Motivation: You Have to Win in the Moment

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.

Recom­mended Reading

  • 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.”