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Motivation is incredibly overrated

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Are most people motivated when they make their New Year's Resolution? There's the feeling of real determination this time. Uhuh. So, how did that go?

How about the stirring motivational video, or that kick-ass commencement speech? Millions of people watch and listen to these videos every day. So how many folks managed to make positive changes in life? Where did the motivation go when it was actually needed?
 And if motivational speakers and motivational posters and motivational books and motivational gurus work, then surely with the abundance of such sources everyone will be going after what matters to them. 

Motivation in this form is incredibly ineffective. The biggest problem is that we think motivation is more than it really is.

Instead of walking to the destination which is tiring and time-consuming, we think motivation is like getting a new car - as long as we are motivated, we have a higher chance of getting to our destination, and to get there much faster. We see it almost as that magic elixir - once we have it, we can do whatever we want to do. 

What we think Motivation is

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But in reality, motivation is not the car that gets us to the destination. It is not the magic elixir that empowers us to accomplish our goals. We need much more than motivation.

A better representation of motivation

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Instead of being a car, motivation is much more like a comfortable car seat. It involves very resonant statements that make us believe anything is possible and that we can do it. It makes us feel good and in control. It makes us want to take action. 

But that's where the problems emerge. While motivation feels empowering, it doesn't provide us with anything tangible to work. And in the swirl of feeling pumped up and eager to take action, it sometimes prevents us from reflecting on what is really needed:

"Pursue your passion". "
Live your dreams". "Don't settle".

But what passion? What dreams? Why that particular passion or that dream? What do we want out of it? How do we know we will still be "passionate" about the same thing after 5 years?

"Be Relentless!" "Never, ever give up." "You are capable of much more than you know." "You have everything you need inside of you."

Even if we are very clear what we want, and even if we are relentless and are capable of much more than we know, 
how exactly are we going to achieve our goal? What do we actually need to do?

Moreover, motivation comes and goes. How do we keep going even when we don't feel like it? Think about the Olympic swimmer who wakes up every day before dawn (which means no late nights and missing out on a chunk social life) to swim thousands of metres in the pool, doing the same few actions over and over again, only to repeat everything in a second session in the evening, over years and years. Is he going to feel motivated every day getting out of bed and into the pool? Would he not feel bad each time he had to miss a gathering or a late-night party? But he keeps going. 

What about the scientists who have spent their entire lives trying to find a cure for cancer? There is still no cure, which means these scientists have failed over and over again. Again, how is it that they keep going, despite all the failures.


Most importantly, as we keep looking for external sources of motivation, of quotes and videos and podcasts, we neglect that we already have an innate motivational system in us. And it is a system that works, provided we understand how. 

Our own internal motivation system - the dopaminergic system


In one of our chapters, we covered dopamine - a neurotransmitter in our brains.

Dopamine is central to internal motivation. But we often don't realise this because popular culture oversimplifies dopamine to be about reward. 


In other words - a mouse likes cheese. It gets to eat cheese, dopamine is released, it feels good.

Or in the human world, we like chocolate cake, we are given a chocolate cake, dopamine is released, we feel good. 

This is true, but it tells only a small part of the dopamine story. 

Have you noticed how excited you are before you ate the chocolate cake? When you had the craving for chocolate cake, and your spouse or partner or family member tells you - give me 30 minutes. I'm going to get that cake from your favourite cake store.

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What if the lab rat is in a cage with a light and a lever. When the light comes on, and the rat pushes the lever, cheese comes out.

And we do a simple measure. How much dopamine is produced from the time the light comes on to the time the rat finishes eating the cheese. And we realise something unexpected.

Dopamine levels surge much higher when the light comes on than when the mouse is eating the cheese.


Mostly, the anticipation of a reward gives us more joy
than the reward itself.  

And this explains why we are happier on Friday than Sundays -  Friday is the anticipation, Sunday is the reward.  Or why you get enormous joy when you are planning for a trip or waiting for a concert.
Or why avid gamblers who produce massive amounts of dopamine will keep gambling even though they almost never win, when there is usually no reward or a negative reward. 


But there's another layer of understanding. What if we forcibly inhibit the release of dopamine? 

The most common answer is that the rat will no longer enjoy eating the cheese. Without the signalling from dopamine, we do not get the joy from the reward.

But you must surely have guessed by now that this is not the correct answer. When dopamine is inhibited, the rat does not even press the lever when the light comes on. It's not that it doesn't enjoy eating the cheese. It is that it can't even be bothered to get the cheese. And this brings us a more complete answer of what dopamine does. It is not just about reward. 


Dopamine is about the pursuit of a reward that we eagerly anticipate,
which we think we have a good chance of getting.

That it is the pursuit of the reward and not the reward itself is an incredibly important point. Dopamine doesn’t just make us feel good about a reward. It makes us want to pursue a reward. It acts as our internal motivation system.

Further, while hormones like adrenaline give a temporary surge of energy and attention much like external motivation but at the cost of making us feel exhausted when it runs out, dopamine is different. It’s easy and normal for our bodies to keep producing dopamine, and it doesn’t have that drop off in energy like adrenaline and external motivation. Dopamine is sustainable.

2 other caveats on dopamine:

Uncertainty of reward causes dopamine to spike more

This is why there is social media addiction. People don’t always find something interesting when we get on social media, but this uncertainty makes it even more appealing than if there is always something interesting.

Delayed discounting

Put simply, a reward that comes immediately has a higher value than a reward that comes after a delay. One chocolate cake now is a lot more attractive than 2 chocolate cakes in one year’s time. It is for this reason that we engage in short-term pleasure over long-term well being. 

If we put together all we now know about dopamine, we understand how we can generate the drive to keep going.

To pursue a goal that we define for ourselves,
that we really look forward to, 
that isn’t definitely achievable, 
but we have a decent chance of achieving.

As we covered earlier, we should reflect on what goals we want to set for ourselves, and why we really want to achieve the goals. Getting clarity on the "why" behind the goal is extremely helpful because it forces us to really examine what is important to us. It prevents us from settling on a goal that is more convenient or is copied from someone because it just sounds good. 

Besides, the goal that we set for ourselves might merely be a subset of a larger "why", which remains masked without closer examination. For example, many people aspire to constantly travel the world. The attraction of constant travelling seems obvious. But it's still worth asking "why"? Is it for the freedom it offers? But freedom from what? Why is this freedom so important? And why does constant travelling provide this freedom? 


This internal struggle to define our whys make the goals we set more meaningful.  It ensures that even if we fail or fall short several times before we get to the goal, we can still keep going. And for the bigger goals we have in life, it is worth investing our time and energy to properly think through why these are important to us. 


A second consideration is that we must have "a decent chance of achieving" the goal. 'Chance' isn't just a rational computation, it is also an emotional one. Our brains are designed to trigger fear very easily (read ore about fear, the amygdala, and an amygdala hijack here) If we feel fearful about pursuing our goals, chances are we are never going to start or find difficulty in continuing on. The best way to face fears is by examining them at source. Tim Ferriss' fear-setting exercise is an excellent tool for this. A second way to overcome our fears and anxiety is by breaking up the task at hand into small steps. 

Breaking down a big goal into small sub-components is not only less intimidating and more manageable, it also plays into our dopamine understanding. Remember delay discounting? If the reward is very far away, we discount its value. If our goal is very large and takes a long time to achieve, again we face the risk of giving halfway - we do not really believe we can attain the goal. But if we break the task up to small parts, not only does each part become doable, the completion of each part provides an injection of dopamine, which keeps us going.

A very simple example of this is how ultra-marathoners run crazy distances of 150km at one go. The final goal is very intimidating, but these runners learn to break up the distance into mini-sections. Their goal is just to make that next marker of 100 metres. Now no matter how tired we are, 100 metres can be walked in slightly over a minute. Walking another minute just doesn't sound that bad... and as we know we can complete the 100m, we will get that fresh input of dopamine. The 150km is just an accumulation of many 100m markers. 

To sum up, we often want to find ways to motivate ourselves, because many of our goals are difficult and take some time to accomplish.  But external motivation is fleeting, and while we feel great temporarily, it is not sustainable. To accomplish our goals, what we need is clarity on what these goals are and why, but also clarity in breaking down each goal into manageable next steps. This structure enables our internal motivation system to kick in, which is much more sustainable. 


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