Informal Post on Motivation

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.