The reason people succeed is well-focused, regular, effort.

The reason for failure is more often lack of effort rather than the direction of the effort. For example, more people put on weight because they couldn't stick to their diet than those that chose a diet that wouldn't have caused weight loss.

1. How the Brain Decides what Task you Will Perform

You subconscious decides on your motivation for a task, but you can consciously choose to use your self-control and not do the easiest task. For example, my subconscious is saying that watching TV requires the least motivation but I have chosen to use up some of my self-control and write this article instead.

I'm going to discuss a few tactics to reduce the self-control required to complete a task (such as setting up a trigger) as well as ways of making your subconscious disfavour your distractions (for example by removing the plug from your TV).

1.1 Motivation

A good guideline for the motivation that your subconscious gives you for a task is given in the equation below.

The Expectancy and Value can be thought of in terms of gambling. The Value is how much you get paid if you win and the Expectancy is the probability of winning. The Value of a task changes constantly as it is how much you value completing the task at any given moment. Delay is the amount of time before you will get the pay-off. For writing an essay it is likely to be after the entire thing is written, watching TV is an almost instant hit. Impulsiveness is a more complex part which is covered in Piers Steel's “Procrastination”.

If you are struggling to put effort in to a task then it is probably because your motivation for it is lower than its alternatives. For example, there are many things I could do at the moment: I could get some food, play computer games, go for a walk, write this essay, etc. and each has a certain level of motivation based on the above equation. If I make sure I'm not hungry then the first task is of such low value that it wont be a problem. If I delete my computer games so I have to find the CD to be able to play them it increases the delay making that less of an issue.

Every time you get distracted take note of the task and see why you have a higher motivation for it than what you should be doing. Then go through each part of the equation in turn to see if you can reduce the motivation for tasks you don't want to do.

1.2 Self Control

Self-control is the effort you put in to a task to make sure you do it instead of one with a higher motivation. For example, getting a snack might have a higher motivation than continuing with my work but I can use up some self-control to make sure I keep working.

Self control is like a muscle. Do too much and you will exhaust it, but if you successfully use it regularly it will get stronger.

2. How to Set goals to increase changes of success

Below are three methods to increase the chances of succeeding at a task. They are based on the ideas in section one.

  1. The first method (triggers and mechanical starting points) works because you quickly program your subconscious to perform a task at a given time. It means you can sidestep the subconscious calculation of motivation until the task has started, and starting is often the hardest part.

  2. The second (mental contrasting) provides you with a more accurate guess for the value and expectancy of the task. This means you can work out whether you are likely to succeed before you have started. It also increases your motivation when doing the task.

  3. The third (prevention or promotion) frames the goal so that you get more motivation when you need it most. But you have to choose when you need it, there is a tradeoff.

It will still take a lot of self control to achieve worthwhile tasks but by using mechanisms such as this you can increase you chances.

2.1 Triggers and Mechanical Starting Points

The key to this method of goal setting is to set up simple triggers and a mechanical starting point. A trigger is something to tell you when to start working on your goal, a mechanical task is one that can be done with no thinking, or at least without conscious thought. By thinking of your goal in terms of triggers and starting points you can form a habit much quicker. For example if you goal is to become more flexible you should convert this into one with trigger and a mechanical starting point.

The trigger should specify exactly where and when you start, a good example would be "straight after brushing your teeth every weekday morning" (this is only a good example if you already have the habit of brushing your teeth every morning), a bad example would be "at 8:15am", what happens if you wake up a bit late and are brushing your teeth at that time. A further problem with purely time based triggers is that you wont be able to tell it is exactly 8:15 unless you set an alarm and in a lot of cases it is not practical to have many alarms going off through the day.

A mechanical starting point is something that gets you started without having to think. Setting your alarm for 10mins and swinging your leg back and forward would be a good starting point for the goal of become more flexible. If your goal was to write a book a good starting point would be to get out your notebook and read through the last bit of what you wrote last time. A bad starting point would be to continue writing where you left off last time, that requires conscious thought.

Some goals do not have a time based trigger at all, for example “not snacking” applies all the time. You still want to form a habit that your subconscious can follow without having to deplete your self control. In that cause I would suggest framing the goal in terms of "if ... then ..." e.g. if I feel the urge to snack then I will eat a few nuts and seeds and drink a glass of water. For goals like this you can also factor in the brain taking the easiest option, if you make it a real effort to get to the snacks you will be less likely to do so.

2.2 Mental Contrasting

The next key point is to consider alternating points of view of the goal. You want to be overly pessimistic about how hard it will be (i.e. think it will be difficult) but optimistic about your chance of success. The idea is to get to a point where you think:

"This will be hard to achieve but I know, with a lot of self control and effort I can do it, and it really will be worth it."

The way to do this is to alternate between thinking of reasons why the task will be difficult (or why you could fail) then think of why it is important to you to achieve.

When you are thinking of the difficulties imagine yourself in a realistic situation where you are likely to give up. Think up a bad day where you are hungry, annoyed, lonely, and/or tired (H.A.L.T). After you have put yourself in that mindset imagine what would tip you over the edge into failing your goal in some way. By picturing you mental state it will help you have a more realistic view of you chances for success.

Then imagine that you have already achieved the goal. Think of the reasons why it helped you or made your life better. You can also imagine what it would be like to not achieve the goal. Really think if this would make any difference or not. This will help you work out how important the goal is to you. It is important to be brutally honest.

Repeat this cycle two or three times and you should have a good idea if you are likely to put in the effort when it counts, and if that effort is worth it. You should need very long to do this, just make sure you do each part in turn (think first of the difficulties, then the reasons).

You might realise that when the chips are down and you are hungry, angry, lonely, tired or just having a bad day you are likely to give up. If this is the case (remember to be a bit pessimistic about this) then don’t bother working on the goal. You have already decided that it is not worth the effort. If you think you cannot succeed when you are planning you will have no hope when some unexpected challenge pops up.

It is also worth quickly thinking through an “if-then” reaction for your sticking points that you have identified. For example, if you are trying to run every day but you know some days you feel tired and find it difficult to start. In that case you could set the response to be "If I ever feel too tired to start running then I will put my running shoes on and leave the house whether I actually run or not." The problem is likely to be self-control depletion not exhaustion, by getting to the point of actually running you have lowered the mental effort of starting.

2.3 Prevention or Promotion

The different ways you can think about a goal change where you will put effort in to it. You can either have a goal where you must not fail (prevention) or a goal where you want to conquer (promotion). The way you phrase your goal can change it from one to the other and cause you to have more motivation when you need it. For example lets say you go rock climbing for fun with some friends, if you are worried that you are holding the group back so must train harder then your focus is prevention. If you want to beat everyone else then your focus is promotion.

If you have a prevention focus then you get more motivation when you are failing but less when you are doing well. Taking the example of rock climbing, if you had a really bad training session where you were actually worse than before then you would feel like you had to train even harder because you really cannot afford to fail. On the other hand you will put less effort in when succeeding, after all your goal is simply not to fail and if you are doing great then you can afford to put in less effort.

If you have a promotion focus you get more motivation when you are doing well but are likely to give up when failing. For example if you have had a great training session and managed to beat someone on a new climb then you will feel elated and want to do more. Yet if you do badly then you are likely to put less effort in and hence do even worse and give up. If you were trying to win but if looks like you can't then why bother to put the effort in.

You can use this to your advantage. Think of whether you want more motivation when failing or succeeding and frame your goal accordingly. For any task you can choose promotion or prevention not both. If you decide you want a promotion goal and start to fail then you should realise it, feel bad about it and make a conscious decision to put more effort in.

3 Summary

The subconscious gives you a motivation value for every thing you could do. You can change the motivation by working out why your subconscious is choosing distracting things and changing those factors. By spending a few minutes examining your goals you can increase the likelihood of achieving them. The three ways discussed were:

  1. "If-then" triggers,

  2. Mental contrasting,

  3. Changing the wording of the goal to give either a prevention or promotion focus.

Remember that even with this type of goal setting you are vulnerable to self-control depletion. Sometimes you have bad days and on those days it will take a lot of mental effort and a lot of thinking through why you wanted to achieve the goal to actually succeed. The check-list below is meant to take the ideas above and form them into questions to improve the chances of succeeding.

I suggest having a written list of goals somewhere where you will look at them regularly. For example, a bedside table where you can look at them morning and night. It depends on your routine. There is no point in having these triggers if they are not regularly refreshed in your mind. The best way to do that is to read them and perform them regularly.

3.1 Goal Check-list

  1. I want more motivation when [failing, succeeding] therefore focus will be [prevention, promotion]?

  2. It will be done when …

  3. I am doing this because …

  4. My sticking point will be …

  5. I want this to be done because …

  6. I risk failure when …

  7. The trigger is …

  8. The very first step is ...

3.2 Distraction Check List

  1. Notice you are becoming distracted.

  2. Examine each factor of the motivation equation in turn for both the distracting task and the task you want to perform.

  3. Think how to change the goal or your environment to change the factors in your favour.

  4. If you are regularly coming up against distractions for the same goal then re-evaluate the value and expectancy. It might be worth changing or dropping the goal.


The sources are from the list below (plus two years of small tweaks by myself):

I wrote this article before reading the more recent work on how mindset changes whether people perform as if self-control was a resource that could be depleted. I plan to make a new article that contains this information as well as a lot more on mindset and emotional responses but I want to test it out on the London LW community first.

Although this is based in research it does diverge somewhat. It is more a measure of what has worked well for me. If you want the truth in the research read the research papers in the back of the books I have referenced.

This post is also available on my personal blog

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more people put on weight because they couldn't stick to their diet than those that chose a diet that wouldn't have caused weight loss.

Can you source this, please?


Does Steel do a unit analysis of the procrastination equation? To my eye, it looks like motivation is measured in, say, utilons per impulsivon-hours. Do these units make sense?

Previous LW posts have covered some of this material. (I'm just giving the links, not issuing a criticism -- in fact, I think it's good to review core material at regular intervals and to have write-ups in different styles.)

I think it would make sense if the units of Impulsiveness are 1/time?

For a rational agent, motivation = utils. Affliction with impulsiveness (by which we here mean "not delaying gratification") requires motivation = utils / R where R increases with the amount of delay. Setting R to a 1/time impulsiveness constant multiplied by delay does accomplish this.

The same way that Hertz are cycles / second, Impulsiveness is "motivation-drop" / second.

Here's the background on its construction for those interested,the academic article "Integrating Theories of Motivation"

Spectacularly uncontroversial really, based on the core and best established parts of the key motivational theories. Due to limiting the theory this way (i.e., focusing on the core elements), it doesn't cover directly obvious elements like satiation, though really you would incorporate it in value.

If I could redo it again, I would differentiate between goal choice and goal pursuit as expectancy operates differently. However, the public conversation is necessarily limited to reiterating the basics, which is fine, Academically though, it is a bit old hat.

We are working on a software based training program that we can update that is based on our best understanding of goal setting. I like it as it provides a more direct conduit to implementing what we have learned. Actually all inspired somewhat by what Less Wrong is up to.

I take the main motivation equation to be illustrative only. You may assign units like utilons/time or whatever but I think that human motivation is highly nonlinear with logistic satiation effects and multiple effects at differnent time scales.

Just have a look at the graphs in Human Motivation:

In that case, the equation is misleading and really shouldn't be used at all. This seems to be a common issue with self-help books and the like: sprinkling in equations for "mathiness points", without actually thinking about things like what the units would be, or whether it actually matches up as a model. The "Happiness Equation" is another example.