Usually, I’ll zoom in on a particular topic, but this week I am going to zoom way out. It’s important to see the details in context of the big picture. Most progress is made in the daily steps we take, but understanding why we should prefer one approach over another is useful.1
When reading personal development content, there are three main things you can hope to change in order to improve your life.
- How You Feel (Motivation)
- What You Do (Strategy)
- How You See Things (Perspective)
Which one is most effective, and why?
Change How You Feel With Motivation (Least Effective)
This is the most popular type of personal development content. Motivational content is widely sought after, widely consumed, and heavily promoted. On Amazon, for example, the motivation category ranks in the top 3 or 4 of ALL nonfiction categories. On Reddit, the “Get Motivated” subreddit has over 6 million members. In contrast, the “Get Disciplined” subreddit has just over 160,000 members. It absolutely dominates the world in mindshare, and it shares something in common with another industry.
The pharmaceutical industry makes $300 billion a year. Drugs are called “medicine” by the general population, just as motivation is considered personal growth fuel. What do these have in common? They both primarily treat symptoms.
I went to the doctor recently for a neck injury. He prescribed me two things, one of which would help my symptoms, and another which would help my underlying problem. He gave me a prescription for muscle relaxers, which would ease the pain I felt due to my injury. He also prescribed physical therapy, which would help the injured muscles recover and get stronger. Most people prefer to treat symptoms because it’s easiest and feels best to take the pill, and its the first recommendation from doctors.
How is this like motivation? Motivation is “the general desire or willingness of someone to do something.” It’s a desire, a feeling.
Feelings are symptoms!
If I feel sad, that is a symptom of some problem or event in my life. Maybe I’m lonely. Maybe someone close to me has passed away. Maybe I watched a sad movie. The feeling results from something else. Feelings are not the source, they are the reaction to the source.
Thus, when someone tells you to “get motivated,” they are suggesting that you ignore whatever sources are causing you to currently feel unmotivated and to try to get motivated by their superficial cheerleading. This can work for a time, just like a muscle relaxer can make you feel like you’re healed for a time. One time, I had the flu and I took some ibuprofen. It decreased my fever and took away my aches and I played basketball, thinking I was better. Later, the “medicine” wore off and my symptoms returned.
Many people don’t see motivation this way. They see it as a decision, which is like saying neck pain is a decision. This illusion is able to survive because of symptom-masking. I can take a muscle relaxer to hide the symptom, but that doesn’t help my injury. In the same way, a person might be able to “get motivated” sometimes and mask their underlying problem, but the problem isn’t solved, and the problem is precisely what causes them to feel unmotivated in the first place.
Zig Ziglar once said, “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.”
This is one of the worst quotes in history. It erroneously suggests that we can change how we feel on demand every day, every time. It suggests that motivation is reliable, and that it’s normal to feel unmotivated to begin every day, and to require your motivation pill to get going. There’s a far better way. Motivation is the symptom, and poor strategy is the problem. Good strategy is the solution.
Change What You Do With Strategy (Most Effective)
Over the last three years, I’ve been more motivated than I’ve ever been in my life. I’m productive daily. I exercise regularly. I’m not perfect, but I do a pretty good job at moving forward given my tendency for laziness. I don’t need motivational fixes because I’ve addressed the underlying problem. I have a great and effective daily strategy I call Mini Habits.
Those trying to get motivated attempt to change how they feel in order to change what they do. Those with superior strategies change what they do FIRST, which is the end goal anyway, and are given the bonus of generating more motivation. The greatest motivator, in fact, is employing a successful strategy. People think they need motivation to reach success, but in reality, they need success to generate motivation.
And doesn’t this match your experience? The highest moments in your life are almost certainly the times you’ve felt most motivated. The lowest points in your life are likely when you felt least motivated. That’s because motivation is a feeling! So when you employ a superior strategy that doesn’t require motivation, you give yourself greater success in whatever your goal is, and that increases your motivation. But unlike Mr. Ziglar’s quote, this sort of motivation does not come from treating the symptom (low motivation) of the problem (poor strategy), it comes from treating the problem, which naturally produces higher general motivation. This type of motivation can last.
To be completely accurate, however, the real underlying problem that directly causes low motivation isn’t the strategy we use. The strategies we use simply determine our success or failure at treating the underlying problems. For example, throughout my 20s, one of my underlying problems was not exercising as consistently as I wanted to. This made me feel lousy and unmotivated. Because I was using the ineffective “get motivated” strategy, that problem continued for 10 years. Yes. TEN. When I switched strategies to the one push-up challenge as my first mini habit, my underlying problem was fixed in time. And not only was the problem fixed, but I felt a lot better about myself and enjoyed permanently increased motivation in that and other areas of my life! When you’re doing a great job at meeting and exceeding your goals, you’re more likely to continue to do so and feel good about life.
You may have noticed that I called “getting motivated” a strategy. It is indeed a strategy. It’s basically the default strategy of mankind. I wouldn’t say that we’re prewired to favor it, it’s just that society has promoted it to the point that other options like discipline, mini habits, and other “action first” strategies are marginalized despite being far superior. I didn’t even consider another strategy until my late 20s, because I thought “getting motivated” was my best and only option. I had to “want it more.” Even if I wanted to develop habits, I thought I did so by “wanting them more.” It always came back to motivation as the key, and that’s why I didn’t get anywhere!
In general, it’s important to prioritize changing what you do. Don’t worry about how you feel, because if you change what you do, you will also change how you feel.
Change How You See Things With Perspective (Depends)
Perspective is the wildcard. While motivation and strategy are firmly placed as terrible and wonderful, respectively, perspective shifts are all over the map. For example, Jack LaLanne’s perspective shift after attending a health seminar changed his life permanently. So it can be supremely powerful, but it really depends on the person, their current perspective, and the perspective being proposed.
This article is an example of an attempt to change your perspective. In truth, almost all personal development content attempts to influence your perspective on some level, and to help cement the new perspective, it is typically supplemented with either motivation or strategy.
- Perspective with motivation: Your dreams are within your reach! How badly do you want them?
- Perspective with motivation: By exercising for 20 minutes a day, you can improve your physique and health dramatically. Here are seven inspirational stories of others who have done it. Now go do it! I know you can!
- Perspective with strategy: By exercising for 20 minutes a day, you can improve your physique and health dramatically. Commit to doing one push-up a day. This will change your neural pathways, form a new habit, and permanently change your relationship with exercise.
- Perspective with strategy: Being thankful has tremendous benefits. Practice by writing down one thing you’re thankful for every day in a gratitude journal.
It’s easy to see why motivation is more popular. Does it seem more exciting to think about how badly you want your wildest dreams or to do a cute little mini habit each day? Right. The thought of wanting your dreams (or any specific goal) so badly that you can’t be stopped makes you think of all the movies you’ve seen, all the stories you’ve heard, and that amazing, elusive version of yourself that you just know is possible to become! Trust me, I know all about that thought process.
But it’s fool’s gold. It’s ibuprofen for the flu. It’s muscle relaxers for an injury. It’s superficial motivation for underlying poor life strategy.
Our daily strategies (especially if they’re mini habits) seem boring in contrast to hype-driven motivational content, but they’re real solutions. They shape us into who we are, and they actually can make us into the amazing versions of ourselves we hope to become. If you want to get started with the best strategy, please read Mini Habits. It turned my life around. If you’ve already read Mini Habits, and you aren’t currently applying the concepts, this is a reminder that mini habits are the easiest strategy in the world to restart. You can get back on the proverbial horse with one minute of your time today and start a new streak of success and habit development.
To read my full story with Mini Habits, click the button below and subscribe to my Tuesday emails. I’ll send you the first chapter of Mini Habits for free.