The Best Motives for Action, Rated

Tigers run in the snow because… reasons!

Every time you do (or don’t do) something, there’s a reason behind it, a why, a motive. Here are some possible motives for action, with ratings! I will rate each motive out of 10 for…

  • Power: how powerful is the motive for driving action?
  • Accessibility: if you want to use this motive for action, can you obtain it?
  • Ease of use: Once you have access, how easy is it to use it?

The ratings aren’t necessarily better if they’re higher. For example, if a motive for action tends to lead to detrimental actions, then an accessibility rating of 10 is more of a problem than a benefit. Let’s get started!


They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and it’s true. Crises, personal and larger scale, power a great number of breakthroughs. We are great problem solvers, and there are plenty of problems to solve. The most painful, pressing problems are the ones that we tend to solve first (out of necessity).

This motive is often hated because it’s very stressful. If you need something, it’s probably an uncomfortable situation because you don’t have it yet. But this is probably the single most powerful motive you can have. The most common, relatable example is needing to provide for yourself and your family. Cinderella Man is a good movie based on this idea. I think it beautifully captures the power of necessity to create powerful, inspiring actions that might not have otherwise occurred.

  • Power (10):The emotional intensity and desperation of needing solutions will create some of the strongest actions.
  • Accessibility (5): It’s either there or not. If your life is too comfortable, lacking necessity can be a major downside!)
  • Ease of use (8): The strong emotions that come along with necessity usually make action easy, unless you’re the type to “turtle up” when adversity comes. Don’t turtle up!

Recommendation: Embrace it! If you are going through a difficult time, or feel a sense of desperation about your life, this is the hidden upside. People will say punchless platitudes like “keep your chin up” and “hang in there,” but instead they should probably say something like, “use this to empower yourself into life-changing action.” Perhaps something snappier, but you get the idea. Necessity brings cornered-animal ferocity to our action; it’s pure, raw, and adrenaline-fueled. Harness it and use it.


Every person values different things about the world and their own life. While many people share common values such as family, love, freedom, and leaving a legacy, values can get quite a bit more nuanced than that. Some of my highest values are things like games, creativity, and independent thought.

This is one of the most important motives for action because it’s the most fulfilling. Living your values feels correct. Living any other way feels wrong.

  • Power (9): These are your core values. They’re going to be meaningful, emotional, and strong. I give it a 9 because they may lack the same urgency and desperation that comes with necessity.
  • Accessibility (9): Your values are always there for you to draw from. Don’t forget what matters to you.
  • Ease of use (4): Values are more difficult to use than one might think, because we have so many other things to manage in our lives. It’s easy to get caught up in routines that don’t satisfy our values.

Recommendation: Define your values and make plans to live according to them. Be aggressive and intentional!


The more you do something, the more you’re likely to do it in the future. This is a compounding formula, for better or worse. Lives are made and lost through the power of habit, which drives a little bit less than half of all human behavior! That’s why I’ve written four books about it. You can’t be passionate about behavior and behavior change without addressing habits!

That said, my next book will not be so much about habits. It’s about the other half.

  • Power (10): Habits are quietly powerful, not so much in a single day, but over time they’re nigh unstoppable and life-defining.
  • Accessibility (9): Habits are changeable, but not immediately. You have to be clever with your approach.
  • Ease of use (10): As automatic or semi-automatic, there’s nothing easier than performing a habit. The question is if you wanted to do it in the first place.

Recommendation: Form habits with intention, and take care not to let bad habits ruin you! If you want to form new habits, use a proven strategy like the ones in my books (and avoid those “____ in 30 days” fads).

External Incentive

If I gave you $34,294 to mop the floor, you’d probably do it because the incentive far outweighs the effort. There are many external incentives in the world that compel us to do (or not do) things. The incentive can be negative as well, like going to prison for criminal activities. The most ubiquitous worldwide external incentive is the paycheck people receive for working.

It’s a simple calculation: is the reward worth the effort?

  • Power (7): External incentives are generally strong motivators, but it obviously varies. You’re not going to do much if I offer you a spanking in return, unless…uh… nevermind.
  • Accessibility (2): The problem with external incentives is that you don’t control them! Someone else needs to offer you something, or you must take a risk and guess the external incentive for doing a project. For example, every book I write is a gamble—will I be paid fairly for the time and effort and money I invest in the book? Nobody knows!
  • Ease of use (10): The fact that people go to work every day, and show up reliably, proves the effectiveness of this motive. Most people have no problem working for a known reward. Honestly, I should have a second category for unknown external rewards, but I don’t know the payoff of actually doing that… see what I did there?

Recommendation: This is a good motive for action, but don’t let it be your only one! If you neglect your values, you’ll feel empty inside.


Feelings probably drive us more than we realize. The relationship between thoughts, feelings, and actions is fascinating because they all affect each other!

People make more mistakes when emotions drive their actions. Lust causes affairs and ruin marriages. Anger causes violence and ruins lives. Euphoria causes plenty of mistakes as well. The problem with emotion is that it works outside of our logic system. Just because you feel like doing something does not mean it is correct.

  • Power (10): Plenty of lives are ruined via emotion-driven actions. In this case, power is largely negative. Emotion can create powerfully positive actions, of course, but it’s much rarer than the alternative.
  • Accessibility (9): Very accessible. How do you feel right now? You can act accordingly, if you want. I stopped short of a full 10 here because sometimes emotions can be conflicting and/or difficult to identify.
  • Ease of use (10): Acting from emotion feels completely natural and is easy to do. Afterwards that we realize if it was the right move or not.

Recommendation: Try not to act from emotion. In certain circumstances, it can work (angry workouts are excellent), but most of the time it leads to poor decisions.


Hedonism, baby! I could easily be a full-time hedonist. Food, entertainment, sex, gambling, and drugs all promise instant activation of your brain’s pleasure centers. You can light your brain up like a pinball machine with pleasurable activities.

I can’t remember where I read it or posted it, but there was a study in which they placed an electric node directly on the pleasure center of rat’s brains, and connected it to a button the rat could press. When the rats pressed the button, they felt pleasure. They pressed the button a gazillion times and stopped eating. They would have literally pleased themselves to death.

This study was (unethically) replicated on humans, and the same result was found. The participants reported feeling an intense feeling of euphoria. Like the rats, they pressed the button repeatedly and would not stop unless forced. It’s interesting that we have such potential to be slaves to pleasure. Some people certainly are already.

  • Power (11): The potential power of pleasure to drive action is beyond powerful. That study suggests we would seek pleasure to our own death if it were powerful enough. The power of pleasure is variable from person to person, however, holding some people hostage as others do well to seek it sparingly and smartly.
  • Accessibility (10): The modern world makes it so easy to access pleasure. Legal pleasurable drugs such as alcohol are massive sellers year after year, among countless other examples.
  • Ease of use (10): What’s easier than seeking pleasure? We’re wired to do it.

Recommendation: Moderation is everything here. I think it’s as wrong to deprive yourself of all pleasure as it is to seek it out recklessly. There’s an enjoyable middle ground! “Seeking pleasure” sounds selfish, but consider that the primary basic forms of pleasure, food and sex, are how we survive as a species! One very real benefit of pleasure is stress reduction, which I think is one reason why moderate alcohol drinkers live longer on average than even teetotalers do. Enjoy in moderation!

That concludes this discussion of motives for action. I hope you learned something, were reminded of something important, or were able to clarify your understanding of why you do what you do.

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