The Motivation Hacker
Nick Winter

Ended: Feb. 2, 2020

More motivation doesn’t just mean that we’re more likely to succeed at a task, but also that we’ll have more fun doing it. This is what we want; this is why we hack motivation.
Hack like this: first pick your goals, then figure out which motivation hacks to use on the subtasks that lead to those goals—and then use far more of them than you need, so that you not only succeed, but that you do so with excitement, with joy, with extra verve and a hunger for the next goal.
Here is the motivation equation[13]: I remember it as MEVID. Motivation hacking is the process of figuring out what you want to be more excited about, then coming up with strategies for manipulating the terms in this equation.
Motivation is what you always want more of: fire, energy, excitement! It’s that which drives you to act, to achieve your goals. Expectancy is your confidence of success. When you’re sure you can win (high Expectancy), motivation is high. When you think you’ll probably fail even if you try, you won’t try—motivation is low. Value is both how rewarding a task will be when you finish it and how fun it is while you’re doing it. Working on goals that are important to you brings high motivation. Doing boring, pointless things causes low motivation. Impulsiveness can be thought of as distractibility: how likely you are to put a task off and do something more pressing. When you have other things you’d much rather be doing, your Impulsiveness is high, and your motivation low. If there’s nothing else you could be doing right now, then Impulsiveness is low and motivation high. Delay is how far off the reward seems to be. This is often hard to manipulate directly: rewards are often delayed so far that we hyperbolically discount[14] them into worthlessness. But sometimes you can set yourself up to perceive Delay differently, thus scoring a big motivation win.
By increasing Expectancy or Value, or decreasing Impulsiveness or Delay, you hack motivation.
The biggest hack a motivation hacker can perform is to build her confidence to the size of a volcano. An oversized eruption of Expectancy can incinerate all obstacles in the path to any goal when you combine it with good planning.
The motivation hacker learns to steer his life towards higher Value and to have fun demolishing boring necessities in his way.
It takes superhuman effort to focus on a task when you’re surrounded by distractions. But when you remove distractions in advance, no such effort is required: concentration flows. The motivation hacker learns to anticipate and eliminate distractions and temptations, making it trivial to follow through with her plans.
The motivation hacker learns to structure goals so that the perceived Delay is not so great. Intermediate milestones, process-based goals, and willfully optimistic planning are his tools here. With the right mindset, success is ever right around the corner.
Psychologist George Ainslie’s response to this is my favorite concept of will[22]: “the will is a recursive process that bets the expected value of your future self-control against each of your successive temptations.” That is, will is simply the process of making personal rules for ourselves that will help us reach our goals, and how much willpower we can muster is precisely how good we are at setting up these personal rules so that the we always prefer to keep our rules than to break them. This is a learnable skill.
Meaningful work - do some Skritter development, not just email or discussion
No To-Dos older than 3 days - make sure no miscellaneous tasks have remained undone longer than three days
Surfing limit - spend no more than 30 minutes per day on misc internet
Precommitment, also known as using a commitment device[37], is a versatile set of tools for increasing motivation in almost any situation. To precommit is to choose now to limit your options later, preventing yourself from making the wrong choice in the face of temptation. Publicly announcing your goal is a common form of precommitment.
Binding yourself is not that complicated and doesn’t take long, but the actual moment of precommitting is scarier than it sounds[39]. (After you commit, it’s not scary at all.) Don’t be scared into weakening the resolution. You should bind yourself with something far beyond the scope of the goal you’re trying to accomplish, so that there’s no contest: your motivation should be much higher than needed to get the job done, both so that you don’t fall a little short, and so that you have more fun. If the thought of losing $100 can motivate you to go to the gym three times a week for a month, then bind yourself with $1000 and watch yourself run cheerfully to the gym through the cold rain that you hadn’t planned for.
Beeminder is a web service which lets you set arbitrary process-based goals and then holds you to them with all the reasonableness and firmness of your best friend who wants to see you succeed but won’t take any more of your crap. It’s got great graphs which will please you when you’re ahead, motivate you when you’re behind, and share with you the fear of the death that your goal is about to die when it’s time for you to be the uncomfortable hero of your story. You can adjust any goal, but the changes only take effect a week later, which is far enough away to keep you honest: you want to give up now, but you can’t, and you don’t want your future self to give up, so you just keep going.
Burnt Ships One specific technique for precommitment is where you disable, remove, or destroy a distraction or temptation. I call it “Burning the Ships” after the inaccurate story of Hernán Cortés who, after landing his invasion force, ordered his men to burn their ships[45] so that they wouldn’t be distracted by the possibility of retreat when conquering the Aztec empire. You list possible distractions, and then you make it so that it’s impossible to do those things when you want to be working toward your other goals. Then instead of having to use willpower to prevent yourself from going to go grab a snack, you realize that there are no snacks available, and you get on with your flow. If Cortés were around today, he’d probably be one of us who turn our internet off. Apart from getting rid of your TV, that’s usually what this technique comes down to, so maybe it should be called “Disconnecting the Internet.” Startup maven Paul Graham has an excellent essay about the acceleration of addictiveness[46] in which he argues that to live a good life, one must become ever more eccentric in terms of saying no to the explosion of things that are designed to addict us, many of which are now delivered via the internet.
I started doing internetless mornings on the first day of writing this book. I also decided that I would only check email once per day, between Skritter work and dinner, and when I did check it, I would do all of it. It was easier than I thought, and far more effective. I could feel my brain jerk itself up from my writing, start bounding for the email, turn and try the Skritter forum, make as if to Google the phrasing of that gem-like flame quote, feint for the email again, and then, walled in on all sides by the knowledge that the internet was off, sit back down and continue writing, trying to pretend with dignity that it was just stretching. This tapered off over a week, and then my focus was always there: my writing speed went from a crawling 340 words per hour to a somewhat-less-slow 500, and I compressed my daily 130 incoming and 13 outgoing messages into an hour.
Why had this taken me so long to do? I had read countless times that I should eliminate distractions, and the first example was always to turn off the internet. (The second and third were usually to put on headphones and to set up a place to work where only work was allowed, and nothing else.) Maybe the answer is just that addiction is hard to admit. Or maybe it’s easy, and there are other books, like this one except about addiction hacks instead of motivation hacks. I don’t know where you get the spark to start, only how to fan it into an inferno once you have it.
Why should we fear rejection? We can guess at an evolutionary psychological explanation that when you lived in a tribe of 50 people, being rejected by one of the four eligible mates would mean losing a quarter of your dating pool, so it would make sense to be cautious and avoid possible rejection. But today’s dating pool is much larger, and most of the strangers you could make a fool of yourself in front of will never see you again. There is no longer much need to fear rejection from strangers.
Rejection Therapy is an exercise designed to get you over this useless fear. It uses the psychological tactic of “flooding”: you expose yourself to the terrifying stimulus over and over until you get over it and instinctively realize there’s nothing to be afraid of. There are a few different flavors, like the thirty-day challenge where you must be rejected at least once per day, but the one that I did only took an hour.
Paul Graham puts it best: “Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious.”[64] Paul also tells a cautionary tale about his friend who knew when she was in high school that she wanted to be a doctor. She was so motivated that she persevered through every obstacle, including not actually liking her work. She’s a successful doctor, and she hates it. Now she has a life chosen for her by a high-school kid.
Humans don’t know what makes us happy. We think we know, but we’re usually wrong. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman draws a distinction between the experiencing self and the remembering self[67]. We have two modes of thinking about well-being: the experiencing self, which can semi-accurately tell you how happy you are in the moment if you ask yourself, and the remembering self, which can make up reasonable-sounding lies about how happy you were in the past, or about how happy something will make you in the future.
My solution to calibrating my remembering self’s planning to my experiencing self’s well-being is to randomly ping myself to record my happiness right now, along with what I’m doing. A timestamped alert comes in on my phone or laptop about every three hours, and I type in a 1-10 happiness number[69] and a couple tags for whatever is making me feel good or bad. An example entry might be: “2012-06-12 Tue 03:17     7: music, iPhone app launch”. There are many ways to measure experiential happiness, so find what works for you. You might be able to just develop a habit of mentally interrupting yourself to ask how you’re doing and why. But if you’re human, don’t neglect this. Humans don’t know what makes us happy, so measure
Now, almost all my happiness comes from enjoyable work (25%), music (22%), and feeling accomplished (10%)[72]. My unhappiness (which is about half as large as my happiness) is split between work (18%), lack of accomplishment (16%), tiredness (12%), and physical discomfort (12%). This is after improving previous problem areas like others’ negativity and reading Hacker News and other internet media.
Paul Graham once wrote that doing a startup is “a way to compress your whole working life into a few years.”[73] Working on your own startup can provide more motivation than anything else I know. You do those forty years of work in four years because you have to, but also because it’s fun.
For me, the best thing about doing a startup wasn’t the financial freedom I achieved, but the lesson in how it feels to love what you’re doing. After finishing that first ¾ lifetime[74] of work, I’m aiming to work at least a few more lifetimes. It’s more fun than simply having fun.
I switched to a method of graphing my work time devised by psychologist Seth Roberts, which he called percentile feedback[88]. The idea is that you graph your progress throughout the day as a percentage of the day spent working since you woke up, and at the same time you plot it against all the previous days so that you can see how you’re doing compared to the past. This gives you a percentile score at any point throughout the day, which you can always meaningfully increase by working more. Instead of only seeing how much work I’d done at the end of the day, when it was too late to motivate me, I could see at any moment how much I’d done, how good that was, and how much more I could do if I kept at it.
This is a good strategy for learning many things: 1.  Get excited about a skill. 2.  While you’re excited, make time and hack up motivation to practice it. 3.  Learn how to practice it from reading or from a teacher. 4.  Start doing it right away. It’s simple if you don’t skip any of these obvious steps. If you do skip steps, like setting aside time, designing a motivating environment, or starting now as opposed to the dread later, then it’s hard. If your schedule is already full, then you might need to save the goal for later. You’ll then need a trigger: something with enough spark to start a goal that you’ve grown accustomed to putting off.
If you have a good system and it’s still not working because you don’t follow it, then build a success spiral around it. Take almost every task out of it, and then always do the remaining tasks. As you get more consistent, slowly add more tasks to that system (if they’re worth doing). Tend your success spiral carefully, and eventually you will be able to do arbitrarily many tasks without furrowing your brow in despair or even annoyance. Once tasks afford only accomplishing and never putting off, you don’t have to spend any of your motivation on running your life.
The most common mistake is to fall prey to the planning fallacy[106] when setting up your success spirals. When humans estimate things like how long a task will take, their average-case and best-case predictions are almost identical, and their worst-case prediction is still more optimistic than what actually happens.
Don’t make the mistake of picking goals that don’t excite you. Practice on some easy stuff, sure, but then use these motivation hacking techniques to amaze yourself. Do something crazy. It’s much easier to do something hard and exciting than to do something easy that you merely probably should.
The major motivation hacking techniques I use—success spirals, precommitment, burnt ships, and being a task samurai—are all recommended in many places, including Piers Steel’s book, The Procrastination Equation, which details the motivation equation and dozens of clever research experiments used to develop it. Look there for more details and supporting science.
I prefer to focus on achieving superhuman motivation instead of avoiding normal human procrastination.
Expectancy Recall that Expectancy is your confidence of success. These techniques increase motivation by making you certain that you’ll succeed. •  Success Spirals. Set yourself a series of achievable goals and then achieve all of them until you expect only success and failure is no longer familiar. •  Vicarious Victory. Surround yourself with motivated people (and avoid unmotivated people) to have their motivation rub off on you. If you can’t change your friends, reading biographies of inspirational people is an easier example of this. •  Mental Contrasting. Visualize the success you want to achieve, then contrast it with the not-success you have now. (If you skip the contrasting step, it may be worse than nothing.[111] Add in implementation intentions[112] and process visualization[113] for more oomph.) •  Guarding Against Excessive Optimism. We all fall…
Value is both how rewarding a task will be when you finish it and how fun it is while you’re doing it. These are general ways to adjust what you’re doing so that it’s more meaningful and fun. •  Find Flow. Tasks which are too easy or too hard are not engaging, so find ways to make tasks challenging but possible. I think of this in terms of being a task samurai and doing dwarf dishes. Make a game of it. Compete against yourself, or against others. •  Find Meaning. Look for ways to connect tasks with major life goals, so that you can remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. Set up extra reminders of these connections where you’ll see them. •  Set CSI Approach Goals. SMART goals are out, and Challenging, Specific, Immediate, and Approach (not avoidance) goals are in. These goals should excite you (the Challenging and Approach bits). The…
Optimize Energy. Everything is more fun if you’re alert, not tired. Sleep well, eat well, get fit, guard your circadian rhythms, and avoid burnout. Cure energy lows with quality breaks, movement, sunshine, and good music. Match intensive tasks with periods of high energy. •  Productive Procrastination. If you can’t bring yourself to do your main task, at least get some other things out of the way. It’s not perfect, but perfect is the enemy of good. •  Create Rewards. When you succeed, celebrate it, either by congratulating yourself or giving yourself a treat. Treats can backfire if overused, though. I prefer victory dances, fist pumps, and grinning like an idiot. •  Focus on Passion. Know what you’re passionate about, and steer your life towards those passions. Ask if your common tasks are connected to passion; ask if they’re intrinsically motivating. •  Task Trading. This…
Impulsiveness is your susceptibility to delay for a given task: how likely you are to put it off and do something more pressing. Limiting Impulsiveness often means getting rid of the options to do other things. •  Precommitment. Choose now to limit your later options, preventing yourself from making the wrong choice in the face of temptation. •  Burnt Ships. A specific form of precommitment where you disable, remove, or destroy a distraction or temptation. •  Goal Reminders. Make external reminders of your goals visible, and actually look at them. Avoid failing at your goals just because you forgot about them. •  Timeboxing. Place limits on the time allowed to perform a given task, the shorter, the better. It’s easier to ignore distractions when you know you can’t finish your task if you give into them, and that you only have to focus on your task for a short time. •  Build Useful Habits. Make an autopilot schedule for yourself and put your goals into it, or add goals to existing routines. •  Schedule…
Delay is how far off the reward seems to be. This is often hard to manipulate directly, but sometimes you can set yourself up to perceive Delay differently, thus scoring a big motivation win. •  Break Goals Down. Granularize big goals until the next achievement is right in front of you. Subgoals and sub-subgoals defeat Delay. This is what Beeminder does automatically: you get a target for each day. •  Plan Fallaciously. This isn’t so much a technique as a phenomenon, and its effects on motivation aren’t backed up by any research, either—just my experience with my startup and marathon training. The planning fallacy automatically gives you more courage to start by…
Here is my happiness tracking scale: 1: Suicidally depressed. 2: Majorly depressed or in tons of pain. 3: Frustrated or annoyed or sad or hurting or generally unhappy. 4: A little down. 5: Okay, I guess. 6: Happy. 7: Happy to the point of smiling or rocking out. 8: Excitedly happy; awesome. 9: Everything is just perfect. 10: Contender for best moment of my life. I like to think of it as a logarithmic scale, or rather two logarithmic scales, where each point above five doubles my happiness and each point below five doubles my unhappiness. I have recorded my experiential happiness using this scale for the past two years, randomly each day an average of three times. This has taught me much about what makes me happy and unhappy.