the fundamental equations of motivational alchemy

My friend Bill and I have been talking recently about the difference between what he calls “soft self-discipline” and “hard self-discipline”. Hard self-discipline is what most people call “self-discipline”, and is basically forcing yourself to do things even if you don’t feel like doing them at the particular moment. Soft self-discipline is similar, but doesn’t involve forcing, just coaxing, and it’s totally okay to not do it if you really don’t want to do it. It’s mostly just reminding yourself of your enthusiasm, passion, and commitment to your goal, and hoping that that will alchemize into motivation to do the tasks necessary to achieve that goal. And if it doesn’t, that’s okay.

This is super awesome. I’m going to rename “soft self-discipline”, though, because the word “discipline” doesn’t feel right to me. I’ll call it “motivational alchemy”. Because that’s kind of what it’s like. We already have the long-term desire for the goal, and what we want to do is alchemize it, transform it, into the short-term desire to accomplish the steps leading toward the goal. And here are, to the best of my understanding, the fundamental equations of motivational alchemy:

Goals + “Taste” → Inspiration

Inspiration + Energy → Motivation

Motivation + Environment → Action

Isn’t that beautiful? Let’s take them one by one.

Goals + “Taste” → Inspiration

So, you have some goals. These are your long-term desires. Stuff you want that isn’t immediately achievable. You may even say you’re passionate about these things, but the passion isn’t always burning, sometimes it’s a passive passion. It’s something you can say “I’m passionate about this” about without necessarily getting up and doing something about it.

Those goals can alchemize into inspiration, but you need a catalyst to make that happen. This is the trickiest step for me. I thought for a long time about what to call this catalyst, and I finally settled on “taste”. It’s experiencing something that takes your goal out of your head and puts it back in your heart. It’s like, you remember how much you like chocolate, but then you actually taste a little bit and suddenly you’re inspired to get some more. Or you think about you much you care about being healthy, but then you have a really exciting and interesting conversation about it, it’s like tasting your goal, and that taste inspires you. Here are some examples of what I mean by “taste”:

  • having a good conversation about it
  • reading something interesting or exciting about it
  • doing a teeny little bit of it just for a minute or two
  • seeing someone else do it
  • experiencing something that I associate with it (e.g. the smell of a video arcade reminds me of how much I love to play DDR/ITG)
  • and sometimes, just remembering how much I care about the goal and thinking about how much I want it.

All these things are examples of re-tasting the sweet, yummy taste of your goal, the delicious flavour of what you’re passionate about. This step is very important, because if our goals and long-term desires are abstract concepts, we can attach all sorts of baggage to them. We can resent them, avoid them, and tack on all sorts of extraneous judgments and issues to them. But you can bypass all of that if you just taste them. And that taste alchemizes your goals into inspiration. Now on to the next equation:

Inspiration + Energy → Motivation

It’s not enough to be inspired. If you’re inspired and sleepy, or inspired and just feeling like a lump today, you won’t get up and do anything about it. Because inspiration isn’t enough; you also need energy. I was stumbling toward this in my post entitled “motivation = energy” in 2006. In that situation, I already had the inspiration, and what I was lacking was the energy needed to turn that inspiration into motivation. For me, I find that a judicious use of caffeine and good health habits (eating well and often, exercising in the mornings) increase my energy level.

So, now we got to motivation. Yay! Are we done? Not quite. There’s still one more important equation left:

Motivation + Environment → Action

There are plenty of times when I’ve felt motivated to do something but didn’t have the opportunity, and the motivation went to waste. For example if I’m motivated to work on the Usual Error while I’m at Cyc, I can’t act on that motivation because I’m not in the right environment; I have other things to do during that time. I have motivation but not environment.

Environment is on a scale, too: if I have a little bit of motivation to play Stepmania, but it takes 15 minutes to set up all the equipment, that motivation is a lot less likely to alchemize into action. If instead I set up a dedicated corner of a room for Stepmania, then it takes less motivation because my environment is tuned toward my passions instead of tuned against them. This is an example of environment helping turn motivation into action.

And distraction takes away from your environment. If you’re feeling motivated to do something but someone else is watching TV, it’ll be a lot harder to turn that motivation into action. If you’ve got StumbleUpon installed in Firefox, that’s part of your environment. Then, when you’re motivated to do research online, you may end up acting in a way that feeds your short-term whims instead of your long-term goals and desires. This is an example of environment making it harder to turn motivation into action.

There you go. I think those three beautiful equations encapsulate much of what I’ve been seeking for the past few years. I will, of course, post updates on how well it’s working for me and Kyeli. (: But before that, there are an entire two more posts in this motivation marathon! Off to write the next one… (:

Feel clear and confident about your direction in life!


Do you wish you could follow your heart, but it seems impossible? I can help you find the clarity and courage you need.

In other words, I can help you find your path.