Hi, I'm Nick. This is my blog. I'm a life-long unschooler living in New York. You can find more about me here.

I help run the Recurse Center (YC'S10).

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How to hack your motivation function and stay motivated

July 25, 2010

Determination and perseverance are essential to starting a successful company. Everyone will tell you that one of the key differences between successful and unsuccessful entrepreneurs is that the successful ones don't give up, even when things look bleakest.

What people don't typically tell you is how to stay motivated. Many people assume that determination is innate -- some people are just naturally determined and others are not. There's probably some amount of truth to this. I don't know any of the science behind it, but it wouldn't surprise me if motivation levels were normally distributed across the population.

But I don't really care about innate motivation. What I care about is, regardless of our "natural" determination level, what can we do to increase it?

I've thought about this a lot over the years and I've learned two things. First, my motivation level is a function that varies with time. Second, and more important, it's possible to hack it, effectively making me more determined and motivated.

Two common recommendations for startups are I think actually indirect ways of how to hack your motivation function.

The first recommendation for startups is to have a cofounder. The idea is that your cofounder can help keep your spirits up when you're feeling down, and you can do the same for him when he's feeling down. This works because your motivation functions are almost certainly out of phase, so you're unlikely to both hit your lowest points simultaneously.

It might seem odd to hear that this actually works quite well. The reason you'd think that this wouldn't work is that you would assume both cofounders' motivation levels would be based on how well the company is doing and would thus track each other closely. This is partly true: Your motivation level is obviously effected by outside events. When a VC tells you he wants to invest or a customer raves about your product, you're both likely to get a strong boost. Similarly, when someone you respect tells you she thinks your idea is no good, you're both likely to feel lousy.

In reality, your motivation level varies frequently (and sometimes wildly) even when your company's prospects haven't changed at all. You can go from thinking you're going to take over the world to being in a total slump in a matter of hours. It's this type of swing that cofounders can help each other modulate.

The second common recommendation for startups is to have a greater vision. That is, it's important that startups have a story that they tell both to others and to themselves about why what they're doing matters in a larger sense. If you truly believe what you're doing is important to the world, you're more likely to stick with it even when the odds look awful.

Beyond these bits of common advice I've developed a few tricks of my own to make sure I stay motivated and never give up.

The first idea came to me after realizing that motivation is a function of time. I realized that sometimes I have an overwhelming amount of it and sometimes I don't have enough. This got me thinking that maybe I could time-shift some of my excitement and energy.

It turns out that I actually can do this by talking to my future self. When I have a surplus of energy and excitement, I write a letter to myself, with the understanding that I'll read it the next time I need to give myself a boost. In this way I can "store" excess excitement and motivation for future use.

The second way I've found to keep myself consistently determined and working is to know what factors help pull me back up when I'm feeling down. Again, I don't think what matters is how naturally energized you are, but rather whether or not you can quickly and consistently re-energize yourself when you need to. This is because no matter how naturally motivated you are, there's a chance you'll eventually suffer enough setbacks and run out of steam. But if you have a method for replenishing your motivation levels you can keep doing this ad infinitum, no matter how many obstacles you run into.[1]

What exactly you need to do to re-motivate yourself depends entirely on the individual. It might be watching a favorite movie, reading a particularly inspirational essay, or jogging a mile. For me, listening to music and wandering the streets of Manhattan, taking in the people and architecture and all that humans have built is about as potent an energizer as I've ever discovered.

Have a narrative for your life. I debated including this one because it's both similar to the advice given to startups overall (have a greater vision) and also possibly just a special case of what I just said (know what gets you out of a rut). Despite this, I've included it because it's been incredibly effective for me.

As pompous and self-indulgent as it sounds, having a story about the arc of your life and a vision for where you're headed is an extremely powerful way to keep yourself on track. Firstly, this works because it means you have a track to actually stick to. You can't focus on and prioritize something if you don't know what it is.

Secondly, it works because it lets you make decisions based on a greater context. I'm frequently presented with things that I don't want to do because I'm scared or simply don't enjoy doing them. A greater goal lets me evaluate these things with perspective. It's much easier to get myself to do something right now that doesn't excite me tremendously if I can see how it's an important part of achieving one of my life goals.

Similarly, this helps me avoid doing the things that are fun to do in the short-term but detrimental to my long-term success, like watching TV or endlessly reading Twitter and Hacker News. Having a story to tell myself helps me resist temptations that bring instant-gratification but don't get me closer to what I really want.

  1. I haven't done any research on this, but I'd be willing to bet that this is how almost all really motivated people actually function: It's not that they never feel unmotivated, it's that when they do, they know how to re-energize themselves.