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As a person with a disability, I understand the limits of motivation alone in helping me overcome certain obstacles. The disability rights movement rightfully identifies society’s obligation to create inclusive opportunities and not blindly leave questions of healthcare or access to the community up to one’s level of motivation. However, on a personal level, the disability rights movement does not give me any tools for accomplishing my daily to-do list or making me write that blog post I have been procrastinating. Clearly a productivity strategy is warranted for people with disabilities just as much as it is for everyone else, but if not motivation, then what?

Common perception is that motivation is the be-all and end-all of cultivating success, but there are many disadvantages to solely relying upon motivation for your success strategy. One being that motivation is extremely hard to maintain. If you have ever had a New Year’s resolution, you probably understand. You start out the year with the best intentions of reading more and watching less Netflix and before you know it you are in the middle of a 10 hour binge session of the latest season of The Crown. Furthermore, maintaining your motivation at a high level can cause stress on the body and mind, ultimately having negative long term health effects. My research has found 3 strategies for success that avoid the common motivation traps.

Focus on the Process

In his book, The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to... Jeff Haden argues that we should focus our efforts on the process rather than the goal. Many people believe to be successful they must wait to be struck by a lightning-like force called motivation that will energize them to achieve all their goals, but in reality, they end up waiting around in stagnation for that fateful moment. Instead he thinks you should choose goals that you will be able to lose yourself in the day-to-day process of practicing for that goal, taking your eyes off the larger intimidating goal and focusing on a process. For example, if you are trying to get the courage to write a book, instead of waiting for motivation, find enjoyment in writing every day no matter the amount. This way you’re making constant steps in the right direction. By maintaining this manageable and repeatable process, eventually you will find yourself at your goal.

Focus on Making Small Improvements

Kaizen is a car manufacturing strategy popularized in the 1940s that encouraged workers to make minor improvements to the product on the assembly line rather than looking for errors in the end product. In his book,One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, Robert Maurer argues that this method can be put to use in your life. The goal of this method is to take smaller steps towards your goals rather than larger. One way is by asking yourself small questions. For example, if you’re trying to pay off a large credit card debt, you may ask yourself “what’s one way I can spend less money today?” By doing this, you train your brain to begin noticing all the ways you overspend, overtime helping you accomplish your goal. Similarly, by taking the smallest actions possible and providing yourself with small rewards, he argues that Kaizen will eventually help you make great gains. The goal is to take actions that are so ridiculously small they cannot be avoided, producing habits that grow over time, rather than large actions that produce fear and recidivism. For example, if you’re like me, your email inbox has gotten way out of control. There are hundreds of emails and I put off sorting because it seems insurmountable. Using this strategy, I could delete one email every day and give myself one M&M as a reward. This way I avoid the fear of cleaning the entire inbox by telling my brain that I will only delete one email, developing a habit so small I will eventually see no reason to not start deleting 2 or 3 or even 10 or 30. Here’s a short video that explains the concept.

Rely on emotions over reason

In his book, Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride, Dr. David DeSteno argues the single greatest factor for success is self-control, essentially it is the ability to delay gratification, trading discomforts in the present for perceived benefits in the future. In his experiments he observed that when given the opportunity to cheat, people would largely cheat rationalizing why it was okay. People largely maintain their motivation through “executive function”, or brainpower. He believes this is not ideal as eventually you will find a way to convince yourself that you deserve to cheat on your goals. Instead, he argues we should employ social emotions such as gratitude, compassion and pride. In his experiments, when people were made to feel gratitude, compassion towards a failure in spite of a good faith effort, or they were praised for their ability to complete a task, in each case, by feeling this emotions people were more compelled to sacrifice for others, including their future selves. By feeling these particular emotions individuals are more likely to take on present discomforts for future benefits. This means that rather than using motivation to overcome your emotions, the stronger method is to change the emotion by focusing on these social emotions. Keeping a gratitude journal is one way of doing this. Here is a little bit longer video about this concept.


Motivation certainly has its place in helping you accomplish difficult tasks, but next time you’re looking to take on your goals, try 1 of these 3 strategies and notice how much easier it is to be unmotivated.

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Tags: emotion, goals, motivation, strategies


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Comment by Katie Burger on August 30, 2018 at 7:34pm

I totally agree with Adrienne's comments here... I too often find myself buried underneath all of my commitments that I feel like I'm not accomplishing anything since I end up getting too overwhelmed. This was a great reminder to stay in the moment and take things once at a time. Definitely going to look into some of your book recommendations, thanks for including those links!

Comment by Nikki Abramson on July 22, 2018 at 9:59pm

Great tips! This is interesting and I think that many of us can relate to being unmotivated at times whether or not we have a disability. I love how you reference various books. I hope to read them at some point. 

Comment by Adrienne Kleinman on July 10, 2018 at 11:48pm

Joel, THANK YOU for posting this! As a repeated overcommitter, ambitious human I often get stuck on the details and how I'm not doing enough. Your blog reminded me that I need to take things one day at a time and not obsess over what I'm not doing--but instead what I am doing. Also, your mention of deleting emails is all too relatable for me -- the amount of undeleted emails in my inbox is incomprehensible!   

Comment by Great Lakes ADA Center on July 5, 2018 at 1:51pm

Joel, this article has great advice. I especially like the idea of making small improvements a little bit at a time. In fact, since you published this I've been trying to incorporate your advice in my work life.  Thanks!!!

Comment by Erika J. Kluge on July 5, 2018 at 12:26pm

This is a great post Joel- thank you! This is a concept I think everyone deals with to some extent. 

Comment by Lynn Vincent on July 2, 2018 at 9:46am

Thanks for sharing this was a very good article

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