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I have wondered for some time why I find it so hard to keep motivated to do things like exercising, reading, looking for business opportunities, getting up early etc. I have tried a raft of different techniques to "unlock" motivation to do these things but nothing seems to last.

It occurred to me today that I manage to always get out of bed, no matter how I feel physically or emotionally, to go to work. I have had some jobs where I have felt sick to the stomach turning up each day but I still did it. Rain, hail or get the point.

Why am wired to complete this activity every day without looking at it as "I needed motivation to do it?". What is my motivation to do this and how can I translate it to other activities?

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Have you considered looking at the payoffs of your work: You probably receive some financial compensation, there may be status, etc. These are where I'd start. – JB King Nov 11 '12 at 4:23
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I guess it has to do with your work ethics and the values you hold important--this may be a result of your growing up so I'm not sure it's an easy thing to change, because really it's how you see the world. On the other hand, there could be defining events in your life that would completely change your outlook, redefining what you consider important. I think this works chiefly at the subsconscious level--i.e. it's not something over which we have cognitive control: it controls us.

External vs. Internal Driven People

Some people, presumably such as you, get a lot of motivation from external stimuli, like how others perceive you, a sense of obeying authority, workplace pressure, or competition. These have always struck me as inconceivable, since I'm entirely motivated by internal stimuli. I sometimes find it hard to convince myself it's worthwhile to go to college or work, because the stimuli there are mostly external and they actually demotivate me. On the other hand, I get extremely motivated following my own at-home study plans, workout routines and personal side-projects.

Having realized this, it also strikes me as interesting how productivity advice should really be broadly grouped into either external driven or internal driven--yet most articles fail to notice this difference and offer end-all be-all methods as if everyone was to get the same out of them. For some, some article's method may work brilliantly, for others it might do the opposite, effectively passing for bad advice. Several times I find myself scoffing at ludicrous advice given online--until I remind myself that for some people it's pure gold!

Life 101 for The Internal Driven

The way around for me in my day job was finding a company which gives me autonomy and leaves me to my own devices--so I'm amazingly motivated to bootstrap myself and get better at what I do. It has worked perfectly. If they had pressured me daily on my tasks, or laid out my work for me with little room for flexibility, I'd have been utterly demotivated, so it would have been counterproductive for me.

For college, I'm yet to make it work my way towards my degree, so I'm increasingly inclined to drop out and continue my (life-long) education through books and MOOCs--Massively Open Online Courses such as Coursera and Khanacademy's.

Manufacturing An External Stimulus

Coming from the other side, you should probably find ways to tack external stimuli onto your personal goals: find peers who can share the goal or watch your progress (e.g. for exercising there's Fitocracy and Fleetly), do the work or exercises in a social environment where others can see what you're doing and put pressure on you, or go all out and quadruple your productivity by hiring someone to slap you when you stray away!

These tricks and devices are not silly in the least, you have to use whatever you can to motivate yourself through whatever makes you tick. Motivation is a wonderful yet fleeting state of mind, and most people understand little enough about themselves that they leave whole areas of their life lacking (such as private goals for external-driven people), so you would be way ahead of most people by finding how to make yourself perform consistently in all areas of your life. It might be you have just been trying it the wrong way for yourself.

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Nice answer, I find the distinction between internal and external drive interesting... do you also have "external" :) references? – laika Nov 10 '12 at 16:07
I'm afraid it's mostly an internal theory! I'd love to see some external validation of it though, if you know what I mean. – Vic Goldfeld Nov 10 '12 at 22:28
Dan Pink has done some work on motivation that may be of interest. Some of his work is more on the internal stuff motivated by autonomy, mastery and purpose. – JB King Nov 11 '12 at 4:18
thanks. great answer. – Cunners Nov 15 '12 at 3:45
Good answer! tries to harness some of these principles. – dreeves Nov 15 '12 at 22:26

I could also be the difference between compelled activities versus voluntary. You are compelled to go to work because their are consequences you are directly aware of. The immediate consequence could be unemployment or loss of income and this could very will a strong motivator. The consequence of a lack of exercise is something on a timeframe you may not be able to envision - a heart attack 20 to 40 years away may not be a penalty you can truly feel. Cory Doctorow said that when he was faced with the thought of stopping smoking, he couldn't really see the benefit - the payoff was too far into the future and so he had to manufacture an immediate reward. He calculated the cost of smoking and then calculated a reward for stopping. He immediately bought a new laptop - thus producing a physical, tangible benefit in exchange for the hardship of quitting.

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I bet it's because you've got people counting on you at work. This creates stress (ie. raises cortisol levels) and pushes you past obstacles. Remember that humans are fundamentally tribal creatures -- our social interactions strongly affect our internal chemistry.

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This may very well be the reason, although there may be other reasons then stress. Perhaps you just want to alywas make a good impression on people, by never being late or not working as hard as you could. When you are alone, there's nobody to "judge" your performance and thus you lack the proper motivation. – enzi Nov 12 '12 at 19:03

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