The Science of Willpower and Motivation

Hey Angels and Alphas!

Let me ask you something – how come some days you can get up in the morning, make coffee, have breakfast, workout, and do it all in perfect succession, boosting yourself up ready to take on the day…

… While other days you can get up and instantly feel like “well, I’m going for another 8 hours”.

What’s the fundamental drive that gets us up in the morning and makes us head straight toward our goals? Is it motivation, willpower, or just habit and routine? And why is it not there sometimes?

Today, I hope to answer all these questions.

Together, we’re taking a deep dive into the topic of motivation and willpower, so by the end, we can better grasp these concepts and learn how to develop them to achieve what we want – from a big salary to a perfect physique.  

Let’s get right into it.

First of all, what is motivation?

A lot of people look at motivation as a resource. You either have it, or you don’t. Sometimes it’s there, and sometimes it goes away.

But science doesn’t look at it that way. Science looks at motivation as a response to certain stimuli. That response isn’t always the same, and it always triggers different parts of our brains so it can “motivate” us into productivity.

I believe you’re much better off learning more about what motivates you specifically – rather than endlessly searching for motivation in videos, gurus, and IG quotes.

In the brain, motivation is directly related to dopamine – a neurotransmitter that relays signals between brain cells. When it’s released, it travels to an area of the brain that mediates reward behavior. (it’s called the nucleus accumbens).

When that dopamine reaches it, it sends feedback to the brain on whether to feel good or bad about what just happened or is about to happen.

Everyone has different responses to stimuli that make them feel good or bad.

For the purpose of getting motivated, you should only be concerned with what you get motivated by specifically.

Psychology defines a lot of classifications of motivation, but today, I want to take a look at four specific “types” of motivation.

Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation

As I mentioned, there are too many types of motivation defined by psychology for us to look at today. But a common way that motivations get classified is with the extrinsic and intrinsic marks.

Extrinsic motivations are those that come from the outside – such as money and social recognition.

Intrinsic motivations are those that come from within the individual – like the gratifying feeling you get every time you solve a puzzle or increase your 1RM.

Fitness sort of falls into both of these categories.

This is also reflected in the duality of motivation in gym-goers.

Some people look at fitness as a specific body goal desired to gain social recognition. Others look at it as a lifestyle venture with no end in sight.

Before you start “building” your motivation, you have to realize where it comes from. And hey, there’s nothing wrong with being motivated by extrinsic values – if that’s your thing, own it.

Fear of Loss vs Desire to Gain Motivation

At the very core of our being, our primal instinct is to survive.

Our brain is continually scanning every new thing in our environment, trying to figure out if it’s a threat or not. Everything we perceive as a threat instantly receives all our attention, like something that’s hot to the touch or that time the weight felt a little too impossible at first (but you managed to get it up).

Every time your brain perceives a threat, it’s primary instinct is to respond to that stimulus.

In the first few years of your life, your brain has set a clear tendency toward either moving forward to acquire a gain or spend its energy avoiding and reducing pain.

If you relate this back to habit psychology, it’s no wonder that habits get created so easily in humans. Once we initially invest our time and energy into something, it makes much more sense for us to just keep investing more rather than “lose” that time and energy we spent for nothing.

Everything relates to this primal instinct we have to eliminate the pain or problem points we face in our lives. At a primal level, the desire for gain is not that well expressed. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s probably because we’ve spent hundreds of thousands of years just running from predators rather than choosing what career path to take in the 21st century. But that primal instinct is so deeply ingrained in us, that it drives every choice and decision we make.

When most of your initial needs are met, there’s not a lot of emotional motivation to gain more than you have. If you want to achieve a specific goal, you make a rational and logical decision on that goal, and then you apply these two emotional triggers to essentially “program” your brain for success in that specific area.

When you balance rational decision-making with the conscious application of your own personal emotional motivation factors, that’s when the magic starts to happen.

This sounds complicated, but I assure you it’s not. Just to give an example, let’s say you want to drop a few pounds and today you make the decision to start working out.

Nobody makes that commitment solely on logic. There are, again, intrinsic and extrinsic factors that come into play – you might want to fit in old clothes, be more confident at the beach, or just look and feel more athletic. Regardless of what the emotional trigger is, there’s always something behind the logical, “I want to lose X pounds.”

If you learn to apply your emotional triggers to your logical decisions, you’ll always have motivation. Always.

Isn’t that willpower? What’s the difference between motivation and willpower?

You might’ve heard people say, “willpower is more important than motivation,” and that’s true to some extent. But willpower functions more like a resource than motivation does.

Let’s define the two terms first.

Motivation is having the desire to take action. Willpower is the act of taking action regardless of whether or not you have the motivation to do so.

Willpower means forcing yourself to do a specific action. But not in a bad way. Ultimately, you can be full of motivation and the desire to achieve a particular goal, yet if you lack the willpower, it’s improbable that you’re going to succeed.

To get things done, you need a combination of motivation and willpower. But to receive more willpower, you need to continue re-igniting your motivation. We know willpower is a limited resource – here’s a great article published in the Association for Psychological Science that takes a look at ego depletion. Ego depletion happens when you “use up” your willpower on one task, causing you to perform worse on subsequent ones.

If we look at willpower as a resource, we can quickly start to see patterns in our own behavior that let us generate it at will. Essentially, by training our motivation and continuously fueling our desire, we can access more and more willpower.

Check out this article published in the New York Times – they found out that judges tend to experience something known as “decision fatigue.” In a couple of “decision-making sessions,” judges initially made rulings that favored the prisoners’ interests. As time went on, decision fatigue kicked in, and judges started ruling in favor of their own interests.

Knowing that willpower is a finite resource lets us shift our perspective. How do we “generate” more? And isn’t that sort of contradictory, considering that if something was motivating us enough, we would be taking action anyway?

Well, no! No matter how motivated you are, you still have to learn how to sustain your motivation and access more of your willpower.

It’s only in the right balance of these two things where you’ll find real consistency, mastery, and results.

It’s the only way things truly get done. Right now, I’m about to share my 7 keys to getting things done – each of them is here to either help you grow your motivation or tap into more of your willpower!

The 7 Keys to Getting Things Done in the Gym (and outside of it)

  • Examine yourself.

You should always be pondering yourself and asking yourself questions about your goals. Through doing this continuously or using meditation, you can motivate yourself by merely using visualization and reflection techniques.

Remind yourself of why you’re chasing your goal, and why you get out of bed in the morning. Remind yourself of that time you almost gave up – but you didn’t. Or that time you were too afraid to even start. By doing this, you’ll continuously be re-igniting your desire and motivation and making the goal in front of you clearer and clearer every time.

  • Set a clear goal.

When you can clearly see yourself at the place you’re at, you need to make the conscious decision that this is what you’re going to set out to achieve.

Your goals will change with time, and they’ll grow bigger the more of them you achieve. Regardless of how much desire you actually have, nothing begins until you set that goal – this is the first step to solidifying your willpower and making the conscious decision to dedicate it to that specific goal/activity.

Once you set that goal, your next step is to break it down into smaller milestones that can allow you to track your progress toward that goal until it’s fulfillment.

* Many people draw an enormous amount of motivation from the belief that the goal they’re chasing is aimed at the greater good. Unfortunately, this is true even if what they’re doing is actually harmful.

That why you see so many successful fitness experts who spread useful information that helps people achieve results, yet on the other hand, some extremely popular fitness personalities are spreading info that is harming people’s perception (not to mention their bodies).

  • Track (and reward) your progress.

Personal growth is one of the biggest emotional triggers that motivate people to take action.

Do you notice how the people who are taking the time to measure and manage everything are the ones that truly achieve exceptional progress in the long-run?

Even though human beings aren’t numbers, you can receive an enormous amount of knowledge about yourself by tracking even the smallest aspects of your personal growth. Chasing your goal may have many milestones, each of which can be a beacon of willpower and motivation if you decide to use it as such.

Essentially, by rewarding yourself and your emotional triggers when you achieve one of these milestones, you’re programming your brain to chase the stimulus from the next one. It’s sort of ingenious, a rather simple way to program yourself to achieve anything you want.

From now on, when you see improvements, call yourself out on them. At times, when you see your form is slipping or you’re getting burned out, embrace that but don’t let it last.

  • Make learning a priority.

Another huge motivator relating to personal growth is learning.

In fitness, even if you’re happy with the results of your current routine, you should always be learning and trying to find new ways to improve it.

If you’re always looking for new things to learn, you’ll be getting closer and closer to mastery with every step. Learning and practice go hand in hand toward achieving any goal, and one shouldn’t be prioritized over the other.

  • Practice every day.

This relates to what we said earlier about habit forming.

If you start doing something every day, pretty soon there are going to be days where you just can’t go without it. It’s universal – you can build a habit from going to the gym, smoking, eating healthy, eating poorly, pretty much everything.

We, humans, are pattern-oriented creatures, and our brain usually has no problem expending energy to maintain an already established pattern in our life.

  • Develop solid routines.

From the second you wake up, you’re bombarded with potential choices. You can stay in bed for five more minutes, head directly for the coffee machine, or grab your bag and be headed for the gym before the sheet falls back on the bed.

If you create a series of small routines throughout the day and make a habit out of all of them, pretty soon, you’ll be practicing and learning about your craft without requiring much motivation, to begin with.

It will sort of just spring out of you as if your brain will just prioritize these things over others. That’s why a newcomer feels anxiety when going to the gym – this is an unestablished, delicate pattern for them right now. While someone who has been going to the gym religiously 6 days a week will find an extra rest day somewhat unnerving and unsettling. It’s all about patterns and learning how to develop them and break them.

This is true with every activity in life, and everyone knows this, but the moment you consciously decide what routines to create for yourself is when you really start to benefit from all of this.

But no matter how many routines you have and how good they are, most of the days you’ll still go to bed tired. That’s okay. Just make sure you’re really spending your time prioritizing the things that deserve your attention the most.

  • Eliminate unnecessary commitments.

And finally, end the self-sabotage!

Do you know those times when you say “yes” to doing something, knowing very well that you don’t have the time or energy for it?

This needs to stop. These are activities that are draining your willpower. They are taking the energy that you could be aiming at your goal, and if this becomes a habit, it’s a nasty one to get out of.

Eliminating unnecessary commitments is one of the most challenging parts of managing your motivation and your willpower, but it’s perhaps the last and most crucial one.


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