Motivation is Useless, Do this Instead

May 11, 2021, 2:45 a.m.

What is motivation? It’s a fleeting feeling that propels you forward to be productive in order to achieve what you’re motivated to do.

Think of motivation as a sugar rush -- a quick burst of energy, but not something you can count on to repeatedly do the monotonous, repetitive work that’s required to achieve any big goal with a long-term time horizon.

While you might be inspired to go hit the gym hard after watching Gladiator for the fifth time or hit the library for an all-night study session after reading a biography of Elon Musk, this feeling will likely fade the next day, the next moment when you’re hungry, tired, or you’re faced with a choice of going to a party vs. staying inside to work on a project, you can’t count on this feeling to be there to propel you to action.

footage of you after watching Gladiator another time cliff-view

So if motivation can’t be trusted, what can we use then to create permanent changes in our productivity?

Use Systems

A system is really just an environment and a set of rules to be followed. There are systems all around us in the form of computers, cars, highways, but even cities, social organizations, and government are man-made systems. Most people are familiar with the concept of a system but very few apply this concept to their own lifestyles. By doing so, you can create a tailor-made environment and routines to increase the likelihood that you’ll repeat the behaviors you want and reduce the behaviors that detract from your life goals.

An effective system that you implement to guide your own lifestyle should take into account your end goal as well as constraints.

By goals, I mean the things you want to achieve in life such as health, wealth, more time, or a positive influence on the world (whatever that may be). By constraints, I mean the limiting factors in your life: time, money, energy, obligations, focus, and your own level of skill and talent in various areas.

A good system is realistic -- we would all like to set massive goals like becoming an NBA player / world-class surgeon on the side but it’s not possible to design a system around goals like these unless your constraints allow for them.

Examples of Systems

As stated above, the best lifestyle systems are heavily tailored to your own personality, body, mind, and life goals. However, there are general principles that can be followed, and the following systems are ones that I’ve found to be foundational in constructing a great lifestyle.

1) The 10 Minute rule

Mental rules help guide you when you don’t have the willpower to fall back on. After a long day at work, the last thing you want to do when you get home is to put in some work on your side hustle or hit the gym. The 10-minute rule is a way to escape that: as soon as you get home, set a timer for 10 minutes and make a bargain with yourself to only work that amount of time. Afterward, you’re free to do whatever you want, guilt-free.

Why does this work? Because productivity is similar to the first law of motion in that action leads to more action. Once you get started on a task, chances are that your brain will want to feel that satisfying feeling of finishing it. Or at the very least, you’ve broken the “getting started” barrier on a big task and you’ll be less likely to procrastinate on it later on.

2) Make use of small time chunks to learn new skills

Between meetings, on your morning commute, or even when using the restroom -- how do you spend these moments? Most of us spend them browsing Instagram, watching TikTok videos, or maybe staring into space.

Instead of treating these small gaps in your day as a time sink, you can make use of these moments to read a few pages of a book, learn a new language, or (if you’re a student) review flashcards.

Make it easy for yourself to default to these activities by putting these apps front and center on your phone’s home screen:

Anki App (flashcards) Kindle App Duolingo

3) Make it hard to do unhealthy things

A simple example of this in action is keeping your phone as far away from your bed as possible before you go to sleep (while still being able to hear the alarm from that location). This serves two purposes: 1) you’ll be less likely to browse the internet and disrupt your sleep cycle and 2) you’ll be less likely to snooze your alarm in the morning.


There are many more examples of these lifestyle systems that we may cover in greater detail in their own blog posts.

For now, hopefully, the takeaway you got from this article is that creating the environment and rules for yourself to repeat the behaviors you want is paramount to living the lifestyle you want.