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Motivation – What It Is and What It Isn’t

Motivation – What It Is and What It Isn’t

One of the most common questions people have is:

How can I motivate myself to ______.

The blank space is filled with the goal one has in mind such as:

  • Exercise and lose weight
  • Find a higher paying job to improve one’s lifestyle
  • Wake up early and get things done

Do you have the same question yourself? If you do, read further to clear a central myth about motivation.

The question ‘How can I motivate myself? ‘ has a fundamental problem. People assume motivation is an external entity that magically appears out of thin air and urges you to take action. But it isn’t.

In this article, we’ll discuss how people have a flawed understanding of motivation and the right way to look at it.

motivation myths

How motivation works – Expectations vs reality

The figure below illustrates the expectations vs reality for motivation.

motivation expectation vs reality

When people fail to pursue their goal or stay focused on a task, they believe the solution is external. “I wish I had more motivation”, they tell themselves with a sigh.

Such a thought process can be depicted with the image shown above where the person assumes that motivation is an external entity which he needs to find and imbibe within himself, like buying bread from the grocery store.

But motivation resides within you, not outside. If you choose the right task and pursue the right goal, you’ll find the motivation without any effort. You may not even notice it because you’re working on an area of your interest.

The two common motivation myths:

Before we dig deeper into how motivation works, let’s bust the two common myths. Sorry, if the truth disappoints you, but you’re better off knowing the reality than seeking motivation with ignorance in the wrong places with the wrong tactics.

1. Motivation can help you get any task done

A typical mistake is assuming that once you have the motivation, you will perform any task like a machine.

No, you can’t.

Motivation will only help you perform those tasks that you have a strong purpose for. For example, you will not feel motivated to clean the cupboard unless someone is paying you 200$ or if your crush is coming home for the first time.

If you don’t care about the task or the outcome it can lead to, no amount of motivation can make you budge your butt.

Waiting for motivation is how you deceive yourself into procrastinating.

2. XYZ will help me get motivated

On some occasions, you will find motivation in external entities. You will even put in effort due to those reasons, but such motivation is only short-lived. The moment you find an opportunity to choose an alternative, you do it faster than the flash can move from one location to another.

Take for example the subjects you learned in college. You liked some of them and probably hated many others. How did you feel about preparing for exams on the subjects you liked vs the ones you disliked?

You showed lesser resistance towards your favorite subjects, didn’t you? And you did so without any external entity or source of motivation.

Besides, you did not ignore the subjects you disliked altogether. You did what was necessary for your grades(whatever your goal was, be it clearing the subject or scoring high marks). The exams and the corresponding grades were the external entity that compelled(or motivated) you to study.

But your interest in that subject was only short-lived. The moment you cleared the exam, you closed the book, tossed it into the attic, and forgot about it. You never went back to any concepts of the subject ever again. Do you know why? Because you had little interest in it in the first place.

Related article: Rewards can kill your motivation – Overjustification Effect

The motivation mismatch

I’m often asked, “How are you so motivated and driven? What’s your secret?”

Do you want to know the answer to the question? How do I manage to get things done so fast? What’s my secret ingredient?

OK, I’ll answer it Kung Fu Panda style.

Kung Fu Panda Secret Ingredient

There is no secret sauce.

Just that my interest lies in work, entrepreneurship, and fitness. Simple.

Work and fitness are the two areas that people dread the most, but they’re my passions. I appear self-motivated and driven, but I’m no different than anyone.

If you ask me to work on a task that I dislike, I’m as lazy as any other master procrastinator.

For example, some of you love traveling, trekking, and visiting places. If I had to do the same for 8 hours a day for 5 days a week, I’d have the worst nightmares and even worse daytime reality. If I was living in a country where tourism was the mainstream profession, I’d be the worst performer, hanging at the tail end, hoping to not get fired.

So, if you’re not motivated, the problem lies in the goals you’re chasing than yourself.

Related article: Are you chasing fancy goals instead of your real goals?

The time/passion overlap:

We all have only 24 hours in a day. What you choose to spend them on defines how motivated you are.

When your daily schedule doesn’t align with your interests, you’re toiling for hours on tasks that don’t resonate with you. So, ask yourself how much time are you spending on your interests?

time spent vs interests

Does your daily routine look like the above? How much of your time goes on tasks you enjoy or the goals you care about? For many people, the whole day goes on a job which they’re at only for the salary.

If you’re in a similar situation, you assume you lack motivation and you look for external factors to motivate you. You hunt hard and find one that works. So, you pat yourself on the back and get going only to lose motivation soon after.

You believe you’re lazy, or that you lack motivation, but in reality, you’re spending time on areas that don’t pique your interest. People curse their jobs and abuse their managers(secretly), but the problem is that they’re working in a role they don’t enjoy.

“But I have bills to pay. I cannot pursue my passion because it doesn’t fetch any income”, you exclaim. Fair question.

To solve that problem, you’ll have to find a way to balance your interests and responsibilities. If you cannot make your time spent and passion overlap completely, start with making them overlap partially.

make circles overlap

Start small, one step at a time. Aim to bring your time spent and interests circles closer little by little as shown below. Don’t rush the process. If you do, you’ll lose motivation when you fail to see progress and give up entirely. Be patient and trust the journey.

Even the most passionate people you know do not spend all their time on their interests. They go grocery shopping, pay credit card bills, and do the dishes even though they don’t enjoy it. But, for the most part, they work on what resonates with their heart.

How to make goals and motivation align

If your time spent is misaligned with your interests, don’t kick yourself. Instead, follow the steps below to overlap your interests with your daily effort. Stay put because the process can take a while.

Step 1: Identify the things you enjoy

happy person

If you haven’t pursued your interests in a long time, chances are, you’ve forgotten about them. So, take the time to identify your true interests.

“But I’m not passionate about anything,” you complain. But, that’s far from the truth. Your current circumstances can create such an impression if you’re thinking from a limited scope of possibilities like the frog in the well. If you keep an open mind and let the neurons of your brain touch the arteries of your heart, you’ll find the areas you truly enjoy.

Whatever your areas of interest are, write them down. Don’t try to process and filter based on whether they can fetch you a full-time income. List down your interests free of any other possibilities, consequences, and outcomes. Let your mind wander into the crevices of your interests, the corners of your soul, and the abyss of your brain to fetch different things you’re interested in.

You don’t have to finish the activity in an hour or a day. Choose your own pace. You can take a few days or a couple of weeks if you like. Your decision will require long-term effort, therefore, clarity of thought is more important than the velocity of action.

Here is an article that helps you map your interests with career opportunities.

Step 2: Is there a way to make a career out of it

Once you have the list of interests in front of you, mark which of the items has the potential to earn money and turn into a career?

Don’t think too far and aim to replace your current income right away. Even if it matches some of the criteria below, you can consider giving it a shot:

  • You can work on it part-time, for a few hours a day along with your job
  • You can spare time over the weekend on a stretch
  • It can earn income, albeit small, if you persist for an extended duration
  • You have the intrinsic motivation to work on it and you’ll feel happy about it despite the result

The ways to generate income aren’t always straightforward. If you cannot think of anything, consider doing research on the internet.

Step 3: Build a system to work on the things you like

You’ll have to spend time on things you like if you want to make income out of them. But, your daily routine may only permit a small window every day. So, you’ll need a system that keeps you on track with such tasks.

“But, I only have 1 hour a day. What’s the point of building a system for such a short duration of time?”, you ask.

Don’t undermine your efforts based on the amount of time at your disposal. Do you know what’s worse than putting in 1 hour of effort every day? Putting no effort.

So, irrespective of the time you have, build a simple system to guide your progress.

To create a system, think through the questions below to make time for your interests:

  • How much spare time do you have per day? If your weekdays are jam-packed, can you make time over the weekends?
  • If you have no time whatsoever, can you make any sacrifices to make time? (Less partying, cutting down the afternoon nap, etc)
  • Are there any unnecessary jobs that you’re doing that you can cut down?

Related article: 5 common time management problems with solutions

Once you have identified the time available, prioritize what you’ll work on. Keep in mind that even in the field of your interest, you will not enjoy every little task that you have to perform.

For example, I’m passionate about entrepreneurship, and I enjoy building new software and writing useful content. But, to run my blog and the productivity software In The Zone, I have to handle admin work such as posting pins on Pinterest, finding keywords for articles, update content, etc. Though I don’t enjoy such tasks, I have to ensure I complete them if I have to fuel my passion.

To make time for your interests amidst your busy schedule, a system is a necessity. Here are a few ideas to ensure you spend time on the areas of your interest:

  • Time Blocking
    • This method suggests breaking your day into different blocks to help you accommodate time for various activities in your schedule
  • Pomodoro Technique
    • Use short blocks of 20-30 minutes with a timer to work on one task.
  • Using the time you’re bored
    • Even if the time spent is less than 10 minutes on each occasion, they add up.
  • Using your commute time
    • When you’re traveling, you can use the time on your interests. You can listen to audiobooks to improve your knowledge or think of ideas to work on.
  • Multitasking the right way
    • Multitasking mindlessly destroys your productivity. But, you can combine some shallow tasks with your subconscious tasks

Step 4: Overlap the interest and time spent circles

Once you have the list of interests to work and a system that allows time for them, make a conscious effort to stick to the plan. If you don’t, your routine tasks will chew into your entire day one bite at a time, chomp on it all and let out a loud burp. Everyday.

Your goal is to bring the circles closer one step at a time, at your pace, so that they overlap more and more with time.

Pointers for making the circles overlap:

Aim for incremental progress:

Don’t try to make the two overlap rapidly when they’re badly disjointed. The more abrupt the change, the harder it is to sustain it.

Related article: How to make progress 1% at a time

Don’t ignore the small hours available:

At times, you’ll find a 30 min window available. Don’t just turn it down thinking, “What’s the point of working for only 30 min. I’ll watch Youtube instead.” Persist with your effort to bring the circles closer even if only by a minuscule distance.

Don’t aim for big results in the short term:

Your goal is to spend time on the areas you’re interested in. Therefore, maintain patience and don’t expect immediate results. If you can set aside only a few hours each week, your expectations on results need to be proportionate with the effort you’re putting in.


The world has painted a wrong picture of motivation. Therefore, people have a misconstrued expectation about how motivation works, and the ways to find it.

If you’re hunting for motivation, hoping to find it and solve your problems, you’ll be looking forever. Instead, make more time for the activities that spark your interest. That’ll set a fire in your belly without any gasoline. When you spend more time on your interests, you’ll realize that the motivation that you were looking in every corner for was right within you.

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