Motivation: You’re Doing It Wrong.


Dear motivation, I owe you an apology.

I’ve been pretty hard on you lately, and it’s not entirely your fault. You see, most people use you as an excuse or beat themselves up over not having enough of you:

  • “I’m just not motivated to exercise.”
  • “Why can’t I get myself motivated to eat better? I suck.”
  • “I’ll start writing my first novel when I’m motivated.”

Look, I like you. You’ve helped me through some really tough times in my life. When I watch a YouTube video of Rocky climbing a mountain in Russia, it makes me want to train harder. When I watch a movie like Whiplash, it makes me want to practice music more. When I watch a documentary like Jiro Dreams of Sushi, it makes me want to perfect any craft that I’m working on.

You help me get started. you make me feel like I can conquer the world.

But – and I hate to say this – you’re just not very reliable. Like the friend that enthusiastically makes plans with you only to bail via text message with some lame excuse.

You fill people’s heads with illusions of grandeur. You get them all fired up to make changes in their lives and fill them with a sense of hope, only to disappear the next day when they need you most.

So, I guess I should say, “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.” And I know it’s not your fault; you’re the bad boy that mothers warn their daughters about (even though they married one!).

Motivation, I’m gonna teach the Rebellion how to deal with you, properly.

The Problem with Motivation

January 1st: “I’m motivated to get in shape this year!”

After watching a superhero movie: “I want to get in shape like that actor!”

After reading Born to Run: “I’m gonna run a barefoot marathon some day!”

After watching Pumping Iron: “I’m gonna train like Arnold!”

Most of us start this journey with a single moment of motivation. We were motivated to take action, and sure enough on that first day or two after being motivated, we DO take action. We go for that run. We do some push-ups. We head to the gym and crank out some bench presses and squats.

Whether it’s a movie, a Facebook post, or a conversation with a friend, we see our motivation jump up for a short period of time.

See the above handy chart below. When your effort/motivation line is above the action zone (see Days 2 and 3), you take action.

When it’s below the action zone (day 1), you stay sitting on your couch.

Motivation Graph 1

So for two days, things are great! As long as you have enough motivation to overcome inertia, you’ll take action. However, after a few days (or a week if you’re lucky), your motivation tank starts to run low.

That initial boost of motivation is finite and fleeting. You filled the tank after watching that movie, but now the effort required to get up early and go workout (or whatever it is), is slowly chipping away at your reserves.

The tank of motivation is finite, but the need to get up and go to the gym? That’s like concrete – it’s not going anywhere.

Motivation Graph 2

So, you need to keep that motivation tank filled if you are going to keep going. So like an addict chasing his next hit, you’re back on the search for “more motivation” to get back up above the effort line.

This is why people are CRUSHING IT in the gym for the first week of January, or for the weeks leading up to their weddings/vacation.

They are seriously motivated to make change. But, that darned up and down motivation. It wavers. But the demands of you don’t.

When this happens, when motivation wanes, old habits start to creep back into the picture and pull you back down to where they want to be: out of the action zone!

This is when you wake up a few months from now and realize: “oh crap I’m back to where I started and I abandoned my goals. DAMN YOU MOTIVATION, YOU FLEETING FOX! How dare you abandon me in my time of neeeeeed.”

I’m just assuming that’s how you’ll talk to motivation internally. Not that I talk to myself ever.

Steve Fitness Skeptic Goggles

How to Use Motivation Correctly

It’s time to stop blaming motivation when you don’t change, and stop waiting for motivation to give you permission to change permanently.

Here’s how to use motivation properly.

You know the phrase: “Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime.”?  We’re gonna steal that sucker: “Give a nerd some motivation, he or she will train for a day. Teach that nerd to build structured discipline, he’ll train for a lifetime.”


So, the next time you are motivated, don’t use that motivation to JUST do the activity you are fired up to try. Instead, use that motivation build permanent systems that make you stay in the action zone longer. Long term, non-fleeting stability.  How does this work?


…wait, I still need that mic.

Build Structured Discipline


Structured discipline is your magic ticket to long-term success. The more discipline you have, the less reliant you’ll be on another dose of motivation to take action.

In short: “F*** motivation, cultivate discipline.”

Motivation is going to promise you things, and then leave you when you need it most. When you can capitalize on that motivation by lowing the amount of inertia you have to overcome to take action every day, the more likely you’ll be to succeed.

Let’s see what that looks like in reality with a life goal to learn a musical instrument:

Person A is a regular dude. He watches Whiplash (intense, awesome movie), and is inspired to finally get back into playing music. He dusts off his guitar/violin/open the piano, and sits down and play for two hours. On day 2, he plays for an hour.

On day 3 things get busy and he forgets to practice. On day 4, he plays for 20 minutes. By day 5, motivation is gone and he’s back to not playing music until the next big motivational moment spurs him to action.

Person B is a NF Rebel. She watches Whiplash (still intense and awesome), and is inspired to play more music. She then immediately spends an hour restructuring her environment to maximize structured discipline.

She goes on Amazon and buys a new book of sheet music and a music stand. She hops on google calendar and schedules a 20 minute block every day in which to practice.

She also finds tickets to a concert known for the instrument she’s practicing. She reaches out to a friend and ask if he wants to jam with her every Thursday afternoon. They play music for probably 30 minutes and call it a day.

A month from now, who do you think will have practiced more? I can tell you with absolute certainty it’s Person B. Because I’ve been both of those people!

Here’s person A again:

Motivation Graph 2

Now see the chart with structured discipline built in. 

When you use your motivation to enact permanent adjustments to your life: adding in accountability, making environmental changes, creating rewards and penalties, you are less reliant on motivation to take continued consistent action:

Motivation Graph 3

Here are some other examples of how to build structured discipline:

  • Motivated to eat better? Don’t just eat a healthy meal. Prep healthy meals for the whole week! Learn an easy recipe and add it to your “toolkit” forever.
  • Motivated to work out? Schedule all of your workouts into Google Calendar and make a system for packing your gym bag the night before you got to bed. Commit to a life-changing course, or a trainer.
  • Motivated to start running in the morning? Move your alarm clock across the room and build a system to sleep in your running clothes. Start/join a running group.
  • Motivated to live a tidier existence? Don’t just put things away. THROW THINGS AWAY you never use so they never have to be put away again.
  • Not motivated to do something? Great. As Mark Manson says, “Do Anything!”

Motivation is a Power-UP


Motivation is like getting star-power in Super Mario Bros. It can help you do things that you never would have been able to do otherwise. In that sense, motivation is awesome. That’s why I’m going to give you some powerups, right now:

MOTIVATE ME TO WORK OUT MORE: Watch the documentary Pumping Iron (or this video). Watch Rocky IV training. Or this.

Now take action:

  • Prepay for 10 personal trainer sessions.
  • Schedule your workouts into your calendar for the next month.
  • Give $50 to your friend. If you miss a workout, they will donate it to the political candidate you hate.

MOTIVATE ME TO PREPARE HEALTHY MEALS: Watch Jiro Dreams of SushiWatch an episode of Cooked, Chef’s Table, or Top Chef.

And then take action:

  • Buy containers and batch cook all healthy meals for this week.
  • Do a house audit and throw away junk food so you’re not tempted.

MOTIVATE ME TO HAVE AN ADVENTURE: Watch this video, or this one, or this one. Read Level Up Your Life (and then leave me an honest review please!).

And then take action:

  • Go online and book a ticket somewhere.
  • Pre-pay for an adventure that you’ve always wanted to go on.
  • Join the adventurer’s guild in the NF message boards.

Just like Star Power in Super Mario Bros, motivation runs out pretty quickly. Use it while you got it! Pair fleeting motivation with action to be effective.


What are you motivated to do after reading this article? And what’s one SPECIFIC ACTION you’ll take so you’re not relying on motivation to make it happen long term?



photo: Pekka: star power up

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