Motivation Alone Is Not Enough

May 24, 2020

Introduction: Why motivation alone is not enough, read on to find out what ultimately worked for me.

You see it all the time, best-selling books, speakers, TED Talks, all aim to give you the motivation you need to go out and conquer the world. They say that we are only limited by our own imagination, if we dream it we will achieve it. There are lots of amazing talks and books that can help us to get the motivation we need to get fit, work hard, and achieve the impossible.

"All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them" -- Walt Disney

I spent time reading, watching, and listening to many of them and find them enjoyable. I truly believe in the power of positive thinking; I too would like to have the grit and hustle that so many of them possess. As helpful as they are, yet I find myself starting more projects than to finish them and the amount of focus and intense passion fades gradually as time goes on. "Am I just not cut out to be as tough as the high achievers?" I often ask myself as I struggle to finish yet-another-project.

Why motivation alone does not work

I find motivation is a great way to kickstart a project, but a terrible way to sustain progress. It is like that morning coffee that can get you going but unable to sustain that jump after a few hours.

Here are some of the problems that I think motivation alone does not solve:

  • Most goals take a long time to achieve

Any goal worth achieving almost always takes a long time. As network engineers, one of the most difficult certifications is the Cisco CCIE. At least when I was studying for it, it required passing a 3-hour written exam as well as an 8-hour onsite lab exam. The sheer volume of knowledge required to pass the exam takes anywhere from 6 months to multiple years to prepare and master. When you are on a path to pursue a difficult goal with no sight of the finish line, it is hard to sustain the initial intense motivation after a while.

This leads us to the next problem: motivation fatigue is real.

  • Motivation fatigue is real

The "law of diminishing returns" applies here. When you have been dreaming of a bowl of ice cream all day on a hot summer day; when you take that first bite it almost surely would be magical. "Dear ice cream, where have you been all my life," you thought to yourself.

However, as you start to eat more of that delicious ice cream, scoop after scoop, the satisfaction decreases. The effect of that initial, intense drive will decrease day by day. When you start to look at that 'No Pain, No Gain' sign for the 100th time in the morning, and every bone in your body is screaming to pull you away from that morning run, it is difficult to head out the door based on motivation alone.

  • There are only so much motivation quotes that can speak to you

If a quote motivates you, chances are it speaks to you at an emotional level. It could be from a person you admire, a cause you feel connected to, or it might be related to a prior pleasant experience you had. Well, there is only so much of that motivational speech, quote, and book available that can speak to you at that deep emotional level. Eventually, the water well will dry.

So what works?

Don't get me wrong, I continue to seek out ways that can keep me motivated on projects that I find interesting and challenging. But these days, I realize motivation alone does not work.

Looking back, when I finally achieve something that I can be super proud of, like finally passing the CCIE, finish writing a book, launching a website, or helping my daughter get through a tough basketball season, they almost always involve one or both of the following:

  • Establish a System

I remember at my first all-hands at Amazon, the company was still small enough to be fitted into a small theater in downtown Seattle. I sat close enough to get a full view of the stage when CEO Jeff Bezos came onto the stage. His speech had a lasting impact on me, his speech was related to how "Good intentions don't work" (don't worry, I didn't violate any NDA, you can read about it here). People have good intentions, but good intentions do not turn into solid results because they typically go against human nature. When you get paged at 3 am in the morning for a broken router, do you exercise good intentions and judgments on thoroughly checking the system and troubleshoot? Or do you just want to reload the router and go back to sleep? As somebody who was responsible for monitoring Tier 1 services at the time, I can tell you most people would rather choose sleep rather than hours of troubleshooting, it is just human nature.

So if good intentions don't work, what does? Systems and mechanisms do. Amazon is known to be notoriously obsessed with data, and from data, they establish monitoring, change systems, and operating procedures. For example, when I started my first position at Amazon, our team was relatively new, so we did not have a lot of systems and mechanisms. But by the end of year one, we had enough procedures built up to deal with 60% of the common issues. Whenever I had to train a new engineer for the team, I just point to the Wiki as a solid starting point.

It took me years to fine-tune my own system to make small gains and hold myself responsible. It is still evolving, but the point is to know to have a system and be mindful of how the system is working for you. Ideally, at any given moment, you should know exactly how far you are on your path to achieving your goals, what you have done, and how much further you still need to go.

  • Creating a habit to follow that system

Even when you have the best system in the world, it does nothing if it is not followed. So how can we make sure we follow the system when nobody is watching? I personally find it easier to try and establish a habit if I can. When I was trying to publish my first book, my system calls for writing about 3000 words every 10 days. This might not sound much, but couple it with a full-time job, family obligations, friends, and other daily tasks, producing the results consistently was definitely a challenge. There are certainly days when I just don't have enough gas in the tank to get it done.

What I eventually found that worked was to follow the same routine every morning to establish a writing habit. I went to bed at the same time so I can wake up at the same time, I drank the same amount of coffee, and always start writing as the first thing in the morning whether I feel like it or not. That did not always produce the optimal result, sometimes I had to rewrite sections at a time. But it helped me establish a habit and in turn, it allowed for consistent progress. The good days made up for the not-so-good days and before you know it, I was meeting the self-imposed quota and more.

After the book was published, I replaced the morning routine with reading, coding, or whatever the habit I wanted to establish at the time. To be honest, it is a constant battle to try not to fall off the horse, especially when I have to travel, had family emergencies, or just mentally tired. But I know this was the way to move forward and being self-aware is half of the battle.


To that end, I would highly recommend the following two books that helped me tremendously in realizing the power of habit and the systems other people have used to establish good habits (full disclosure, these are Amazon Affiliate links but they do not influence my opinions of them):

  1. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg

This book is a New York Times Bestseller, Wall Street Journal "One of the Best Books of the Year" in 2014, and many more deservingly accolades. You can read all the book reviews on Amazon, including glowing words from David Allen of 'Getting Things Done' fame. It offers systematic research on how habits can have major impacts from individuals to societies. It is an interesting read, including how companies use habits to influence our buying decisions.

  1. Atomic Habits by James Clear

This book offers a ton of practical advice on habits, how it influences decision making, and how we can use it for our own continuous improvement. Right from the start, James grabbed my attention with his own baseball accident that led to his own revelation of how establishing good habits allowed him to achieve his highest potentials. His writing is interesting and insightful. When I saw the Chinese translation of the book at the bookstore last year, I was very tempted to buy it again just to read it in another language.


So there you have it, my take on why 'Motivation Alone is NOT Enough' to achieve our goals. We need to establish systems and habits to keep us on track, iron out the bad days, and ultimately help us to become the best version of ourselves.

Do you agree? Disagree? Anything I missed? Leave me a comment below, I would love to hear from you!

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