A lot of people say that they lack motivation. However, the reason they are unable to fix their motivation is because they have not diagnosed their problem correctly.
When a person says that they "lack motivation", their brain is not actually broken. Instead of trying to fix something that is not broken and trying to redesigning the function of your brain, try to understand your brain. Use this understanding to create a life that uses your unique cognitive fingerprint to your advantage.
A lot of people say that they are not motivated, assuming so because they wake up to checking social media or playing video games. However, this is why they are stuck in their daily patterns and negative emotions.
In our daily lives, we try our best to avoid suffering. However, despite all the daily drudgery, we continue in our patterns. Therefore, the logical conclusion is that our suffering is actually less than our motivation to not change. In fact, it is hard to change our lifestyle because we are so motivated to keep continuing in our patterns.
We don't lack motivation; our motivation is just pointed in the wrong direction. People struggle to change because they have misdiagnosed their problem as a lack of motivation, rather than shifting it in a different direction.
Motivation is not binary ("have" or "lack"). It is multidimensional and there are thousands of calculations that determine what we do.
From a neuroscience perspective, there are so many variables such as hedonics (your enjoyment) and reward prediction (desire) that are used in a Cost-Benefit analysis, which takes in information, computes a result, and constructs a plan leading to a behavior response. By understanding the complexity that goes into decision making, you can influence the parts that help with our cost-benefit analysis to push us to do certain things.
Example: Saying "I want to be healthy" is like saying "I want to be motivated." Health is an emergent property based on multiple variables. There is no single pill that makes you healthy. Therefore, understanding all the variables of health helps us change aspects to influence the property.
If we did not have the motivation, we would experience similar social situations as schizophrenics. They are found to have "asociality, avolition (a reduction in the motivation to initiate or persist in goal-directed behavior), and anhedonia (a reduction in the ability to experience pleasure)". Therefore, without motivation, we would end up in the painful social situations that schizophrenics have to endure. Yet we do not experience those consequences.
Consider the following problem:
Our brain is not broken — it is just doing its job and protecting us from suffering.
At first glance, it seems like people would rather play games with a 0% chance of finding a job, than apply for a job with a 10% chance of success. However, people would rather play games with a 100% chance of feeling better rather than applying for a job with a 10% chance of success.
We need to increase our likelihood of success to start acting/behaving in a certain way.
The likelihood of success depends on your confidence in your own ability. If you have low confidence, then you will have a low likelihood of success, which leads to low motivation or lack of behavior.
Why don't you wake up every day and try to jump up and fly? It may sound good in theory, but we don't do it because we know the likelihood of success is 0%.
We want to increase motivation, so how do we increase confidence and the likelihood of success?
Change tasks to increase the likelihood of success. Then you work from the bottom up.
Example: "find a job" (1%) -> "apply for a job" (30%) -> "fill out a job application" (50%) -> "download job application" (80%)
2. Dealing with negative emotions
Example: shame, fear, low self-worth
3. Understand where your lack of confidence comes from. Contrary to popular belief, success does not lead to confidence. Success actually leads to imposter syndrome. Surviving failure leads to confidence, which leads to success.
People can talk about desiring something but that does not help them. The difference between values and desires is that values are internal and drive you towards action despite suffering, while desires are external and only drive you towards action if the desire is large enough. The solution for that is to find your internal motivation.
For example, if someone wants a hot dog, is it a desire or a value? It’s a desire. If we look at mission statements, do we see “I want a hot dog?” No, we do not because mission statements do not have desires within them, they have values.
The motivation that arises from the pursuit of the satisfaction of a certain desire, does not last for long. You will end up in apathy — being bored and feeling used to things. That is why desire satisfaction is not a sustainable way to live life.
Moreover, since desires originate from the Indriyas or sense organs, we often get into the realm of materialism with them. But it is important to note that all desires are not materialistic, sometimes we have desires for things such as friendship or connection with someone, which are noble and not materialistic.
For example, the thought of needing a relationship comes from loneliness, so you have to ask yourself, where did this feeling originate? Did it come from what you saw or heard? If you see a couple holding hands and you start to get this feeling of wanting that, it is a desire because you saw the couple.
The pitfall is that we can have good desires, such as losing weight when you see your fit friends. But the problem is that we cannot find the drive to act on losing weight. The key is to find values, not desires, to motivate us to action. Motivation is the drive to fulfill your values.
Someone around 24, unemployed, living at home, and playing games all day will have goals based on desires, not values. Financial independence, moving out of the house, having what they want, and staying away from other things are desires that are based on the Indriyas.
For example, unemployed 24 year olds who live at home are willing to go far to help their friend than they willing to help themselves. That is because helping a friend is not a desire, it is a value.
Progress/growth is positive and it feels good when it happens. However, when you start to move in the direction of growth, you realize that it is suffering. Every step hurts, and it does not seem worth it. Desires are not worth suffering. This is why everyone is not a millionaire and people do not subject themselves to the suffering that can make them a millionaire. That is why gamers are not willing to suffer for something that might not work, and would rather waste time doing nothing.
Motivation can come from the inside as well, and not just from the satisfaction of a desire by an external thing.
We mistake a lot of external motivation as internal. If we are attracted to someone and we want them to be a part of our life, we think that is internal, but in reality, we are being drawn to that external thing.
Let’s say we ask them out and they say yes, and we enter a relationship. It goes great for a while, but then we get bored of it. We get apathetic. That is because the quality that is needed to sustain the relationship was not the original desire for the relationship.
The things that sustain relationships are different. The best thing about being in a committed relationship is that you have someone in your corner. That is not an external thing. You don’t look at someone on the street and desire for them to be on your side.
If you want to create sustained enjoyment or motivation in life, then it has to come from within. Some things pull you forward in life — some of them are external and some of those are internal. Sacrifice is required to create something meaningful in life The problem is that most desires are not enough to garner sacrifice.
If you are getting bored in life or feeling apathetic, then chances are that you are living a life of desires. Once you satisfy a desire, it goes away and returns later. It does not satisfy you forever.
If you want to find a way to move forward sustainably, you need to find the motivation that allows you to sacrifice things and allows you to make the hard choices. You need to have a good reason — it is not a desire, its an internal driver.
Start by thinking about the things that are being motivated by the external world and the things that are being motivated by the internal world. Chances are that if you feel apathetic and bored, your motivation is not internal. It is coming from the external world.
To move forward you need a dharma. It is a duty or responsibility that tells you that you can not fail. It is bigger than you. You need to base your actions on values and find a competing interest/dharma. Dharma changes your tolerance of pain and changes your capacity to deal with suffering.
For example, if someone needs a million dollars to pay for their child’s cancer treatment, it is a different struggle than trying to make 1 million dollars just to get rich.
When you find your dharma everything becomes a side quest. Losing weight and getting money are side quests. You have the main quest of beating a boss but you need gear and leveling up from the side quests.
For example, the ultimate Dharma is Frodo and The Ring because they needed to go to Mordor and drop the ring. It is painful, it is terrible, and they are willing to do it because that is their dharma.
Fantasizing is not bad by itself, but when we feel bad and we fantasize about what could happen, we end up losing out. The motivation to change and the energy to create fantasies in your mind come from the same place. That means that when you feel a lot of negative emotion, you can channel your energy the right way and change your life. But if you fantasize and decompress your negative emotion, then you end up feeling good. You do not change your life, and on top of that, it becomes addicting. Then the question arises — do you want to use the energy to fantasize of what could be, or do you want to use the energy to make a change in your life?
Looking at the neuroscience of behavior change, the brain is wired to learn lessons from pain. That is why pain is the greatest teacher.
For example, some people deal with infidelity and the pain teaches them to never trust somebody ever again and they can rarely date again.
Pain can change a person and their behavior. However, fantasizing shuts off the pain and negative emotions in your brain and prevents you from changing. This is how video game addicts can shut off the part of their brain that experiences pain, and as a result, they struggle with escaping the negative feedback loop of playing games.
If you turn off pain, how do you learn from your mistakes and change your behavior? You know how to combat your problems, but your brain is not reinforced enough to change your behavior.
Do your best not to fantasize. This is why we need to use dharana — changing the focus of your mind. It will help you bat away the fantasies in your mind and change your life.
We have two kinds of challenges in life.
If you feel overwhelmed in life, it is likely that is a disconnect between your passive challenges and your active challenges. When your passive challenges outweigh your active challenges, you start to feel overwhelmed. You feel overwhelmed when life throws more at you than what you throw at yourself (even if the passive challenges are manageable for you).
There are two ways to feel less overwhelmed. Most people come to the conclusion that since life is throwing more challenges their way than they can handle, they need to ease the pressure by reducing the amount that life throws at them. However, people who feel overwhelmed also feel that they are not in control of their destiny. Those two things are synonymous.
The other way to stop feeling overwhelmed is to add more active challenges to your life. Choose more things about your life that you want to do. The paradoxical thing is that when you start to do that, your sense of feeling overwhelmed starts to go away. You feel more in control of your life than you did before.
As our active challenges go away, we start to build up energy, because they are one way that we spend energy. A lot of anxiety is unused energy. As you adopt an active challenge, you start to expend energy, and as a result, your mind has less energy for anxiety.
Anxiety is basically just thoughts bouncing around in your head due to excess energy. As you adopt active challenges, you start to use more energy and feel more in control. As a result, the feeling of being overwhelmed goes away. The control you get over your life relates to how many active challenges you take on, and the more active challenges you take on, the less overwhelmed you are going to feel.
For example, why does cleaning your room make you feel better? We can use the frame of passive and active challenges to recognize that all it takes is for you to expend energy and accomplish something that you put your mind to, in order to feel less overwhelmed and more in control.
Everyone talks about downward spirals, but upwards spirals exist too. If you start taking care of little things, then you’re going to be able to take care of more things than you realize.
A lot of the time we feel like we don’t have motivation. But if you really pay attention to your thought process, you will find that you really want to do something and that you really have motivation. It’s not that you lack motivation, it’s that your motivation is blocked by something else.
A lot of the time when people think they lack motivation, they do things to boost it. None of that actually works because if the motivation is blocked or locked up, motivation boosting strategies aren’t gonna work.
Each desire you have, each intention you have, or each goal you set for yourself, is a spiritual drain that pulls at you until its completed or finished. You can think of each desire in your mind as a Karmic tie. Every desire you create ties you up and binds you up until you let yourself get free of it.
We know this because people who set goals generally seem to move towards that goal. So, each desire or intention that we set pulls us towards it. The problem arises when we get tied up in too many different desires or intentions.
The solution is to unburden yourself of these karmic ties, then your “spiritual energy” will increase and you will be able to be more successful in life.
While that may be a cool spiritual concept, but does that actually map onto science and our understanding of our mind?
The first supporting example is that we get paralyzed when we are overwhelmed by a lot of tasks. Wanting to do something drives us to do it, but when happens as the number of tasks that we want to complete increases? With each task that we add to the list, we start to become more paralyzed. Eventually, we can get so overwhelmed that we get completely paralyzed and cannot complete any of the tasks at all.
If you’ve fallen very behind in school or work, you have to do so many things that you cannot even get started. If you stop and look at that, then that maps onto the spiritual principle of karmic ties pretty well. The more things you have to complete, the more paralyzed you get, and the harder it is to move forward.
Another supporting example comes from the psychology of memory. Our mind remembers our tasks and reminds us to do them. For example, it might remind you to buy groceries, apologize to someone, or finish a project.
When we are going about our day, something happens in our minds. It catapults a thought into our conscious mind and reminds us to do something. As a result, we must conclude that some part of our mind is keeping track of all of our incomplete tasks. The more incomplete tasks we have, the more our subconscious mind has to keep track of, and the more it is occupied in remembering these things.
So in terms of unlocking motivation, our conscious mind tells us to do something, but the rest of our being cannot support us in completing that task. That is because its hands are full. All these goals serve as a cognitive load or cognitive drain.
Each of these incomplete tasks is a psychological burden for your subconscious. As long as your mind is burdened, your mind cannot act on the motivation that you consciously have.
An alcoholic knows that they have to stop drinking. If you look at their conscious mind, you can see that their mind is highly motivated. But other parts of their being, (their body, brain unconscious), are floating around the edges and stops them from taking action.
If you look at the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous Program, one of the steps is called “making amends”. This step is about going into your past, and thinking about every person that you have wronged, usually related to drinking, and you try to make amends with him.
The fascinating thing is that even when people try to do this step, they will relapse. We might think that that is a failure, but people in AA say that you need to “work the steps”. So it is not about succeeding right away, but you just keep working at it. Even if you have a relapse, you should go and make amends. The more you work the steps, the more amends you make, suddenly they start to gain power over their addiction.
They wake up, and their conscious mind is suddenly more in control. They are able to give up their alcohol more easily.
This maps on perfectly to the spiritual principle. The more you settle these karmic ties, the more you can get free of these previous intentions and previous karma.
It’s not about finding motivation, it’s about unlocking and unblocking your motivation. Instead of worrying about what you need to do today, go, and fix things from the past. Apologize to the people that you need to.
Right the wrongs from yesterday. The more that you settle the past, the more you unburden your unconscious mind, the freer you will feel, and one day you will wake up and be able to do what your conscious mind tells you to do.
There are two big approaches to motivation.
If you have an outcome-oriented motivation, then that means that you are motivated to achieve a goal. The problem is that if the outcome isn’t what you want, then your motivation is going to go away with it. Having an outcome-oriented motivation is like having a wave that is going to crash at some point.
For example, if your goal is to get an A on the test, then your motivation will persist until the next test (or until you get a B). It is very common with medical students, who’ve been at the top of their class forever. They really struggle when they become average.
Moreover, complacency comes from a goal-oriented mindset. People become complacent when they have a goal and successfully achieve that goal. Thus, to get out of a complacent mindset, move away from a goal-oriented mindset towards a mindset of service or dharma. This means focusing on actions rather than outcomes.
People often find themselves waiting to find their dharma or duty before acting. This is just like when they say that they are going to wait till they do not feel embarrassed or until they are in shape to go to the gym. It sounds very counterintuitive but everyone does it because people like delaying action.
Waiting to find your dharma is delaying action until certain conditions are met. It is based on the hope that finding your dharma will make life simple and easy. But that is not the case. Our life begins today, despite it being a worse version of what we imagine. So go out and do something challenging.
Gamers often say that they want to change, but they don’t seem to have a reason. They give very hypothetical answers.
For example, in residency, Dr. K noticed that his colleagues generally had two attitudes. One attitude was to just get through it. That is not a sustainable way to live your life, and it will lead to burnout. You will dig deep and you will try to get through it using the power of your will, and you will burn out.
Dr. K realized that one day he was going to be on a plane and someone is going to ring the bell and ask if there is a doctor on the plane. Even if he’s a psychiatrist, he can’t say no. The attendant will come and escort him to the guy that is having a heart attack and he will have to know what to do at that point. At that moment, depending on who he’s become, he’s going to be able to save that person’s life or not. That is his dharma at the moment. So he realized that in the one year of his life that he would spend in the ICU in residency, he would have to learn everything that he could.
Additionally, we get bored of our hobbies because the fun of figuring things out goes away. Therefore, to combat this, try to do a couple of different things at the same time. Do not dedicate all your focus on one thing, and split your attention among hobbies. Alternatively, dedicate a majority of your time to one hobby, and swap this time with another hobby when you get bored.
People find it hard to transition their passions into real life because there are areas in their life that are insufficient. Those that have a passion are usually skilled, dedicated, and intelligent, so find something that challenges you. Find the hardest thing you can do that is as engaging as it is challenging to you.
As you burn out, you need some kind of relief. The more burnt out you get, the more you have to rely on unhealthy coping mechanisms, you are more likely to turn to alcohol or video games or the like. You need that tiny dopamine surge, where you need to make yourself feel better, and that’s how you end up gaming. The solution is to find your dharma, which is what is going to let you tolerate and withstand and even overcome suffering, rather than try to escape from it.
That is the problem gamers have — they don’t know how to step into difficult things.
One of the reasons we burn out is because of orbit. Relying on motivation to stay on track is a bad idea because it eventually fizzles out. Moreover, it fizzles out because the orbit or the community around you does not properly support and encourage your growth.
The simplest way to create and sustain motivation is changing your orbit — who you are around and what your community is.
For example, the most crucial thing to succeed in meditation is sangha, which is Sanskrit for “community”. Even though meditation may feel like a solo practice, being part of a community anchors people to their practice, and pulls them out of the need for motivation.
Another example of this would be National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo) where people who have never written a novel dedicate a whole month to come together to write novels. Many people that want to write novels end up writing them because there are people around them doing the same thing that kept them motivated. It's not a habit, it’s not motivation, it’s structure. So join a community or create a community that pushes you to be better.
Human beings are actually designed to be lazy. We will not do things until and unless we need to. While that is a common problem for the people in general, it tends to be a particularly severe problem for gamers.
Saying that you are lazy is actually a really dangerous train of thought, even if it's true because there's nothing you can do about being lazy. Laziness is a trait, not a problem you can solve. Some people are lazy and some people aren't lazy. If you say that you're lazy, then you are doomed because being lazy is not a problem that can be solved.
Willpower and motivation are completely different things. If you are motivated to do something you do not need willpower to do it.
For example, if you are already full and you need to eat an apple, then you have to use willpower to eat it because you don't feel like eating it. As time goes on, you start to get a little bit hungrier. However, eight hours from now you're pretty hungry and suddenly you do not need the willpower to eat the apple anymore. You're motivated to eat the apple because you are now hungry enough.
You have this internal biological drive to eat and that is why you feel hungry. Your blood sugar drops and it becomes easy to eat the apple even if you do not like apples. If you don't like apples and wait eight hours, it is still going to require some willpower for you to eat the apple. If you wait 24 hours then you are going to be even more motivated to eat it because you are going to be starving. If you wait 48 hours, your motivation to eat the apple is going to be gigantic.
Motivation is not actually willpower. It is an internal drive that you do not have control over. Your brain has different circuits that create a desire to do something and that's what we call motivation.
Additionally, motivation is not just based on a biological drive — it also has to do with availability.
For example, if you are starving, then an apple becomes really easy to eat, but if you are not too hungry, there is still a chance that you might eat the apple if it was put in front of you.
Our ability to actually engage in behavior actually depends on the availability of what's around us. If we want to eat healthier, a simple thing that we can actually do is keep healthy food around us and make it easier for me to eat healthy food. If you just have healthy food laying around there's a greater chance that you'll eat it since I'm lazy.
Motivation is a combination of an internal drive and availability. Gamers think that it is easy for them to do something if they have external pressure to do it. It is easy to study geometry if you have a test on Friday but it is hard to study geometry after you have taken the test. That motivation to study comes from the environment — it is like having an apple available. A part of our motivation is based on our environment of what's available around us and a part of it is based on our internal drive.
A lot of motivation is based on your environment. If you hang out with people who go to the gym three times a week, then there is a much greater chance that you'll actually go to the gym. Your motivation to go to the gym will be increased by the kind of people that you spend time with. Motivation is not willpower — it is actually based on a combination of internal drives and availability (environment). If you think about it that way, you can start to problem solve a little bit about:
Then you can structure your environment to prompt you to move in the direction that you want to go.
For example, if you want to eat healthier, go to the grocery store when you're not starving and buy some healthy food to keep it at home. Keep an apple on your desk next to your PC and when you feel a little bit hungry it will be easier to eat the apple.
Make it easy for yourself to do the things that you want to do.
If, for example, you want to go out to lunch try to ask the buddy that you're going out to lunch with, “Hey why don't we go to the gym? First, we'll work out from 10:30 to 11:30 and then grab lunch afterward.”
The more you structure your environment to support your behavior and move you in the direction that you want to go, the better off you'll be. You don't actually need willpower — all you need to do is to structure your environment in a way that prompts the motivation that you want.
We tend to think of motivation as a monolith. People will say “I lack motivation. I wish I was motivated.” If we tunnel down into that language, then we can understand that motivation has one quality that has a quantifiable number. Or that it is binary: “I have motivation or I don’t have motivation.” As a result, people say “I lack motivation.”
But that is not really how it works. Motivation is a lot like body types. We know that in western medicine, there are different types of metabolisms, slow and fast.
People who have fast metabolisms can eat whatever they want to, and their body just burns it up. Whereas people with slow metabolisms can even eat healthily and they will remain heavy-set.
In western medicine, we don’t really think about people as being different. Western science conceptualizes things as standalone, monolithic concepts.
For example, gravity is gravity no matter where you go. The caloric recommendation from the US government and WHO are 2000 calories per day for most adults. Therefore, western recommendations or western solutions tend to have a one-size-fits-all approach.
We see this in motivational speakers. They try to motivate everyone at the same time. They say that if you lack motivation, you just need a certain kind of motivation and you will be fine.
That is similar to making a 2000 calorie recommendation for people with slow metabolism and fast metabolisms, which is silly because those people are fundamentally different. The way their metabolisms work is different. Therefore, their dietary recommendations need to be tailored to the metabolic fingerprint of that person, for an ideal diet.
For example, if a psychiatrist diagnoses you with depression, then they treat depression. Their classes don’t teach them about people. They treat an illness, not a person.
How was the 2000 calorie recommendation devised?
There was a survey of a bunch of healthy people. They were asked how many calories they ate in a day. The responses ranged largely from 1500 to 2500. Those responses were averaged, and the 2000 calorie recommendation was born.
The inherent limitation of this approach is that the recommendations based on averages are not ideal for everyone.
For example, if everyone were to be prescribed medium-sized clothing, then it would be baggy for people who normally wear a smaller size, and it would be tight for people who normally wear larger sizes. Both of these people would make do, while for some people, this recommendation would be perfect.
Motivation seems to follow a similar principle. Motivational speakers tend to say “I have this technique, about 50% of the people who come to my motivational seminars seem to benefit from it.” However, if we think about it, motivational seminars are still a thing because they are ineffective. If they were actually effective, then they would do 10 seminars to motivate everyone, and you wouldn’t need motivational seminars anymore.
However, these seminars still exist because they do a good job for a slice of the population.
In the west, there is a particular motivational style that we shoot for, and the problem is that that kind of motivational style does not work for everyone. That is because everyone has a unique cognitive fingerprint or cognitive style. Once you understand your motivational style, you can motivate yourself in a specific way.
So we turn to Ayurveda. It is a system of traditional Indian medicine from 5000 years ago. It presupposes the people are fundamentally different. It talks about three things called doshas. Doshas are a way of lumping people together. They are not real in the truest sense —they are just used as a method of classification.
It is important to recognize your motivational style and then structure your life according to that. If you try to work with a motivational style that does not fit with you, then you will get frustrated, burnt out, and produce low quality work.