Is Motivation Useless?

Art Critic

The day was May 6th, 1954, in Oxford, England.

A gentleman named Roger Bannister did the impossible: he ran a mile in 3 minutes and 59 seconds. For the nine years prior to this race, the world record had stood at 4:01, and it was widely considered that crossing that barrier was outside of human ability.

In just three years after Roger set this new record, an additional THIRTEEN people completed a mile in less than four minutes.

More recently, we saw the same big hullabaloo (what a great word) years ago when Tony Hawk first landed the 900 on a half-pipe. I remember watching this live and thinking it was the greatest thing I had ever seen. Since, then another 9 people have landed the trick.

It begs the question: Was there a sudden increase in ability during the 1950s when it came to running? Are skateboarders getting faster and finding better equipment?

Or, what if it’s something else?

Today I want to talk about self-imposed limits – our capacity to realize what’s possible instead of rationalizing what’s impossible.

Brains over brawn

pinky and the brain

What if I were to tell you that right now, you are physically capable of pushing yourself further and harder than what your brain is telling you.

In 2012, a group of trained cyclists were told to perform a 4k timed trial as quickly as possible, using “all out effort.” That was their only guidelines.

They were then invited back, and in the second trial, they raced a virtual avatar that went the same speed as their first timed trial. The average result for every cyclist was a full 1% faster than their first “all-out” effort.

They were then told to come back a third time, and raced their avatar again, which unbeknownst to them had been sped up to be slightly faster than their original time. Again, these cyclists beat the avatar, improving their “personal best” original time by 1.7%.

So, what’s going on here? 

How did these subjects, who had previously expelled MASS-EFFORT suddenly find more “gas in the tank” and improve their time overnight?

Imagine you’re playing Mario Kart, and you’re racing against a ghost of your previous best effort. Not only now do you know exactly how fast you need to go to improve, but the visual cue is right in front of you, tempting you to push yourself beyond what you thought possible.

I learned all of this through Mark McClusky’s “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” I absolutely fell in love with the content on limitations, fatigue, emotions, and what our bodies are capable of.

For example, Tim Noakes, South African professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Cape Town, hypothesizes, it’s not our bodies that slow down, but rather our brains that control WHY and HOW our bodies slow down:

“Fatigue is an emotion, a construct in the mind that helps ensure that exercise is performed within the body’s ability. That emotion is affected by many factors, such as motivation, anger, fear, memories of past performance, self-belief, and what the body is telling the brain….our physical performance is regulated by the brain, not limited by our hearts, lungs, or muscles.”

Are we capable of more than we realize, and simply need it proven to us? Just as a planet full of runners suddenly realized, “hey, the 4 minute mile IS possible!” These cyclists are up against an avatar that constantly challenges them to go further and faster than they ever thought possible.

Even though they went ALL out, once they had a benchmark to base their own performance off of, they were able to go even further and push their effort beyond what they initially thought possible.

We see this story day after day on Nerd Fitness: Success Stories from people who have lost tremendous amounts of weight that said “I never thought I’d be doing handstands or rock climbing…and yet here I am.”

How are these everyday joes accomplishing and crushing their own limits, and is it the same reason that world class athletes set records and break through barriers?

How can we push our own limits?

Glass ball

I recently came across a fun quote on Imgur (NSFW: language) – that was incredibly thought provoking. Somebody asked how they can get themselves motivated to do more stuff or get things done, and the response was interesting:

“Better to cultivate discipline than to rely on motivation. force yourself to do things. force yourself to get up out of bed and practice. Force yourself to work. Motivation is fleeting and it’s easy to rely on because it requires no concentrated effort to get. Motivation comes to you, and you don’t have to chase after it.

Discipline is reliable, motivation is fleeting. The question isn’t how to keep yourself motivated. It’s how to train yourself to work without it.”

In a nutshell: If you are relying on yourself to “wait to get motivated” to work out, stop it! Stop whining! It’s better to build a system in which you don’t have to rely on motivation… build a system in which you get to race against (or lift against) an avatar that was you from last week. Don’t rely on inspiration; build a system for success – a system to break your own limits.

This quote also reminded me of the most successful people I know, or the people who seem to get more done in a month than most people get done in a life. 

It’s not because these people are more “motivated” than others. It’s because they have built and expect the habit of greatness.

For example, take Cal Newport: computer science professor at Georgetown University, publisher of numerous papers, and author of four books. He gets more done in a day than most do in a week, and yet he stops work every day at 5:30 pm so he can spend time with his wife and family.  How the heck does he get all of this done while also being a full-time professor?

By practicing the habit of greatness.

He plans out his entire week in advance, he makes distractions irrelevant, and doesn’t surf the web at work.

Is Cal more motivated than the rest of us to get things done, or does he have more willpower than mere mortals? Hell no! He just understands how habits are built, and then he’s spent years making these things automatic in his life.

It’s cliche, but Aristotle said it best: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”   Cal simply practices the habit of excellence, carefully honed over years and years.

So what does this mean for people like us? It turns out we can trick ourselves into pushing farther than we think we’re capable of, and we can DO more things than we think we’re capable of.  Like building a bat cave, instead of relying on willpower and motivation to get yourself to exercise or eat right…work smarter, not harder. Or by making the only comparison you can make – and using this avatar of past self to push you to the next level.

And sometimes we need people to push us, to challenge us, to drag us through things we don’t want to do until we realize that we’ve done it.  You know, like Gandalf nudging Bilbo out the door. I bet Andy Dwyer from Parks and Recreation wouldn’t have completed this lap without the support of his friend Chris:


Just by surrounding yourself with better, more advanced people can hugely impact your own training. John Kessel, Director of sport development at USA volleyball, explains that a disproportionate number of their best players are younger siblings, because “The more you play against bigger kids, older kids, even adults, the better you become as an athlete.”

And sometimes, we need assistance (technology) to help us build these habits of excellence:

  • Self-Control to block time-wasting websites on our computer.
  • Rescue time to track our efficiency.
  • Alarm clocks across the room.
  • A freaking wrist-shock device when we miss our habits.

Notice that none of these examples above rely on motivation or willpower or just being better than somebody else. Instead, they all situations in which outside forces are employed to push us beyond our seemingly entrenched capabilities.

Don’t be outworked


I want to imagine what you’d accomplish if failure wasn’t an option. As McClusky theorizes in his book, especially when it comes to performance, competition, and victory: “the winner is the athlete for whom defeat is the least acceptable rationalization.” In other words, people who are willing to do anything to accomplish their goals almost always end up accomplishing their goals.

Or, in Will Smith’s own words:  “I will not be outworked.” (h/t Derek)

Will Smith

“The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be out-worked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me, you might be all of those things you got it on me in nine categories.

But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple, right?

Not surprisingly, Will Smith is one of the most successful actors out there today. Unfortunately, we’re all not like Will Smith (yet). At some point in our own quests, when we are not willing to make the sacrifices to succeed, we fall into the belief that accomplishing our goals is not possible.

In fact, this rationalization can and will happen for many people before they even try!

My goal with Nerd Fitness is to help you get from the point where you move from rationalizing “it’s not possible,” to “I wonder what am I capable of, and when can I get started!?”  I want to help you get what you want out of life, whether it’s a flat stomach, bigger muscles, self-confidence, and/or a life of adventure.

In my 6 years of running Nerd Fitness, I’ve come to learn that happiness, greatness, and success are not things people are born with, entitled to, or lucked into.

They are habits and practices that have been built intelligently.

Instead of berating yourself when you’re not motivated to exercise, or getting mad at yourself when you struggle with eating unhealthy food, take a step back and look at it from a different angle:

“How can you build the habit of success and put your focus there, instead of chasing the motivation to make it happen?

It’s easy to become ensnared – to chase motivation and fail – or rationalize inaction and never try. Every single one of us has fallen into this trap. I’d love to hear about your experience with this, and how you plan to (or already have) overcome it.


PS: Just wanted to mention Faster, Higher, Stronger again by Mark McClusky (editor of I read this book last week and had a fun chat with Mark who’s a really cool guy. If you’re a nerd about human performance and our capabilities, it’s a super interesting read.


photo pin: Anne Worner: The Art Critic, Khalid Al-khater: Silhouette, David Hawkins-Weeks: Marble, JD Hancock: Pinky & the Brain

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50 thoughts on “Is Motivation Useless?

  1. These posts always get me fired up to find out what I can really do. It’s scary and exciting all at the same time!

    Also, Steve’s on Imgur?! ONE OF US. ONE OF US.

  2. But doesn’t it take motivation to cultivate determination / discipline? Now, I’m not downplaying the discipline aspect, it’s just a question. I personally have cultivated the discipline to take cold showers as a regular habit – a habit which leaves me with significantly more energy, better skin condition, and a number of other health benefits. When I do it in the morning, it’s better than caffeine. In the evening, it puts me right to sleep.

    I’ve been in a relationship with a person who was constantly lacking motivation, but was unable or unwilling to cultivate the determination to change. She complained about how she felt about herself, but wouldn’t make the steps that would improve her self image. She talked about buying a house, or an RV and traveling, but couldn’t be stopped from spending all her discretionary funds on junk food and entertainment. She wanted to feel attractive, but often neglected her self-care and wardrobe choices. Every one of the symptoms she complains about daily is on the list of symptoms of carbohydrate overload and insulin resistance – but she doesn’t have the willpower or discipline to change her diet. Now, I’m living with family that constantly complains about their weight and tired, weak bodies, but will not refuse to bring junk food into the house, won’t push themselves beyond a leisurely walk around the block, and one who won’t stop gambling away his money while he complains he’s always broke. Why do people do this to themselves?

    I have a long way to go, but I refuse to complain about something I’m not willing to change – and that takes discipline of its own.

  3. This reminds me of an indoor rowing competition I was in back in college. We had the ergs linked up so you could see how close the person in front and behind you are. That was some motivation! I got my PR on the 2K in that race, and haven’t broken it since (haven’t really tried, unfortunately). When it was finished, my legs gave out when I tried to stand up. I literally could not walk, yet I was able to push as hard as I ever had just a few seconds before.

  4. New goal for this winter! I will use the virtual rower setting on the monitor of my erg and keep resetting it for my previous best time and keep trying to beat it.

    Thanks for the inspiration.

  5. This is very much along the lines of the “motivation” I wrote out for my upcoming six week challenge. I realized afterward that it didnt explain my motivation at all – it’s a system of rules to guarantee improvement and success every time I “fail” – the only true failure is giving up.

  6. I feel as though it really boils down to internal vs external.

    Why are you doing something? If it is for others (external) you’re less likely to follow through. If you are doing something for yourself (internal) you’re more likely to succeed.

    A good diet and consistent exercise is not something you do for someone else. It is something you do for yourself.

  7. I think it is not that discipline requires motivation to develop so much as it requires a choice and subsequent action – an exercise of will based on commitment, in other words.

    I see people confuse these things all the time and have done it myself. Complaint is a refusal to commit and a substitute for action, often because we don’t believe what we want is possible or we think we ourselves are incapable of attaining it. We then settle for something less, instead of risking failure.

    Discipline is not easy, but the consequences of not being disciplined are truly sad, even deadly.

  8. Know your “why,” and you can do anything. If your why is important enough to you, you will commit and be disciplined, even when tired or busy or unmotivated.

    For me, I’m committed to getting back out on a fire line again, even though most people would think that is an insane goal for an overweight 56 year old woman coming back from illness and injury. It may be, or maybe it’s just my “four-minute mile.” Either way, I’m giving it all I’ve got, because it is what I want to do and I am committed to it.

    I’ve been using the 6 week challenges to lose weight, get stronger, and keep pushing the limits of my beliefs. I’m in the 22nd week of a 40 week quest to be fire fit by mid-March and it is scary as hell. I’m making progress, but there are no guarantees. I struggle to build better habits, and sometimes I fail, but I get back to it because my goal is important to me.

    I’d encourage everyone to look themselves in the mirror and ask, “What do I secretly dream of doing, but tell myself, ‘I can’t,'” and, “What, when I am on my deathbed, would I most regret not doing with my life?”

    Now, go out there and take a step, however small, towards doing it…one step and then another will build the habits you need. And, there’s a whole fantastic community here that will cheer you on and help you stay on track, and great guidance and inspiration from our Rebel Leader!

  9. I can see what you’re saying about discipline requiring motivation, but that’s the trick to it. You only need to get motivated once if you use it to *get* disciplined. That way once the motivation fades (as it often does) you still have the discipline to keep going.

    That’s why pretty much everything about long-term success or health life-styles is about forming good habits and breaking bad ones. Because once it’s a habit you don’t have to try as hard.

  10. Sharon Stone said in a recent interview that she adopted Jane Fonda’s mentality of “discipline is freedom.” I don’t know if she’s the originator of that quote, but I think it’s great nonetheless. If you have discipline, you can do anything!

  11. This is such a great post. I’ve never thought about motivation like that but it makes total sense. A lot of times I get asked how I find the motivation to do something and I don’t have an answer. Now I know why!

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  14. I do fine when it’s time to do a thing. I need to work out? Cool, gym time is 3:00, and if I forget my gym clothes, I walk from 3:00-4:00. I need to clean house? Ok, from the time I get home from work until 6:00pm, I will do chores instead of screwing around on the internet.

    It’s “Don’t do the thing” that I have a problem with. I’ve put on 10lbs that I don’t exactly need, and now I’m trying to get rid of them, because of that whole can’t outrun your diet thing. I have stopped drinking alcohol, which I am honestly still a little butt-hurt about; I’m taking a medication right now that does not play nice with alcohol. I decided that since I wasn’t drinking, I may as well stop eating sweets and fast food, too, so I can build healthier habits. Alcohol, sweets, and fast food should be huge treats, not routine.

    I have boxes of herbal tea arranged so I can see them right as I walk in, to make me think “tea time” when I get home wanting to mix up a drink. I don’t have junk food in my house, and I take a route home that is devoid of all the fast food I want. Out of sight, out of mind. Yay. But when temptation, like the big bowl of Halloween candy at work or the microbreweries I like on Facebook, stares me in the face, I really struggle. I can see why “Make motivation irrelevant” and “Don’t test your willpower” are such good mind hacks now. It does NOT feel good to want.

  15. Great way of seeing it, i would put it in one phrase:

    Succesful people do what they have to do even if they feel like it or not

  16. So basically, we remove Motivation from the picture COMPLETELY. Say, showering in the morning is a habit of yours. Eating cereal at 8:00 am or grabbing a coffee from Starbucks on your way to work is a habit. It’s something you just DO, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re motivated enough or not to do it, because seriously, who needs to be motivated every morning to grab coffee? It’s a habit developed over time, a vital part of your daily routine, something you don’t think about.
    Working out should be like that – a part of your routine that you don’t have to think about or get “motivated” to do.

  17. Love this type of post! I’m one of those creative types, and motivation is a hot commodity. There isn’t much of it unfortunately to go around. But often I see in the comedy community the ones that do well, just do it, regardless if it’s good or bad. Whether it’s sketch, videos, tweets, or improv, they just make it happen. They aren’t precious about every idea and thought. Motivation, based on this article, can be a hinderance, because you are looking for you’re muse, the magic potion that’ll move you forward. So you search, only finding small nuggets. It’s better to get your nose into the work and make it happen.

  18. This is a great article, this is stuff I already knew but really needed a good reminder of (and I need a good kick in the butt.)

    Steve, I don’t know if you already know of him but I think you’d really like Hal Elrod. He’s a motivational speaker, writer, and generally awesome guy. He’s got some great stuff on motivation vs discipline too.

  19. So how do I start? I need to stop eating poorly, start working out regularly while figuring out how to work with pain from past injuries, working more effectively so I enjoy my evenings instead of working.

  20. This is something I found out running at 22 in college. I loved running, but your tank always empties before the end of the run. So I’d have an interior monologue: OK, you’re going to go past those cow guard tracks, you’re going to past that next tree then turn …And I’d be LYING. My goal was to go farther, but my body would listen to my brain. I found this FASCINATING. But it worked. And one day after running less than three miles, the aroma of a garbage truck below, I had runner’s high. I was leaping up and down and screaming! It was an ordinary day, I’d finished a decent distance for me: 3 miles. And my body, as dumb as it was, paid me back. Now I lift weights and do other things that challenge me and know why monologueing works. Amazing. And the good feeling FROM exercise far outweighs antidepressants.

  21. Something going on this month, in terms of building positive habits and discipline, is YoVember. Basically, it’s a 30 day yoga challenge where people commit to doing just a little bit of yoga and meditation each day. Maybe just 15 minutes, but the key is you do it EVERY DAMN DAY.

    Google “YoVember” or “30 Day Yoga Challenge” to learn more.

  22. I will go as far to say that inspiration or motivation are essential to anything we do in fitness. It is the catalyst for everything. Even when we rationalize, or decide to do something we always have that “bright light” moment. That moment is motivation. As a personal trainer in Washington, D.C. this is a big part of what I teach my clients. Once a client becomes motivated my instructions and coaching become effortless and that is where the real results come. It is the only thing that makes us rough through a CrossFit class, or finish a marathon, or wake up at 5:00 for November Project.

    Great Post! I look forward to more.

    Warren Bloom Certified Personal Trainer and first time reader.

    P.S. Here is a similar post I wrote!How-To-Stay-Inspired-To-Be-Fit-For-Life-/cmpg/C4D7ACE6-04B7-40E5-BBA4-92F466429D8A

  23. I visited the Doctor a few years ago after being misdiagnosed with depression. Turns out it was poor sleep and low testosterone (in my late 20s). The doctor was almost impressed by my physical because I was “made to remain calm”. Cool superpower for a law enforcement officer but horrible for unleashing the beast in the gym, on the heavy bag, or elsewhere that I may need to be motivated. Patience passed virtue and became a curse. I decided to exercise (controlled) angry. It has been great for my sanity and my gains. If I can’t push a weight to completion I get angry with the weight and myself instead of patiently and dismissively patting myself on the back for trying. I dont get angry enough to push more than I can actually lift and do something stupid. I just look at a weight goal like a contract kill.

  24. I keep running into problems, though, where the mind is willing, but the body is weak — or, rather, gets injured so much more easily now that I’m in my mid-30’s. I do more than last time, pushing hard and past my previous limits — and then am in such pain it’s hard to get through the next several days.

    Sometimes pain is a signal from your body that you need to take a rest day, but I’m having a hard time balancing determination, and keeping up the daily habit of exercise when the injuries are stacking up. Not all limitations are in your mind.

    It’s all very well and good for Will Smith to say he’ll die on that treadmill, but that’s nothing to emulate. Dead isn’t going to do you any good. The question is how to progress at a reasonable, sustainable pace.

  25. Great stuff Steve. I strongly agree with your post, and I have an example from personal experience. In the spring, I decided to start running again (I am 36). I was already in ok shape, so wasn’t starting completely cold, but running had always been my workout nemesis. All that said; I am an early riser, live in the country and enjoy some solitude before the craziness of the day starts.

    When I started, seven miles seemed like an unattainable goal, so I set that as my carrot thinking it wold keep me motivated through the summer. It look me about two months to get to seven miles…even when I hit six miles, seven seemed like crazytown, but to my amazement, I made it. Then something even more unexpected happened…I went from seven to 17 in about five weeks. The 17 seemed easier than getting to the seven did, and it was MUCH more enjoyable.

    Once I broke through my self-made limitation, exceeding it by over 2x was (relatively) cake I’ll be running my first marathon in April:-)

  26. Seems you need to ally yourself with a healthier group of people. I believe people get stuck in ruts and unless something shocking happens, stay there. They have to set a goal and aim for it. See positive improvement and feel it. I’ve found when that happens, the works feeds itself and you keep going. If you aren’t surrounding yourself with these kinds of people, you have the wrong friends. To change you simply have to take one step. It doesn’t require determination or motivation just ACTION. The acts build upon one another and the change keeps happening.

  27. I’m late to the party (as usual, I’m backed up on my NF readings), but I still wanted to share something my therapist told me:

    “Action doesn’t just come before motivation in the dictionary.”

    This is up on my whiteboard in my room, right next to my door, where I can always see it & it smacks me in the face (not literally… or hardly ever literally) whenever I look up or leave my bedroom. It’s definitely a quote to ponder.

  28. Something I learned from karate: there’s always one more. One more step, one more punch, one more breath. I recently had a friend in crisis, she was in hospital on suicide watch, and I was on the floor, so fatigued and feeling broken from worrying about her, visiting the hospital, and staying strong. When she got out I was looking forward to a little downtime. Then another friend messaged me on facebook to say goodbye. There was no choice, my brain shifted gear and action was taken. I thought I was so incredibly done, I couldn’t do anything more, but there was a little more in the tank because the alternative was unthinkable. I dunno how I feel about “motivation,” but where there’s incentive there’s strength. “those with a why will find a how,” and all that.

  29. Some great points here. The Roger Bannister and Tony Hawks examples are very hard hitting, and I love the Mario Kart allusion – took me back to my nineties childhood. I recently wrote about motivation myself, and how to stay enthusiastic about a new year fitness resolution, even after January, which can be read here – – would love you guys to have a read, and share any other tips you might have.

  30. I totally agree with this post. Whenever I feel motivated I get so much done in such a short time. When I am not motivated, I barely do anything, I just sit around all day waiting to be motivated once again. After reading this article, I have a big problem to solve. I will now not focus on motivation but instead focus on habits which will extend beyond motivation. I have to try and feel comfortable outside my comfort zone which translates to forcing myself to do what I know I should do even when I don’t feel like.

  31. Willpower and motivation bring success. Don’t take too long to get motivated sitting in your computer chair. If you want to learn how to motivate yourself to achieve success then I recommend to check out this free e-book on

  32. “Complaint is a refusal to commit and a substitute for action.” — I just wanted you to know how much these words have meant to me ever since I read them 2 years ago. They stuck to my mind like glue and kept me going when I thought I had reached my limit. In fact, they’re one of my pillars now. I live my life by them. Thank you, for helping me without even realizing it.

  33. I learned that Motivation is useless. You’re always one Choice away from everything. Don’t be afraid to be wrong. The worst that can happen is you become experienced.

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  36. This ^^^! I have bad feet. Think for a minute about what all you do with your feet: walk, run, swim, bike, dance… Yup, it’s all your feet unless you are so injured that using your feet is off the table entirely. I want to run and Zumba but some days I can only load up on pain meds and surf the internet. I have some sort of PTSD from when I injured one foot really badly so even on my good days my memory of strong meds and crutches and needing an hour to put on socks reduces my belief I can even walk on a treadmill again.

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