Motivation: You Have to Win in the Moment

by Ruby9 min read1st Mar 201917 comments



Epistemic status: Confidence that the models expressed are true to reality: 80%; Confidence that the inferred advice isn’t bad advice: 80%; Confidence that the models presented are complete: less than 50%. I'd bet I'm still missing an important piece or two from the picture.

If often seems that if only we could get our motivation in order, we could work wonders. Wouldn’t it be good if we always had the motivation to do what we really wanted or ought to do? Our homework, our taxes, our jobs, our diets and exercise, our artistic and creative hobbies, our study plans, on and on. There are so many things we feel like we theoretically could do and yet we don’t. There are so many things we do, but only by fighting ourselves each step of the way [1].

Wrestling with a few novel motivational challenges of my own, I’ve been revisiting my models and skills. It feels like a number of pieces have clicked into place recently and I have some insights worth sharing. Hopefully, you will benefit from this post and/or tell me how it is wrong or incomplete.

Your Motivation System

We can reasonably believe that your brain has a motivation system (or an overall motivation system comprised of a great many motivation subsystems). One reason to believe this is the extensive scientific literature captured in tens of thousands of papers and built from probably at least as many researcher-years. Compared to that, the models described in this post are the crudest simplification. However, the models in this post have the advantage that they’re much quicker to read and much easier to apply to your life.

The second reason to believe that your brain has a motivation system is a mix of your first-person experience and first-principles reasoning. Consider that you have only one body and that in any given moment you can execute approximately only a single activity. You are eating or you are sleeping, but not both. Something in you must make a decision at every given moment about which activity you will execute.

Now, you might think that is you who makes the decision about what to do. “It is me, I think with my free will and weigh my options and then decide what to do!” Ignoring for the moment that we so often struggle to do what we “decide” to do, I will assert that there far, far too many considerations when deciding what to do for your conscience explicit mind to handle it all on its own. You’d need to be tracking all your biological needs (hunger, thirst, sleep, temperature), all your opportunity costs, all possibly relevant pieces of experience and heuristic that feed into decisions, the costs, benefits, risks, and on and on. Maybe you could build a conscious mind to handle all that, but I don’t think we humans are built that way.

Instead, we have these handy, dandy subconscious mental systems which aggregate all the relevant info and ultimately produce experienced felt urges or drives to do particular things. Some scientists might like to define motivation as the energizing of behavior in pursuit of a goal [2], but I think for our practical purposes it’s better to define the fundamental definition motivation as follows:

Motivation towards a behavior X is the experience of an urge to do X.

Via urges (which sometimes promise reward if acted upon, but not necessarily), our mind tells us what to do. If I am thirsty, I experience an urge to go find a drink. If I am tired, I experience an urge to sleep. If I see a tasty donut, I experience an urge to eat it. If I am anxious about failing my calculus class, I experience an urge to go study.

Note that although they are not the same thing as urges, emotions are deeply connected to them. Major theories of emotion acknowledge five components of emotion, one of which is action tendency [3]. This is close to saying that emotions usually come with urges. Anger with the urge to lash out, shame with the urge to hide, love with the urge to express caring or affection.

Motivation is a Competition

In any moment, there are a great many appealing actions we might take. Taking a nap might be pretty good, or listening to music, or having a snack, or going on FB, or finishing off that report for work. We can’t experience compelling urges to do all of them, and definitely not equally strong urges. That would defeat the point. The point of motivation, given the rivalrous nature of actions, is that we experience an urge to do the one thing we most want/ought to do.

Admittedly, we do often experience multiple competing urges in the moment. You might be very hungry but also really want to finish the level of the video game you’re playing - you’re experiencing an urge for both. This isn’t uncommon, but I think it is uncommon to have ten strong urges towards ten different things at once. It might be reasonable to have a couple of competing urges at once: the conscious mind experiencing those urges can then arbitrate, perhaps using some abstract S2 knowledge not available to the mostly S1 motivation system.

The overall point here is that for you to have motivation towards doing X (an urge/drive towards doing it), X can’t be outcompeted by Y within your motivation system. If X is outcompeted by Y, you are very likely to find yourself doing Y instead.

You Have to Win in the Moment

Not only is motivation a competition, but that competition is real-time. In each moment, you must choose your actions from amongst many possibilities and, in each moment, your mind generates guiding urges towards some options but not others.

You might suppose that you can make a decision at 11:00am about you will do three hours later at. 2:00pm -- this doesn’t free you from making a decision later on nor abrogate the need for motivation later on. When 2:00pm comes round, you will either feel motivation to execute your 11:00am plan or you won’t (as is so common), and you will have to decide whether to stick to your plan or not. You can make plans in advance, you can form intentions in advance, you attempt to set up commitment mechanisms in advance -- yet what you ultimately do in the moment will be decided in the moment by the conditions that obtain the moment.

The consequence of this is that any successful plan of action requires that you have sufficient motivation/urges (or willpower, see Appendix) to overcome all other competing motivation/urges throughout all the moments you need to be executing that plan.

It is not enough that you feel really, really motivated towards your plan when you are making it if that motivation will later be outcompeted by other things once it’s execution-time. Alternatively stated, people make bad plans because they fail to account for the competing urges which will predictably arise when they’re trying to actually execute. People further fail to correct their plans because even when they’re not succeeding at executing them, they’re not noticing that the reason they’re not executing them is because they’re losing the motivation competition continually at the moment-to-moment scale. It’s easy to focus on your motivation to do X while forgetting about your competing motivations to do Y and Z.

Consider different meanings we might assign to “I am motivated to do X.” This might mean that:

A. I have a preference to be in a world where I have done X. Perhaps then I will experience more pleasure or less pain.

B. I believe X will instrumentally result in a desired outcome A such that X is an action I would benefit from taking.

C. Sometimes I experience an urge to do X.

D. I experience sufficient urge to do X that it outcompetes urges for other things I might do enough of the time that I actually make meaningful progress towards X.

I contend that for any action X, you have are only truly motivated to do X if you have achieved state D. Anything else amounts to “I am motivated to do X, but not, like, actually motivated enough to do it instead of other things.”

How to Win

Saying that motivation is a matter of winning in the moment is all very good, but how does one actually do that?

Unfortunately, a proper treatment of this not-so-small topic will make this past far too long and instead requires its own post (Motivation Part 2: How to Win, coming soon to a screen near you!). Nonetheless, I can offer a high-level summary here:

  1. Understand how your motivation system performs its moment-to-moment prioritization and design around that. This will lead you to things like prospect theory, hyperbolic discounting, and trivial inconveniences. Turns out that we humans overvalue things that are immediately in front of us and undervalue things that require even small amounts of effort. Good planning around motivation accounts for this. Also, understand how high your motivational proclivities are predictably different in different circumstances.
  2. You win a competition by either getting stronger than your opponents or making them weaker than you. I conjecture that almost all good motivation advice and techniques are clearly one or the other.
    1. Making the competition weaker: removing them or making them less appealing or subject to delay. No cookies in the house, delays of blocks on distracting websites such as Facebook, making your phone grayscale,
    2. Making your champion stronger: envisioning the value you will attain, making good plans that you actually believe in, altering the plan to have fewer costs or greater benefits, propagating urges to S1, layering on greater rewards to actions such as social rewards, increasing the cost of not taking desired action, e.g. social penalty, financial penalty (think Beeminder).

Good handling of motivation requires recognizing which of 2a and 2b you need. Removing distractions will only help a little if the X you’re trying to do feels disconnected from anything you value or just unlikely to work. In that case, better to increase your positive motivation towards X before anything else. Conversely, if X seems important and appealing, but it’s really hard to stop bingeing on good TV, then meditating on just how much you like X might be an inferior method to a TV reducing commitment mechanism. Of course, usually you’ll want a dose of both

Though they require a tad more complexity to model, I’d say that ingraining habits, setting intentions, and generally making commitments to yourself all fit within this paradigm too. Consider that a habit of doing X involves 1) lowering the cost of X because there’s less overhead in deciding when and how to do it, 2) creates a cost of not doing X because breaking your habit feels bad. These are effects which are felt in the moment, which is why they can be effective. A motivation-mechanism boosting mechanism like “if you run 90 out of the next 100 days”, then you get cake might struggle because the reward is distant, and distant rewards struggle in the face of how the motivation system discounts hyperbolically.

That’s the high-level in my picture. I hope to provide more concrete advice in Part 2.

Appendix: Willpower

I’ve been talking as though all the things we do derive from urges, yet we all recognize the act of doing things despite strong urges to the contrary. All those times you get out of bed despite it feeling so good beneath the covers. The common term for this ability to go against our urges is, of course, willpower. My stance is that willpower is crucial and yet frequently used as a substitute for handling one’s motivation well.

People overly rely on willpower to make themselves do things even “when they don’t want to.” They imagine if that only they had more willpower - more ability to make themselves do things in the face of their urges not to - then they could do anything. This is a bit sad. Instead of wishing you wanted to do things, you just wish you could make yourself do things despite having urges not to do them.

The model I like of willpower is that it is a limited override capability over the default motivation system which lets you decide to do X even when your motivation system has created a greater urge behind Y. This is useful because we often find that the motivation system is making a mistake. That is why is not inherently a bad thing to want to reflectively shift the motivational urges you experience.

Default motivational urges can tend to be a little short-sighted, impulsive, simplistic, and generally subject to host of reasoning errors. Consider how you might use willpower to not eat an extremely delicious but poisoned cake, not have a fling with someone who is known trouble, or actually write your term essay for your long-term benefit over binging Netflix.

But just as it is important to be able to overrule the motivation system sometimes, it’s important that you can’t overrule it all the time. Humans who had the unlimited ability to override their basic urges would probably kill themselves through lack of sleep, food, or drink. Or they might get stuck in really bad loops which they fallaciously decided were a good idea even though their urges are screaming at them to stop. It’s good that we have a system of checks and balances where neither S1 or S2 can have complete power.

At the end of the day, one set of biases and heuristic such as hyperbolic discounting, scope insensitivity, and loss aversion mean we can’t trust S1 all the time; and another set of biases such as motivated reasoning, commitment effects, and just plain bad reasoning mean we can’t always trust S2. A limited pool of willpower to be used wisely isn’t the worst solution given this situation.

Much of handling motivation well is using willpower in the right places and not in the wrong ones. The natural heuristic for this is sustainability. If your plans seem to keep failing because you run out of willpower, it might be best to alter your plans to not need so much.

The role of willpower reinforces the importance of viewing motivation as being decided in the moment. This is because your ability to execute doesn’t depend on how much willpower you have while making your plans: if your plan to do X depends on having willpower to do X despite contrary urges, then it only matters how much willpower you have in the moment of attempting to do X. If you’re going to rely on willpower, then you’ll at least need to get good at predicting how much willpower you will have at times other than when you’re making the plan.

  • The Upstream Effects section in Sebastian Marshall’s book PROGRESSION. Though it might sound like this is about advance planning, in actuality Marshall exemplifying what it looks like to take the right actions in advance so that you can win in the moment.
  • LessWrong Wiki: Akrasia. Contains a list of about a dozen relevant and useful posts, note the post on Picoeconomics.
  • Blue-Minimizing Robot Sequence by Scott Alexander. Relevant to how parts of our motivation system are executing relatively dumb behaviors rather than maximizing utility in any meaningful way. Will be relevant for Part 2: How to Win
  • Ugh fields describes an instance of failure in the moment.
  • Productivity through self-loyalty by Nate Soares is not immediately connected to this, but it does describe approaches to weakening your more enemy, or more accurately, how to turn your enemy into your ally.
  • A Crash Course in the Neuroscience of Human Motivation by lukeprog. Long and thorough, but written as a theoretical/academic text rather than a practical guide. Recommended for those with a strong academic curiosity. Last updated in 2011, so parts may be outdated.


[1] The lack of motivation is approximately synonymous with the concept of akrasia. LessWrong had an akrasia phase about a decade ago when many rationalists were seeking to fully understand and overcome the phenomenon. I think it’s a shame people don’t talk so much about motivation and akrasia anymore, they’re no less important topic now.

[2] Simpson & Balsam (2015), The Behavioral Neuroscience of Motivation: An Overview of Concepts, Measures, and Translational Applications in Behavioral Neuroscience of Motivation, p.3

[3] Sander (2013), “Models of Emotion” in Cambridge Handbook of Affective Neuroscience, p.17

Taken together, the major theories of emotion acknowledge the existence of five components: (1) appraisal, (2) expression, (3) autonomic reaction, (4) action tendency, and (5) feeling. These components are discussed in detail in the section, “Theories of Emotion and Emotion Components.”