How motivation might ruin your progress

written by Philip Stefanov  |  JANUARY 12, 2021

Many people interpret motivation in different ways. Some see it as the psychological force that shows up every so often and makes us change for the better. Others consider it a daily occurrence that drives us to do things and improve our lives.

And neither camp is right or wrong. But the author Steven Pressfield put it eloquently in his book The War of Art. To paraphrase him, “At some point, the pain of not doing it becomes greater than the pain of doing it.” At some point, to change for the better becomes easier than to stay the same.

It’s easier to start going to the gym and feel embarrassed than to spend another day hating the way you look. It’s easier to start socializing more than to spend another weekend at home, watching Netflix. It’s easier to start working harder than to spend another year broke.

We could get motivated by many things, I guess. But I think this indeed is the essence of motivation.

How Motivation Ruins Your Progress

We are under the false impression that motivation always comes before the action and never as a result of it. But, this is not always true. Allow me to elaborate:

Seeing someone’s incredible weight loss transformation is undoubtedly going to motivate you to get your act together and achieve the same thing. But this kind of motivation rarely lasts long. You’ll be back to your old behaviors in no time.

On the other hand, if you start eating better, exercise consistently, and start losing fat, you’ll get motivated on two fronts:

First, you’ll start seeing positive changes in your body, people around you are going to take notice, and you’ll start feeling more motivated to keep pushing. Second, once enough time passes, and you’ve gained momentum, it would get hard for you not to keep going. In other words, guilt and regret would set in if you miss a workout or eat fast food.

In this case, Newton’s First Law applies to the formation of habits: objects in motion tend to stay in motion. Once you start a pattern and gain some momentum, it takes minimal effort to keep going. It almost comes naturally to you.

Take, for example, the habit of brushing your teeth:

You wake up in the morning, go to the bathroom, and do it. You don’t think about it; you don’t whine or moan. You do it. It’s a part of your day, and you can’t imagine going outside without having done it.

So, what does this mean for our everyday lives? We need to start small.

Don’t dedicate yourself to training six days a week. Make it a habit of showing up twice a week, but do it every week. Don’t try to quit smoking cold turkey. Scale down gradually. Don’t cut out all junk food at once. Start off with just one healthy meal per day. But do it every day.

Easy behaviors that seemingly don’t do anything turn out to be the starting point for something great. Skipping the burger and going for the salad. Waking up half an hour earlier to go jogging. Reading self-help material for fifteen minutes a day.

You didn’t get the way you are in a month, why expect to fix that so fast?

Once you’ve established small, positive habits, it’s time to scale up.

You’ve been hitting the gym twice per week for a month or two? Start training three days a week. You’ve managed to go down from two packs of cigarettes per day to one? Excellent - work your way to 10 cigarettes a day. You’ve managed to eat better once per day instead of hitting up McDonald’s? Great, work on improving the second meal.

Gradually scale up positive behaviors and scale down negative ones. This might be dull to hear, but it’s the approach that works. It starts with small, positive habits.

Until next week,


P.S. If you’re interested in learning more about motivation and how to use it effectively, check out this article I wrote on the topic.


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