Jump – start motivation through action

I’m a serial procrastinator.

If I have a job to do or a responsibility, I will delay it till the last possible moment, and then get around to doing it only when my ass is on fire. This is generally true for most areas of my life, and has a wide variety of reasons – I have defaulted on my telephone and electricity bills more times than I can count because I am too lazy to open the payment portal, I have put off having difficult conversations with friends and family because I am not too fond of confrontations, and I have also postponed important work assignments till the night before the due date. “Not taking any action until and unless absolutely necessary” was my life’s motto for quite some time, especially because I never had any problems with working under pressure.

Of late, however,  I have become more of an optimization freak, and have been seeking to improve the extent to which I utilize time. And although the ability to delay gratification has been associated with greater academic and professional success (Ref), trying to delay things too much eventually leads to stress and exhaustion. A little bit of introspection (and a whole lot of delayed charges on my phone bills), led me to the one reason why I was procrastinating so much – Motivation, or lack thereof.

But what is motivation, really? As far as I can understand it, motivation is the drive or push to execute certain actions, in anticipation of some sort of future gratification. In other words, it is the destination that inspires you to undertake a certain journey.

An explanation for the way we think and the structure of our value system can be found in our formative years. The brain has an interesting action – reward functionality: you set a target for yourself, and when you reach it, your brain rewards you with a sense of achievement. While this feeling may be triggered by external stimuli (appreciation from a friend or a loved one, applause from an audience full of strangers), the gratification comes from the way you feel about yourself. In other words, we feel good if we achieve the tasks we had set out for ourselves.

In my search for this elusive bird called motivation, I have come across several life hacks and techniques, but there are two that have stuck with me the most

  1. The two (or five) minute principle: Whenever you are putting off a responsibility or an action for tomorrow, just think about how much time it will take you to complete it. If the answer is less than five minutes, go ahead and do it anyway.
  2. The do something principle (all credit goes to Mark Manson, ref here): Action isn’t just the effect of motivation, but also the cause of it.

Both of these approaches work on a simple but powerful psychological fact. Our desire to do (or not do) something starts off with an intention, but bringing our ideas to fruition requires motivation – which, as mentioned above, fuels our struggle in order to achieve an end result. Absence of motivation, therefore, leads to inaction.


The interesting thing about this process, is that it is not linear. In fact, it is something like this


It is possible to “jump start” some sort of motivation through an action. This is something that puts a lot of power in your hands, because unlike motivation (which is a feeling), action is something that can be controlled and done at will. This, to a certain extent,  echoes the age old Gita philosophy – instead of worrying about results (and hence searching for motivation through an end goal) concentrate on your actions.

I have been using this principle for a while now, and I must say that this has done wonders for my productivity. From the most mundane chores to more important tasks, once you start doing something, the action itself motivates you to move forward. In fact, I had been meaning to write for the last few days, but I simply could not find the mental space to do so. However, once I wrote the first few lines for the draft version of this article (which I promptly deleted 5 minutes later), the rest of the post just seemed to flow through, allowing me to finish writing within 30 minutes. Once I was done I realized that I had the material within me all along, and of course used some choice words for myself for not writing this sooner.

1 Comment

  1. Nicely written, with some moving parts though/

    Firstly i see that you use procrastination as a motivating setting to graduate towards the essence of the article- about lack of motivation and how to drive it. However establishing causality between procrastination and lack of motivation is a separate article in itself. Its not really clear whether/no they are the same, and if no, whether they are associated and in what manner (causality or lack thereof).

    Moving towards the lack of motivation and using action as a tool to fix it, it completely agree with the article. We are reward seekers and we use it as a feedback mechanism to get our asses to work . Accomplishing anything, small or less- releases dopamine- which basically makes us feel good and have that satisfactory feeling. ( similar feeling is associated with having sex, or after consuming cocaine/heroin) and this little mothafuckin chemical controls motivation . However good thing is that we can manipulate this chemical and fool our brain into feeling good when we want it. (read below)

    Now how does reward seeking explain the effectiveness of the two techniques that you just listed above? Even a very small step ( towards or in any other arbitrary direction) would trigger the reward mechanism in your brain and you get into this loop of seeking more. Since you want more, you have to act more and achieve the incremental reward. For example, completing these 2/5 minute tasks , or checking off small items on a to-do list(which is useless for the most other part) or breaking down your big goals in life to smaller ones and achieving these small targets(ex stronger bench presses, decreasing body fat %age for abs) would give you the same incremental achieving feeling. Similarly, if you can’t seem to get any work done, just initiating should give you a micro-reward for crossing that barrier in the first place.

    As you mention, it is a very empowering revelation that motivation is not some state of mind that needs to be achieved (which makes it sound very out of control) but something that can be modulated by our own actions.

    “Without action , the world would still be an idea”- Georges Frédéric Doriot


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