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Prefer Traction Over Motivation

Distraction is not simply something that takes over your attention.

Distraction is more insidious - it is the belief that whatever we are choosing to do in the moment is right.

And this persists until we have a chance to look back. We only understand distraction in hindsight.

We believe that distraction, in all its forms, is the result of a lack of motivation.

With enough motivation, the theory goes, we can accomplish anything.

Is this true? I can be highly motivated to make a boatload of cash. That motivation must translate to action.

And often, motivation does translate to action. That's the trickiest part of it all.

Motivation moves us to take a few steps. It's the "starter energy" needed to sign up for the gym in January.

Motivation is the spark that pushes us to buy a journal. It's enough to help us clean out the junk food from our pantry.

Motivation gives us the presence of mind to say no, especially when we have the presence of mind to recall the motivating "vision."

But it's not enough. I cannot get rich purely off of motivation.

Motivation is your capital.

Think about motivation as expendable capital. Once you use it up, it's gone. You won't maintain the same motivation level - it's not a character attribute.

Motivation is energy, and like any other energy, it is spent.

When you run out of motivation, it is likely you will become victim to distraction. Not because you have an attention problem.

Distraction should be framed as the lack of traction. Our default state is distraction. We do not become distracted.

We build traction.

If we spend our motivation capital on trying to grunt and force our way through hard work, what happens when we run out of motivation?

The work is still hard. We slip because we don't have traction.

Use your motivation capital to build traction.

Traction is a simple concept: enough grip such that the subsequent force applied translates to movement.

Traction is necessary for progress on hard problems.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this metaphor is the fact that traction often will make what seemed hard before, much easier.

(You were slipping; your energy was being wasted. When you have traction, you are more efficient. Your energy is higher leverage.)

So how do you use motivation capital to build traction? Here is where your motivation energy should go.

Build habits.

This deserves its own post, book, etc - there are a few great ones (Atomic Habits and Power of Habit both come to mind).

Here's the reality - habits are about creating automatic behaviors. It's not easy, but it's also not intuitive. A few tips here:

  • Stack your habits together. Don't build 3 different habits - build one habitual routine that encompasses those three things.
  • Focus less on finishing and more on starting. It's easy to get overwhelmed with the enormity of any given thing, but much easier to solve the first step.
  • Find rewards to reinforce the good habits.

Focus on eliminating barriers.

Perhaps the most important aspect of building traction is making the right thing the easy thing.

Think of your behavioral battle between "what I'd like to be" and "what feels good right this millisecond" as a negotiation. Your motivation is one piece of the negotiation puzzle. But it's not enough. When your motivation fades, what remains is your habits and your sense of identity. "I am the kind of person who works out early in the morning." The strength of this identity will be at odds with the warmth of your bed or the tempting path of inaction.

Removing your barriers means looking at the minutiae. Tilting the scales. Make gravity work on your side.

Look at the edges or the first steps of the problem. How do you make those parts easy or nonexistent? How can you make the "right thing" the only thing?

Simple examples of this: reduce the number of choices you have to make. Reduce the number of physical actions you have to take. Reduce the mental stamina required.

Turn on as many automatic switches as you can find, and eliminate waste in every possible arena.

Use your motivation to fuel habit-building and barrier eliminating work.

This is how you invest your capital. Use your energy to plan your habits. Think on a meta-level about your rewards. Program your workouts. Build systems that take away barriers to action and remove the cruft.

This is usually small work, and it usually can be batched. Do it at the heights of your energy. Give yourself a longer runway to coast on during the actual work.

Ultimately it's about winning the war of inertia.

Traction is critical to going from rest to motion. Fight inertia as your primary enemy. Motivation is enough energy to kick a bowling ball. It might move it, but it will quickly fall back into rest. Use your motivation to pick the ball up, get your fingers set right, and pull your arm back.