by the time you get to the point it gets really hard, you’ll have built a steady reservoir of motivation that gives you the internal strength and drive to carry on and keep going.

On the other hand, imagine you just started playing a new multiplayer game, but you, the so-called ‘noob’, keep playing against highly skilled ‘leet’ players who have tons of experience. Obviously, you don’t stand a chance and you die over and over. Will you be motivated to keep playing? Probably not. You’ll put down the controller and do something else. Something that is a bit more motivating.

A good game should always offer some challenge, but it has to do so in a way that your current level of motivation and self-confidence allows you to overcome that challenge with reasonable effort.

A bad game fails to offer an adequate challenge, or if it does, it fails to reward the player properly. Whereas a good game would rewards you for killing a powerful enemy by giving you a cool new weapon, a bad game would have you kill the same enemy and give you nothing in return.

Now, there is something we can take away from this. Imagine if you want to become a writer. You might decide one day that you want to try writing a novel, but you find it hard to stay motivated. Well, maybe that’s because you tried doing something that is above your current skill and motivation level. In video-game lingo, you tried to fight the final boss before finishing the first level.

If you had created a low-level challenge for themselves that was easier to overcome, it would’ve been much easier to build up some motivation and keep you going through the hard times.

Let’s imagine writing is a video game, and use that idea to come up with a structure that will build up motivation:

  • Tutorial: writing prompts on reddit (500-1000 words)
  • Level 1-3: short stories (10-20K words)
  • Level 4: novella (40K words)
  • Level 5: short novel (100K words)
  • Level 6: large novel (250K words)
  • Final Boss: three-part fantasy epic (1.000.000 words)

This structure makes it easy to see where some starting writers get it wrong. They’ll start out at level 5, which is already pretty damn hard, without even having gone through the tutorial. And they haven’t built up enough motivation and self-confidence to allow them to push through the blocks, those hard moments when you don’t seem to be able to get anything on paper.

So they start playing the game at a high difficulty level, way below their current skill and motivation level, and surprise, surprise: they end up throwing in the towel.

Now, obviously some people will be able to finish that novel, even while skipping the first steps. Some people just seem to have the grit to push through. But that doesn’t take away the fact that they made it extra hard on themselves by not having a sufficient amount of motivation beforehand.

And why make it hard on yourself when you can make it so easy? Build up small successes and make yourself addicted to them. Let your brain circuitry do the work for you, and don’t rely on finite amounts of willpower.

As it goes for writing, the same principle goes for so many other things.

Want to become a pro cooking chef? Don’t start out by trying to make soufflé. The chance you’ll end up with a well made dessert are low and you’ll wreck your motivation. Make some half-decent scrambled eggs first, and work your way up from there.

Don’t begin your language-learning journey by reading highbrow literature. Learn to say hello first.

Go for a run around the block before you try a 10K.

Use small successes to create motivation. Use motivation to create large successes.

Scrambled eggs – the first step to cooking mastery.

Taking action

Ironically, some of the people who read this post might end up using it as a motivational tool. They’ll be stuck in a rut, read this article again and end up saying to themselves: yeah, I totally can do this, I just need to build up motivation. They’ll feel good about themselves for thirty minutes…but end up doing nothing (again).

Here’s my explicit wish and message to you: whatever it is you want to do – go do it! Don’t sit on your chair waiting for divine inspiration, or an external force that will drive you to action. The hard truth is: such a thing will never come.

So here’s your assignment for today. It’s very simple, easy and designed to get you REAL results.

First of all: think about what you want to do. What do you really want to accomplish? Whether it’s studying, doing exercise or learning a language, find something that’s really important to you but something that you’ve been putting off for way too long.

Second: find a very easy task to complete that will lead you to that goal. Something that’s totally unintimidating. Something you could do with your eyes closed and your hands behind your back. With our video game reference in mind, think of it as the tutorial.

Three: Go and do it.

Congratulations, you’ve just brewed up your first batch of motivation.

May it help you achieve great things,