How to Motivate Yourself to Do the Things You Know You Should Do

Nobel laureate economist Daniel Kahneman discusses a two system model of our consciousness in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. I like to call System 1 Goliath and System 2 David. Goliath is strong and hard-working, but dumb. David is intelligent, but weak and lazy. In my previous post, I have discussed David and Goliath in detail. In this post, I’m going to give you a simple practical method to use David to convince Goliath to do the things that you know you should do.

Determine Where You Are Going

The first step is to determine a life goal or goals that resonate with you at the gut level. Remember we are trying to influence Goliath here. He’s dumb. He needs a very good reason to get engaged. Your life goals are long term goals that have huge effects on your life. At the same time, your Goliath needs to have faith that you can achieve these goals. So, you are looking for a sweet spot here.

Your life goal(s) should be big enough to be engaging and realistic enough, so that you can have complete faith that you can achieve them.

Moreover, you need to keep the list of your life goals short. Remember, Goliath is dumb. He can’t keep a list of a dozen goals in his mind. Ideally, you’d like to have a single life-changing goal, that would enable all the rest of your goals. In the worst case, don’t exceed three goals at a time. Otherwise, you’ll be spreading your Goliath too thin. If you have more goals than that, just write them down somewhere for future reference.

Ideally, you’d like to have a single life-changing goal, that would enable all the rest of your goals.

Determine Where You Don’t Want to End Up

The second step is to determine your pain point(s). Find the pain point(s) that hurt the most at the gut level. What would happen if you didn’t work towards this goal? Make sure those consequences are realistic so that Goliath can be convinced of them. Pain points also act as a negative reinforcement to prevent you from the bad habits that harm you. Again a single strong pain point is ideal. In the worst case scenario, don’t exceed three.

Three to Five Action Items per Day

Having an ambitious life goal is like a double-edged sword. It can keep you motivated, but at the same time, it can discourage you if you don’t make much progress towards it. The bridge between your life goal and your current reality is your daily action list.

You need to come up with three to five action items a day that lead you to your life goal(s). While selecting your action items, you need to focus on essentials, so that you can actually make progress towards your life goal(s), instead of just doing busy work.

While selecting your daily action items, focus on essentials.

You don’t want to have more than three to five action items per day and overwhelm your Goliath. Ideally, you’d want to write down your life goal(s), pain point(s), and daily action items on a piece of paper, keep that paper in sight until that list gets done, and repeat that every day.

Boredom, Panic Zone, Stretch Zone

If your daily action items are 100% within your comfort zone, you’ll get bored. If they are 100% out of your comfort zone, you’ll overstress yourself. If they are 10% outside of your comfort zone, you’ll be engaged enough to work towards those goals, but at the same time, you’ll be confident that you can get them done.

You grow by stretching 10% outside of your comfort zone. You don’t grow, if you set three easy goals that are 100% within your comfort zone. You don’t grow by setting goals that are overwhelming. What would happen if you only lifted the light weights? Nothing. You would exercise your muscles and it is better than doing nothing. But your muscles won’t grow. What would happen if you lifted weights that you can barely lift with bad form. You would injure yourself and end up worse than you start.

Not Too Far, Not Too Close to Your Comfort Zone

Now, you might have read my post about me getting lost in the woods. The main lesson I learned from that experience is that we humans are much more capable than we think we are. Doesn’t that contradict with what I’m saying here?

No, it doesn’t. I don’t tell you to stay in your comfort zone. On the contrary, I tell you to get out of it, but only 10% at a time. If you get too far, too soon, you’re risking injuries and accidents. However, by getting outside of your comfort zone repeatedly, 10% at a time, you will get further than trying to get 80% outside of your comfort zone at once and injuring yourself.

What is a better deal? Trying to get 80% outside of your comfort zone, injuring yourself, and getting stuck in your comfort zone until you heal? Or 10% at a time ten times, and you end up 259% outside of your comfort zone. You get way further outside of your comfort zone without facing any injury or accident.

Slight Discontent is the Motivator

When coming up with your life goal(s), pain point(s), and daily action items, you want to create a slight discontent. If you overdo this, you will find yourself in a place of hopelessness and you’ll give up. If you don’t do this enough and you are 100% content with where you are, you won’t find the motivation to work towards that next level.

What is the sweet spot that would cultivate your aggressiveness? Having a lack, but not so much that you aren’t a hopeless case. You can succeed. There’s hope, but you have to work hard. Motivation comes from discontent, not from content. What would I do if I won the lottery? I would put it all into an investment fund, withdraw a salary of 10K/month, and do nothing useful, because I’d be content with what I have.

“You sleep on a win and you’ll wake up with a loss.” Conor McGregor

As the UFC star Conor McGregor puts it, you want to go to bed as a winner, but you want to start your day with a loss. The best way to do that is to have an achievable list of action items per day to start your day and get everything on that list done by the evening, so that you go to bed as a winner.

Conclusion & Call to Action

Personal development doesn’t get any easier, so please do yourself a favor and determine a life goal and a pain point. Write them on a sheet of paper. Write down three to five action items that you can complete in a day. Make sure that those action items are essential and they would bring you closer to your life goal and get you away from your pain point. Repeat that everyday.

Burak Bilgin
Software developer with a Ph.D. and 15 years of experience. I write daily on personal development and life lessons. Sign up to my email newsletter to receive a weekly overview of my latest content on personal development and life lessons.

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