September 4

Motivation alone is not enough: Use this 4-step process to act

Motivation alone is not enough. If you have an idiot and motivate him, you have a motivated idiot - Jim Rohn

Motivation alone is not enough. You need concrete action items to turn vision into reality. Use this 4-step guide to fine tune your motivations.

Closet stories

Raise your hand if any of this relates to you.

  • Own a juicer that’s been used exactly twice last year
  • Use your treadmill or other expensive exercise equipment solely to dry laundry
  • Have a shelf full of cookbooks that haven’t see daylight in years
  • Possess a gym membership but have forgotten the route to the gym 


  •  Insert your contraption or subscription that you signed up for in good faith way back when that’s simply occupying physical and mental space today without enriching your life.

Okay, I can’t see, but I know most of you at least contemplated raising your hand. Bonus points if you checked more than one box above.

We’ve all been there.

I have a sewing machine I purchased probably a decade ago. My inner Martha Stewart hasn’t made an appearance yet. Likely, she never will.

Though this is a perfect segue to continue my discussion on how to Define your enough, this essay is about Motivation. Specifically, it’s limitations and why motivation alone is not enough.

The promise of stuff

A lot of times, we buy stuff, not for stuff’s sake but because of what they represent

  • A juicer isn’t just a device that discards pulp and extracts fruit flavors. When you longingly look at a juicer in a store, you’re picturing your wholesome family, actively playing sport on a beach in fashionable clothes and glowing skin. The whole package! 
  • Similarly, cookbooks aren’t just recipes on a page. They conjure an image of your perfectly presented Michelin-star-quality food you serve at a dinner that people can’t stop raving about.

In all these cases, smart marketing machines have managed to connect a little aspiration or weakness on our part to a product or service that represents our best selves. We’re motivated enough to buy because we feel that the contraption being sold is exactly the missing piece of the puzzle that could help fulfill the grand visions we set for ourselves.

Motivation alone is not enough

Here’s the thing, though. Motivation alone is not enough. The motivation we have at the time of purchase rarely lasts unless it’s strongly coupled with the corresponding Action.

Research has shown that 60% of the population make New Year’s resolutions of some sort. Less than 8% follow through and achieve any of those resolutions.

Put simply, most of our well-intentioned purchases don’t enhance our lives in any way.  Our treadmill and cookbook purchases leave us not just with closets full of stuff, but extra pounds on our bodies and mush on our plates.

To add to our misery, we are filled with guilt and remorse every time we open up the said closet or dust the treadmill to layout our laundry. We find more reasons to beat ourselves up, not that we need any more help in that regard.

Why do we fall into this trap?

Most of us think we’re simply lacking in inspiration and motivation. I can attest to this.

For one, I have binge-read a ton of self-help and personal growth literature and listened to many podcasts on the subject. There’s plenty of great advice out there and I’m usually pumped when I read or listen to this stuff.

However, as it turns out, my serial reading habit without follow-through action on what I read, means there’s squat-all to show in actual growth. The great advice I find in book 1 simply disappears from memory by the time I get to Chapter 1 in book 2. It’s like pouring water into a bucket with a hole in it.

The lesson here is not to stop reading like some in my family hope I’d say one day! It is to understand that motivation alone is not enough. We need to pay attention to the source of motivation and figure out how to translate that into action.

In other words, closely reflect on which objects get you pumped in the first place and without further ado build a plan of action to put what you’ve learned into practice. 

From thinking to doing

To find out how, I'm going to walk you through a four-step process. Just FOUR not FORTY. So, be grateful.

Also, I’m going to ask you to do a few short exercises today. Yes, I heard you groan. Just play along with me. You’ll be glad you did. There are truths here I learned the hard way. All I’m asking of you is a few minutes.

First, we need to understand what tickles us.

Step 1 - Types of motivation

Academically, motivation has been classified into two types - extrinsic (external factors) or intrinsic (internal factors). I find that a confusing definition because what I think sometimes as intrinsic is also influenced by external factors and vice-versa. Instead, I like to use the classifications below:

a. Consequences

Typically, we’re motivated by reward or punishment.

  • Reward: Bike 100 miles in May to get a $100 gift card as part of the office Bike month challenge.
  • Punishment: File taxes on time or pay $$$$ in penalties

Blame it on our survival tendencies, but the threat of negative consequences tends to be more motivating than a corresponding promise of a reward for positive actions. This is why you rarely delay paying your taxes for fear of penalties but may decide not to work an extra 20 hours a month for the additional bonus pay.

Another example is how motivating Fear as a negative consequence, can be. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll see how politicians stoke fear to get you to vote the way they want.

Consequences will get us motivated to act a certain way, for sure.

b. Social

The ‘I want what she’s having’ reason to do things. For instance, digging up a garden or pool in your backyard because the Jones family next door seems to have a wonderful time with theirs.

Or going for a walk because your friends are going and you’d like to not miss out on the latest conversations.

c. Self-interest

Something you’re genuinely excited to do for yourself without someone putting a gun to your head.

In short

Most of our actions bear one of these motivations. You may be motivated to lose 10 lbs because

  • There’s a weight-loss challenge that you’ve accepted (Consequence motivation)
  • Your friends are all doing it (Social motivation)
  • You feel better and have more energy when you are 10 lbs lighter than your current weight (self-interest motivation)

Exercise 1

Figure out what your motivations are. Dig deep. Write them down.

Ideally, you’re looking for something that genuinely appeals to YOU i.e. something in Category C - Self-interest motivation.

Step 2 – Picture yourself on a bad day

Not trying to be a Debbie downer, but this step is to check how far you’re willing to go to achieve what motivates you.

Motivation changes by the minute. Let’s say you get up at 6 a.m. all pumped to get a key project deliverable done by 9 a.m. Then, as you sip your coffee, you listen to the news. There’s some breaking news that gets you all glued to your computer screen. Before you know it, its 10 a.m. and you’ve made zero progress on your deliverable. Sound familiar?

You WERE motivated when you woke up to get your project done. But then, you encounter COMPETING motivations. It could be that you’re a day trader on the stock market and you see some stock market impact from the news. So, you are motivated by the thought of making money. The money-making desire out-motivates the project-completion desire in this case.

This is why making decisions purely on how motivated you are at that time isn’t a great idea. Motivation alone is not enough because by its very nature, motivation is quite fickle!

Exercise 2

Quickly review your motivations from earlier and hold it up to the Bad-day test. Ask yourself this question for every motivation listed in Exercise 1.

If your day doesn’t turn out to be perfect, would you still make time i.e. be motivated to do the items on your list?

Going back to the examples I cited at the very beginning of this post - would you still juice, exercise, make fancy recipes, go to the gym, etc. on a day where you have competing priorities?

I thought so. Many motivations would fall by the way-side at this juncture. Hopefully some still remain!

Based on this rule, shortlist your items from Exercise 1. You’re one step closer to the end.

Step 3 – Reality Check

Ask yourself if you have the capacity to pursue your motivation? Again, I’m not saying you shouldn’t chase far-fetched dreams. But be realistic about factors that directly contradict what you’re trying to achieve.

If you are someone that works a night-shift job but try to establish a morning routine that starts at 5 am; or, if you are 5’2” aspiring to be an NBA star : I have two words for you. Not happening. Regardless of how much you want and are willing to work for it.

Exercise 3

Run a reality check on your short-listed items from the earlier exercise. See if it stands up to the test. Remove items that don't.

Now we’re talking. There is a fighting chance for you to make progress on what’s left on your list.

Step 4 – Define an Action plan

Motivation alone is not enough because motivation does not improve your life. Acting on your motivations does.

I’m going to use a car analogy. Motivation is the pedal; Action is the Gear.

Imagine getting into the driver’s seat in a Ferrari, turning the engine on, and stepping on the gas pedal to go from 0 to 100 mph in a few seconds. With your gear in ‘Park’ mode. This is what it feels like with motivation (and no Action). You get a lot of noise and revving but go nowhere.

Waking up at 4 a.m. is super easy if you have to do it for just ONE DAY. Motivation will get you through that day. Waking up at 4 a.m. daily, on the other hand, requires way more than just motivation or willpower. It requires concrete action steps.

Exercise 4

Steps 1 to 3, above, help you short-list what motivates you. In step 4, you break those motivations down into small actionable steps. The key here is the word ACTIONABLE. You are looking for verbs, the items should be something you do or don’t do

Defining Action items

Of course, to use a cringe-worthy analogy, there are many ways to skin a cat. Sorry, cat lovers. The point here is to brainstorm and list as many as you can.

For instance, if you desire to lose 10 lbs, you can take a combination of some or all of the following action steps:

  • Don’t eat after 8 pm
  • Bike for at least 30 minutes every day
  • Run for at least 30 minutes a day
  • Walk for an hour a day
  • Don’t shop for groceries when hungry
  • Eat before you go to parties so you’re not tempted to gorge
  • Avoid all parties altogether
  • Join a weight-loss challenge
  • Throw away all the junk food in your house (out of sight/out of mind)
  • Skip one meal a day
  • Skip food groups (no carbs?)
  • Avoid sugar

I listed a few, but you get the gist, right?

The ECI Test

Nerd alert: Remember, Venn diagrams? The fun circles we drew in middle school. Okay, Correction:  Fun for some.

I have a Venn diagram for you below.

For each item on the list, put it on the Venn Diagram to answer the ECI test. Answer these 3 questions:

  • E: Is this an effective or feasible option?
  • C: Do I have the capability to do this?
  • I: Will I be willing to do this on days when there are firestorms brewing?
ECI Test - Partably


  • If you are a social butterfly, not going to parties is like a prison-sentence for you. So, that item fails the ‘I’ test.
  • You can’t go for a bike ride for 30 minutes, if you don't own a bike. (Yes, you can purchase a bike, but really?). So that fails the ‘C’ test 
  • If you’re me, you will die at the thought of skipping food groups. So that fails the ‘E’ test. Actually it fails all the tests. What was I even thinking when I listed that as an option?!

Keep vetting each action item against the ECI list to come up with a final list of 3-5 things to do. You are looking for items that intersect all 3 circles. In essence, you are looking for the Jackpot in the picture above.

That’s it. You just have created a PERFECT PLAN.

All you need to do now is to schedule these items (daily, bi-weekly or weekly) and JUST DO IT. Make these a non-negotiable part of your day. No more relying on motivation alone to get you to reach the stars. We'll discuss how to do that well in another post. For now, use a highly underrated commodity that you have plenty of - common sense.


Remember that while being motivated feels great, motivation alone is not enough. Without specifics on how you go from vision to action, you’ll end up feeling like I did a few years ago:

I always wanted to be somebody, but I realized I should have been more specific!

I learnt a lot of these lessons by going to school at the University of Hard Knocks. I share them here so you’re schooling doesn’t have to be that hard. Go get 'em Tiger!

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” – Thomas Edison


action, getting things done, motivation


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