Informal Post on Motivation

by Ruby 7 min read23rd Feb 20194 comments


This post began with a few thoughts I wanted to share on my newly created short-form feed. In order to convey those few thoughts, I found myself writing out a lot more of my general thinking about motivation. Eventually, it could not be defended as short-form anymore.

I still want to experiment with less formal and less polished writing. This post is presented as is, otherwise it probably wouldn't exist in any form for a long time.

Epistemic status: these are models I've held for a long-time and feel like they match my experience and are helpful, though that could be confirmation bias. They have sources in the ideas of others and academic models, for what's that worth.

I've been thinking about motivation again recently. Historically most (all?) of my motivation has come from a desire to solve an immediate problem or escape a source of pain (negative reinforcement, to use the confusing psychology terms). Assorted examples: studying in preparation of job-hunting because not having a job was painful; reading up on and practicing charisma (and later authentic relating/circling) because I wanted greater social success; trying to excel professionally and upskill rapidly because otherwise I wouldn't be good enough, wouldn't be as good as others, wouldn't accomplish my goals, and so on; the large amount of work I've done to understand and relate to my emotions because of all the difficult ones.

Yet there have been pockets here and there, and increasingly recently, where I feel quite happy about my life, what I have, and who I am. And I find myself having a bit less motivation. It feels okay to go to bed late or not do as much work or not get through my to-do list. In the past, such things would register as "failures" which felt like they'd cause me not to be good enough, not have the life I wanted, and not have the impact I need to. The fear of failing pushed me, and I have much less of that now.

I think my current state is much better. It is an improvement (for me) to have a good sense of well-being and satisfaction (I feel like I can think much more clearly, I'm a little saner or something), but I do need to iterate on how I approach motivation.

So these be some components of my thinking about motivation:

Let me roughly define motivation to do X as an experienced, palpable desire to do X such that doing X feels rewarding (and not doing X might even feel bad). You might be motivated to eat a sandwich, watch TV, work on your manuscript, talk to your friend.

For the most part, you feel motivation to do X when you S1 predict/believes that doing X will lead to reward. The reward can be pleasure or it can be the removal of pain. Basically, motivation to do X is proportional to the expected value of doing X. (Note the claim that motivation is tied to S1 models/beliefs/aliefs rather than S2. Motivation is arguably tied to the affection/emotional systems (I'll find you a reference if you really want) which also implies it's pretty S1 in nature).)

Why is motivation a challenge? We humans sure wrestle with it a lot.

A few thoughts:


When we're struggling with motivation to do X, it's because only S2 predicts/believes that X will lead to reward. S1 isn't convinced. Your S2 models say X is good, but S1 models don't see it. This isn't necessarily a bug. S2 reasoning can be really shitty, people can come up with all kinds of dumb plans for things that won't help, and it's not so bad that their S1 models don't go along with them.

An upshot of this is that good planning (making plans which are sufficiently convincing to your S1, plans that you really, actually believe will yield reward) is essential for feeling motivated. The plan must be good (actions will lead to reward) and this must be loaded into S1. By my understanding, CFAR's propagating urges class (which might have been renamed by now) was about trying to load the connection between specific actions and the eventual reward into S1. But of course you've gotta make sure there is a real link.

In the absence of S1 believing that doing X will result in reward, there is this thing called willpower. I'm gonna say something like willpower is limited ability to override S1 when S2 doesn't think S1 isn't producing the right outcome (maybe S1's models are too simplistic, etc.) It's important that S2 doesn't have unlimited power to select our actions, and the same goes for S1. Checks and balances. If we had unlimited willpower (unlimited ability to override S1) then we'd probably do really dumb things like kill ourselves by not sleeping.

If you're using a lot of willpower, it's quite possibly because your S1 doesn't believe in your plans. Doesn't believe these actions will actually net desired outcomes.

(The connection likely isn't clear, but my ideas feel very congruent with what Nate Soares has described with his motivation. Trying to figure out what on earth Nate was really doing spurred my early 2015 bout of thinking about motivation. That's when I formed the core of my current motivation models).


Motivation isn't just about your S1 believing that doing X will lead to reward, it requires that your S1 believe that doing X will lead to more reward than other actions you might be taking right now. Your S1 prioritizes possible actions and generates motivation towards the action with the highest expected reward. (Feeling conflicted about what to do happens when there is no clear winner.)

The expected reward calculation is probably slightly more sophisticated than "chance of reward" x "size of reward". Slightly. Could be the procrastination equation by Piers Steel hits most of it:

Motivation = (Expectancy x Value)/(Impulsiveness x Delay)

See Lukeprog's great summary.

So in any moment, your brain is evaluating all possible actions, weighing up the size of reward, likelihood that the reward will materialize, and how long off that reward is. Time discounting is probably reasonable, though it has been pointed out that humans might do this is an inconsistent way.

[An aside: many long-term plans do have some immediate rewards as soon as you start working on them (or even just plan to), namely, the social rewards. I've been working on writing a book. This is a large project or which I expect pretty good benefits, but actually already I get to talk about writing a book which might make me seem cool and interesting. I get some reward just for having the plan. This phenomenon is dangerous - if the social reward of our plans is immediate, then it can lead to optimizing our plans to look cool and sexy rather than being the ideal long-term plans. People don't have to necessarily prioritize social rewards over other kinds, social rewards can win out in our priorities simply because they can be so quick to materialize.]

So why do we struggle with motivation? Why do we procrastinate? Well, because probably our brains evaluate available actions and find that Facebook, Netflix, chocolate cake all yield high-reliability, decently-sized rewards very immediately. In contrast, trying to get an A on your term paper so you can graduate with good grades so you can get a good job so you can have a good life is a pretty damn tenuous connection between action and reward. Probably your motivation to do well on your term paper A is more strongly coming from your desire to maintain consistency with your self-narrative as a "good student". You fear not getting an A. But maybe Netflix is a better way to avoid that fear than actually doing the paper.

We live in times when we have so many sources of pretty good, high-reliability, instant forms of gratification alongside goals which are ever more long-term, distant, and uncertain. Is working this job the right thing to do? Will doing Y actually improve the world? Who knows. Not that motivating.

A couple more items supporting that the motivation you experience stems from the relative S1 prioritization by your brain:

a) There's a great paper An opportunity cost model of subjective effort and task performance by Kurzban. Kaj Sotala summarizes it here. The basic idea is that staying focused on a single task is hard because because your brain starts saying "hey, we've been doing this thing for a while now - maybe there's something else even better we could be doing?" and your S1 starts pushing with greater force to go and check for the greater rewards elsewhere that might be had. Given that your phone is in your pocket and Facebook is a click away, your brain isn't wrong.

b) The Oxford Handbook of Human Motivation (a really fascinating book) has a chapter on Neuroscience and Human Motivation (read here). A model I took away from it is that there's the part of your brain where motivation lives (dopamine system, ventral tegmental area, striatum - doesn't really matter) and multiple other system feed into it with different levels of priority. Among them you have a) relatively automatic motivation states which maintain homeostasis such as the desire for food and water (and I'd guess sleep), b) motivational states based on associative learning (close to automatic) - through a few repetitions, you've learned that FB is yummy, c) motivational states because S1 predicts that an action will yield reward, and so, d) motivational states because S2 sees an action (towards a goal) as valuable. The sources of these different motivations all feed into the same place and therefore come into conflict with each other. The order listed here is seemingly their usual order of their strength. Hunger, thirst, and tiredness are good at disrupting your ability to work on long-term goals, so are conditioned expectations of immediate gratification like FB.

Figure from Neuroscience and Human Motivation chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Human Motivation depicting different systems involved in motivation.

An inference I take from this model is that you are best able to focus on long-term S2 goals (those which have the least inherent ability to influence you) if you have taken care of the rest of things which motivate you. Eat enough, sleep enough, spend time with friends. When you're trying to fight the desire to address those things, you're using willpower, and willpower is a stopgap measure.

These days, I definitely allocate all my effort to being well-rested over trying to get myself to keep working even once I'm tired.


Seemingly I've been quite motivated over the last five years to work towards big, long-term important goals. I've learnt much, gained skills, improved myself. Yet as described at start, doing so was usually relieving some source of presently-existing pain, something I was dissatisfied with. Even if the things I was working on weren't going to be completed any time soon, when I worked on them I experienced the reward of not feeling as bad (because I was making progress). Immediate reward providing motivation.

What do I do now that I'm feeling quite satisfied with life? I'll be thinking about this for a while, but I think part of the anwer involves making the actions I want to take feel immediately rewarding for reasons other than not feeling bad.

Rummaging around in the folders of motivation papers I was reading back in 2015, I also found The Fundamental Need to Belong: On the Distinction Between Growth and Deficit-Reduction Orientations. In the language of that post, much of my past motivation seems to have been sourced in deficit-reduction. I believe this distinction between deficit-reduction orientation and growth orientation is commonly made. Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson asserts that you brain can neuroplastically be in a green brain or red brain (responsive vs reactive) state corresponding to the above two orientations.

Figure: Hanson's green brain (responsive) and red brain (reactive)

So part of what I need to do now is really figure out how to do green-brain, growth-orientation motivation over red-brain, deficit-reduction motivation. Linking back to the earliest sections of this post, that translates to making the actions I want to take seem they will result in some good reward which isn't just not feeling bad for some existing reason.

I'm uncertain about how to do this, but a couple of ideas:

  • Really cultivate a sense that progress feels good. I have my large long-term goals and I have actions which push in the right direction. Perhaps meditating on how yummy it is to make progress will feel good.
  • Link my actions into my self-model and desired self-narrative. I like to believe that I'm someone always striving higher to make myself and the universe the best they could be. If I start sleeping in longer than necessary because basically I like my life and myself already, then I'm failing to be who I want to be, I'm failing to live up to my values.
    • This could be a little bit recreating a source of pain to motivate myself. I'm uncertain if that's the direction. Possibly this can be done in more positive light – "becoming even more my ideal self" rather "failing to be live up to who I want to be."
  • Something which I think will work, though I don't find it as "pure" as a form of motivation is to surround myself with others living the way I want to. I've been working independently for the last six months meaning that most of the time I haven't been around others I might compare myself to. Soon I'll be working with others again, and in particular others I admire and who push themselves. I anticipate experiencing motivation to push myself no less hard, but is that a growth or deficit-reduction mindset? Is it an ideal source of motivation to do things because I don't want to be any less good than my peers? I feel like I'd rather source my motivation internally from me and my values.