Motivation is Not the Problem



“The difference between failure and success is doing a thing nearly right and doing a thing exactly right.” — Edward Simmons

It’s not motivation.   Motivation is not the problem.

Sure, many times the problem may look like a motivation issue, but often that’s not the case.

It’s actually a lack of a method, system, or approach that you believe in.  If you knew it would actually work, or if you had specific instructions that you could follow, you would be more inclined to take action.   Simply having too many choices to take action can also lead to inaction (i.e. analysis paralysis) or unmotivate you.

That’s why motivation itself is a chicken or the egg type of problem.

Simple, Decisive Instructions Lead to Action

One of my favorite quote on the power of prescriptive guidance is from The Bowflex Body Leanness Program, by Dr. Ellington Darden.  Here is the quote:

“People are not lazy by choice.  They are forced into it by the confusion that surrounds the abundance of fitness information that is available.  If these individuals are given simple, decisive instructions, they will train very intensely.  People, if they are provided with specific menus, will drastically alter their eating habits.  Most of these people, however, will do neither of these challenging things for more than a week – unless they quickly see and feel changes in their body.”

Although, Dr. Darden is referring to people and their motivation toward working out or getting in shape, you can imagine how the same concept is broadly applicable to other areas of life.   If you can see the path from A to B, you’ll follow the path from A to B.  The bottom line is that a little clarity goes a long way.

Additional Factors that Limit Motivation

Here are some common factors that  limit our motivation:

  • Learned helplessness – Coined by Martin Seligman, Learned Helplessness is when you explain a bad event or situation to yourself as permanent, personal, and pervasive.  This explanatory style causes you to shut down instead of inspire you to action.  To defeat Learned Helplessness you need to adopt an explanatory style that explains negative situations or events as transient, situational, and specific.
  • Lack of an effective mental model – If you can’t see it, you won’t believe it … where there’s no will, there’s no way.  If you believe it in your heart of hearts or soul of souls then you can find a way to make it happen.
  • Lack of effective feedback – If you’re not getting timely, specific, relevant, actionable feedback, you’ll lose motivation.   One of the keys here is to create shorter cycles or loops so that you can shorten the feedback loop.  Another key is to go beyond purely quantitative and practice your sensory acuity (for example, your belt “feels” looser.)
  • Lack of an effective mentor – An effective mentor can share “proven practices” or short-cuts on the success path.  This helps you find an approach you believe in and gives you a better mental model to work from.  An effective mentor can also give your more relevant feedback and expose your blind spots.  They can also help tailor an approach or method to you or your situation.  I like to think of this as, “Who’s in your corner?”
  • Rumination – This is like playing a broken record.  You can dwell on things or play them over and over.  If you’re an optimist and you ruminate on things, then it’s not so much a problem.  If you tend to ruminate and you are a pessimist, then there is a problem.  That’s how you get stuck or lose motivation.  The key is to take action and become an action-oriented pessimist.

The next time you catch yourself lacking motivation ask yourself whether you really believe whether the approach or method you’re using would really work.  Change your beliefs or change your approach to change your results.

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Photo by enixii.


  1. Good point JD,

    I think it’s hard to be motivated when you lack a clear plan in your head. A plan brings that focus that stimulates motivation. This is why I believe it’s best to always go one step further that figuring out what you want, by creating a step by step plan that goes all the way to the first actions required.

  2. Motivation is something those who are internally motivated never talk about. Because that energy is used to create what those who always seem to talk about, i used on there dreams. The really successful never talk about. We are about it.

  3. J.D. Interesting post and topic. I had not really thought about what really happens and contributes to us not actually being able to carry through on something and move forward. It makes perfect sense that the culprit really may be a lack of clarity and a good plan that you believe in. I think that is really helpful advice and allows us to more effectively solve lack of motivation.

  4. Oh, this one is really good.
    – Do you have a good mental model? – check.
    – Have you been given a timely feedback? – check.
    – Do you have a mentor that shares shortcuts? – check.

    Success? – check.

    Lately I have been sharing a simple, extremely naive context models, but it was so powerful – folks could not resist but provide extremely good feedback. I was high 😉

    Loved this one a lot.

  5. @ Eduard — One of my mentors really hit this point home for me. He gave an example of driving down the road, how you slow down when there’s fog, but speed up when it’s clear and you can see the road ahead.

    @ Lance — His words were so simple, but so true … a beautiful and insightful truth.

    @ Jonathan — Yes, some folks talk about great things, and some folks do great things. Growing up, I was always the fan of the saying, “actions speak louder than words.”

    @ Sibyl — One of my managers always asked, “How will the world look different when you’re done?” (As a project leader, I have to justify what the investment will make happen and I need to know what good looks like and what the tests for success are.) This simple, but cutting question taught me to really value clarity and to work backwards from the end in mind.

    @ Alik — Simply getting people on the same mental model you’re working from goes a long, long way to helping get folks on board or at least help you bridge th gap. Well done.

  6. JD
    Nice write up and I have found so much of this to be true…the interesting factor to me is that I often get folks to make big changes in their lives and they feel better and happy and then something changes again for them and they drop everything they were doing and quickly feel depressed or ill again…

    I find this especially true when the husband needs to make the changes, such as adding exercise and losing weight and the wife suddenly starts cooking all the new menus and joining him on the quest – I have a friend who just did this and she lost 19 pounds in 5 months and felt fabulous and her husband lost 39 pounds, felt great and got off ALL of his medications. Then the secondary change: their daughter’s wedding was over – 3 weeks after that event, they went on a binge spree and stopped exercising…and are now 2 months later back to being ill and unmotivated …

    My 80 year old neighbor got very ill…his fabulous cook wife refused to cook for him the new diet regime and said:”This is your illness and you need to do self care – I do not wish to learn how to cook this way. He did! and now he is looking better than her, with all his exercise and new diet!

    They used to say there is really only one DIET in a person’s life…and once one finds what works for them ( with tweaks every about 10 years) stick to it…I think this maybe part of the process too – some folks need to work in an office with a boss/mentor and others need more free reign or to work on their own…changing a personal operating system is a big deal.

    Commercials and peers can truly ruin the best laid plans…and actions….Even if we talk to folks about the secondary big change…they will often go back to smoking or drinking and then feel even worse about themselves…
    – off to work…thank you for your good words on my blog, greatly appreciated.

  7. Write things down and make a plan. When it is on paper you can explore new possibilities and try out new/improved plans. When you try and do all this in your head you are just juggling too much and that’s when I believe motivation can be a problem because it all seems to much – when really it is not.

  8. Hi JD .. sometimes we need to work out the best way .. in other words try certain things .. that’ll filter out the not so good, provide feedback, but know we have a 2nd way to try .. that may be better .. some more feedback .. it’s the ups and downs of life – with the ups giving us that motivation ..

    then we can make the plan and the path forward .. a bit like one step back, but two forward .. but free flowing with the positives ..

    Thanks – Hilary

  9. I think that people need a good mentor and support system to keep them going down the right road. I’ve been fortunate enough to have people support/guide me through my goals in life. Being open and allowing feedback has always been a constant for me (but I don’t think that’s always the case for everyone).

  10. Hi JD,
    I love that example from Dr. Darden. Clarity is power. Success comes to folks whose responses to life are YES or NO but never MAYBE… MAYBE is paralyzing and leads to a state of helplessness. If you say YES to Dr. Darden’s Bowflex than you can win with that… if you workout with a MAYBE attitude chances are you’ll be back on the coach in no time.

  11. @ Patricia — I see it time and again. I think we go back to whatever mental model we hold in our minds to be true. We like congruence. So if we really want lasting change, it’s crucial to change the mental picture first to something you can truly believe. I think it’s also why some people feel uncomfortable with their success … it doesn’t match what they expected for themselves.

    @ Nick — Action does help bootstrap motivation. Dr. Burns supports the idea that action comes before motivation. when I wake up, I don’t want to run, but after I’m running, I like to keep going.

    @ Hilary — The ups and downs of life are a reality. Knowing how to let the downs go and hold on to the ups for inspiration is a powerful way to carry ourselves onward and upward.

    @ Ricardo — It’s great that you’ve had people that you trust that helped you navigate the road of life. I’ve been lucky to have some very good mentors as well. You’re right — not everybody is so lucky.

    @ Rob — You said it! Nothing is worse than limbo. Whenever I catch myself in a state of ambiguity or indecision, I start taking action to get more feedback and traction.

  12. There is also the factor of competing motivations – being ‘in two minds’ about something. This requires a different approach I think.

  13. @ Evan — Very good point. There are a few approaches for dealing with competing trade-offs, but I think in the end, you have to choose what you really want, get clear on a compelling “why”, and then structure yourself for it. This includes the thoughts you think, what you focus on, the company you keep, and the container you spend your time in.

  14. hi jd i didnt get what “getting effective feedback ” means can u explain in more understandable way

  15. “One of the keys here is to create shorter cycles or loops so that you can shorten the feedback loop. Another key is to go beyond purely quantitative and practice your sensory acuity ” what does this mean jd

  16. @ Chandra — Getting more effective feedback means that you:
    1. Turn generalized feedback into something actionable and specific
    2. Test yourself on smaller things (more discreet and relevant feedback you can act on)
    3. Get timely feedback (as close to when you perform so you can test it, not later on down the line)

    For example, if somebody says you need to improve your communication, then pick a specific context, such as a meeting, and come up with test cases:
    1. Did you echo back to people what you heard to check your understanding of their message?
    2. Did you state your opinions in an assertive, but non aggressive way?
    3. Did you test that other people understand your message by asking some questions to check their understanding and clarity?

    For sensory acuity, in this case, you can check your rapport. For sensory acuity, I recommend the book, Brilliant NLP by David Molden and pat Hutchinson, and Unlimited Power by Tony Robbins.

  17. Great article – I know the feeling of having too many choices / to much time. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does it is a fascinating insight into my mind! And I have concluded that humans are never happy for long ~ there are just too many variables!

  18. @ Michelle – Thank you. As a friend of mine put it, it’s about the *pursuit* of happiness … so we have to chase it 😉

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