The Ultimate Guide to Motivating Yourself

This is a guest post by my friend, Vlad Dolezal, @vladdolezal.

When I was 4 years old, my mum took me to have a vaccination.

Now, I had heard about needles, so I was scared and begging her not to take me there. I even started crying and screaming in the waiting room.

But my mum, being good and firm, insisted. So once it was my turn to have the vaccination, we went in the doctor’s office. The doctor sat me down on a chair, and disinfected my arm (I was still sobbing at this point). Then she gave me the vaccine. A small prick, a little bit of pressure, and it was over.

“That’s all?” I thought, “that was no big deal at all!”

When it was time to get another vaccine a couple months later, I was quiet and calm, because I knew it was no big deal.

The doctor commented at how calm and reasonable I was, even compared to many older boys. Which made me huff up with pride at what a big boy I was. :D. And I’ve never felt particularly worried about injections since.

Now, why am I telling you the above story?

The vaccination was pretty much the same in both cases. Yet my reaction was completely different. If I had had any say in the matter, I never would have gone for the first vaccination.

And that’s the essence of what I will share with you today. Motivation isn’t about the reality, it’s about what you imagine the reality will be like. (And by controlling your imagination, you can control your motivation.)

The pain and pleasure principle

What I’m about to say might seem very basic and obvious.

It is. But it’s precisely because this principle is stripped down to the bare basics that it’s so effective. Bear with me, and you will understand in a few moments.

Okay, ready? Here’s a shocker:

All human behavior is motivated by only two things – avoiding pain and seeking pleasure.

Now, I mean pain and pleasure in the broadest sense of the words. If you’re on a diet, not eating a cake might give you pleasure, because you reaffirm to yourself that you are strong-willed, and you feel good about the weight you lose.

Giving to charity gives you pleasure. A satisfying intellectual discussion is pleasure. Boredom is pain.

But despite all the different faces, it all boils down to seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. And like in my vaccination story, it’s not about the actual pain or pleasure you will experience, it’s about what you imagine it will be like.

Here’s a great quick exercise I got from Paul McKenna that demonstrates this:

You have been invited to a party. You’re still deciding whether or not you will go.

First imagine standing awkwardly in a corner, surrounded by people you don’t know and have nothing in common with. Your least favorite type of music is playing way too loud in the background. How much do you want to go to the party, on a scale from 1 to 10?

Now instead imagine standing there comfortably, surrounded by people who are interested in spending time with you. Your favorite type of music comes on in the background at just the right volume. How much do you want to go to the party now?

Go ahead, do the exercise now.

Did you feel a difference there?

If you felt any difference at all, you can see how the images you make in your head can influence your decisions. Even this simple 30-second exercise changed how you felt about going to a friend’s party. So imagine how much difference you could create if you understood this principle, and used it all the time!

Why motivation is so tricky

Please lift your hand if you struggle with motivation fairly regularly. Okay… I think that’s everyone with their hand up?

If it’s so simple, why do we all have so much trouble with motivation? Because while it’s simple and clear in principle, it’s quite tricky in practice unless you understand exactly what’s going on.

So to help you understand where motivation comes from and why we struggle with it so much, I’m going to introduce you to a little something called the triune brain theory.

(If you actually put your hand up while reading this, you can put it down now.)

The triune brain theory states that our brain evolved in three main stages:

  • the reptilian brain, in charge of reflexes and instincts (like breathing or the fight-or-flight response)
  • the mammalian brain, in charge of emotions
  • the higher brain, in charge of logical thinking

And while your logical thinking and decisions reside in the higher brain, motivation comes strictly from your emotions. It’s all about pain and pleasure, remember?

So when you logically know something is a good thing for you to do, but subconsciously you feel afraid or nervous about it, you will find all sorts of ways to sabotage yourself and procrastinate, just so you don’t have to face the pain.

On top of that, when your different brains disagree, the older one always wins. This is a necessity, because when you are charged by an angry rhinoceros, it would be no use to stay around and ponder all the different options with your logical brain. Your reptilian brain needs to just kick in, take over, get you out of the immediate danger and then hand control back to your logical brain.

And while there’s a distinct lack of charging rhinoceroses in our modern society, the brain kicks up the exact same response towards public speaking, approaching someone you find attractive, or other situations you might be terrified of.

(You might remember a time when you managed to grit your teeth, and go through an uncomfortable situation. In that case, the imagined pain of not living up to your own standards was likely even worse than the imagined pain of the situation ahead. While this does occasionally work, it’s a very poor last-resort way of motivating yourself.)

So, with this bit out of the way, let’s answer the ultimate question – how do you motivate yourself?

How to get motivated – the ultimate answer

With all the preliminaries in place, it will now make sense when I tell you exactly how you can motivate yourself.

You can motivate yourself by speaking directly to your emotional brain, through the use of vivid imagery.

Remember the exercise where you imagined going to a friend’s party? Yeah, that’s the basic idea. No amount of logical reasoning will speak to your emotional brain. And yet a simple 30-second visualisation makes all the difference in the world! Now we’ll just add a few extra bits and bobs to make it even more effective.

You will understand this much better if you try it out as I go through the explanation, so please pick an area of your life where you would like to feel more motivated right now.

I will also give you an example of my own as I go along, to further clarify things. I will pick writing an e-book, because that’s something I have wanted to do for over 2 years now. And now, I finally have a great idea, a willing audience, and everything else I need. I just need to stay motivated to get the whole thing written and out there.

Choose an area of your life where you would like to get more motivated, right now.

Okay, ready? We’ll do this in a simple step-by-step recipe-like way, so you can easily replicate it in the future.

1. Get clear about what you want to get motivated for

In my case, that’s writing an e-book, and getting it out to people.

2. Make a mental list of all the awesome things that will happen if you achieve your goal

In my case, that would be earning some money, and spreading the knowledge among people who will truly benefit from it. Further, it will be my first step towards earning passive income. While I love working as a life coach, ultimately there’s a limit to how much time and energy I have, and I can only help a certain number of people.

This step will help you clarify exactly why you want to achieve your goal in the first place.

3. Picture a scene that sums up the biggest pleasure (in the pain-and-pleasure-principle sense) you will get from achieving your goal

In my case, it’s a collage of looking at my bank statement seeing enough monthly income to support myself comfortably, then being on the phone with life coaching clients, which is something I love doing, and then spending free time with my girlfriend, which I will be able to do if I earn enough money so that I don’t have to get a regular job.

Do note that this isn’t about being “realistic” about what impact your single action will have.

I assume that you have already decided with your logical brain what the best course of action is for you. I’m just helping you align your emotional brain with that, and yes, a bit of exaggeration helps with that.

4. Kick up the emotional intensity of that imagery

Now that you’ve decided what you want to imagine, we’ll just play a bit with how you imagine it. In NLP-speak, we’ll tweak the “submodalities”.

Go back to the visualization you did in the previous step, and try the following:

  • see the scene through your own eyes, as opposed to seeing it from a third-person perspective
  • make the picture bigger
  • make the colors brighter
  • if there are any sounds, make them louder. Try adding a soundtrack.

All of these serve to kick up the emotional intensity, and that’s exactly what we want!

5. Now for the pain part of motivation – imagine a really bad-case scenario if you don’t take your action

In my case, this would mean closing down the options for earning passive income online by not even taking the first step. Leading to not earning enough money, and having to get a day job to get by, leaving me tired and frustrated each day, drifting away from my girlfriend because we don’t really get quality time together anymore…

Now, sure, none of that is going to happen just because I don’t write an e-book. But that doesn’t matter, because remember – the emotional brain doesn’t respond to logic, only to vivid imagination.

Again, it’s about getting your emotional brain on board with what you have already decided is the best course of action. It doesn’t matter if you use a bit of exaggerated imagination to get there.

It’s up to you how realistic, or how exaggerated you want to make your imagination. Just remember – the bigger the stick and carrot you create for yourself, the stronger your motivation will drag you right towards the things you want.

6. Again, tweak the submodalities to make the movie in your mind even more vivid and emotionally intense

See step 4 above.

If you have gone through the above exercise as you were reading it, you now understand how much power you yield over your own motivation just through some simple visualisation.

By applying the above principles, you will turn from fighting against your motivation to a point where your emotions inevitably drag you towards where you want to be. You won’t be able to help being successful, just like you can’t help procrastinating and avoiding action when your logical brain and emotions are mis-aligned.

And now that you know exactly how to get yourself motivated for any action you want… you just need to figure out exactly what actions you want to take that will lead to a happy and fulfilling life.

But that’s a topic for another day 😉

Vlad Dolezal is a life coach who helps people with motivation, confidence, busting through limiting beliefs, and yes, even figuring out what will lead to a happy satisfying life for them specifically. He also writes Fun Life Development, a blog about making personal development fun, and turning complicated ideas into simple step-by-step ways to improve your life. Click the link above and check it out!

29 thoughts on “The Ultimate Guide to Motivating Yourself”

  1. Sir, excellent post, perfect supplementary another article about “Pain avoidance as the only motivation source”, since pain (imaginary) is always a much stronger emotion than pleasure.
    My main problem is that after a bad experience my ‘reptilian complex’ is always keeping me off to try it again, even understanding that the risk is neccesary and the new outcome could be positive this time, my reptilian brain is sabotaging me all the time. I could beat this situation when i was younger, since inner desire to get to the goal could overcome all my fears, but now, at 32 years old, im very stuck. I also think that is a biological strategy that the older you get, the greater pain avoidance you feel (think of grandpas collecting coins and remember the past), well, i’m like a granpa at 32 years old. Hope your insights

    • If you want to “tame” your reptilian brain, go with smaller steps. You are fighting 2.000.000 years of evolution, it is normal to face resistance. Our reptilian brain was very effective keeping us alive as a species for all this time. But in many contexts, this part of our being is somehow obsolete. So, if you want to learn how to tame it, my approach would be to use meditation. Start with just one minute, then gradually go up to 2, 3, 5 minutes per day. In time you’ll see that you can focus better. Meditation helps being in control of your thoughts and of your reactions.

  2. Hi! I needed motivation and ran a google check and I just wanted to thank you for your post which not only helped me for my immediate motivation boost that I needed, but will surely help me in other areas of my life.

    Well written and easy to understand.

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  4. Hey, Vlad! It’s all coming back to me know, as Celine Dion sang it. LOL. But really, people need to know all these nuggets of wisdom, if only to get them going and pursue their life’s goals. Everyone should understand, appreciate and practice the techniques and skills in motivating themselves, or finding motivation from outside forces, if it works for them. This post, Vlad, will sure get them somewhere THERE! So, thanks!

    • Like you, Arina, I’m a big fan of aligning your mind on all levels to make massive action not just possible, but easy.

      And yeah, I hope people will get an important piece of the puzzle out of this post.

  5. Pingback: Personal Development Five for Friday: Doing and Being Yourself Edition —
  6. Thanks for sharing all of this Vlad! It is truly incredibly the extent emotions can control our thoughts and behavior.

    I remember when I first heard of the Triune brain theory. I was really impressed with how all three parts worked together, it’s a very interesting theory. However, you said yourself that when we are in fear of a predator we would run away – but that’s the reptilian (fight or flight) part of the brain, not the “emotions” as it is defined in the mammalian brain. What is the difference?

    • You’re right Steven, I muddled up the reptilian and emotional brains into one, for the sake of clarity and flow of the post.

      The basic difference is, the reptilian brain deals with passionate life-or-death type of feelings. Whereas the emotional brain deals with… well, emotions.

      Generally, fear (for example with public speaking or approaching someone attractive) resides more in the reptilian brain. But the same solution still applies, which is why I didn’t make a clear distinction in the post above. 🙂

      Let me know if it’s still unclear.

  7. As someone who has just completed an Ironman triathlon, I can honestly say that limiting beliefs have to be oversome by intrinsic motivation, ie motivation which comes from within. Here motivation is driven by an interest or enjoyment in the task itself. It’s dependent on:

    * being able to attribute the end result to internal factors that you can control (e.g. the amount of effort you put in),
    * a belief that you can influence the desired goals (i.e. the results are not determined by luck),
    * how interested you are in mastering a topic, rather than just rote-learning to achieve a result: in other words, you need a deep understanding of the topic to be successful.

    When training for an Ironman the desire to beat a previous personal best, some of the competition and the cheers of the crowd are all extrinsic and much less effective.

    Some additional tips are:

    1. Exposing the belief – The first thing we need is a sense of radical acceptance of the actual beliefs and feelings that are there. If there is a belief that you are unworthy or incapable in some way, you need to call it out, write it down, and expose it.
    2. Feeling into the emotional reaction – There will be some feeling that is tied to this belief. We also need to acknowledge the reality of this feeling and give it space. It also needs this same type of exposure.
    3. Relating to emotion with compassion – It’s not enough just to expose the emotion; we need to do something that is restorative and healing. This would be to get in touch with a part of yourself that exudes kindness, compassion and/or love. As you feel into the emotion see if you can hold it with this kind awareness. If that is difficult, imagine someone you know, living or dead, who symbolizes this kind of attention and allow that feeling to flow through you. If any judgments arise around this step (e.g., this is so Pollyanna or I can’t do this), notice those as thoughts, mental events in the mind that seemingly come and go, and come back to this practice.
    4. Rewriting the story – Saying to yourself, “In the past I have had difficulty with XYZ due to my old story, this story is not a fact, and moving forward I’m going to open up to new possibilities.”

  8. Wow, thanks for the in depth exercises and explanations, Vlad. I’ve heard and read about the pain/pleasure principle for years, but never quite as thoroughly and clearly as here. I think I’m going to have fun (and learn a lot) exploring your blog.

    • It might be just my maths background, but I do like to set out all the preliminaries clearly and concisely, all spiralling towards the grand finale of explaining one key principle.

      And cheers for checking out my blog. I’m sure you will like it 🙂

  9. I was just listening to a show yesterday, with a guy that studied the effects of TV on peoples mind, specially children. He actually studied what scientist have studied and concluded.

    He mentioned lack of motivation as being an effect of to much TV watching. And in case of children under 7-8, TV causes damage to some parts of the brain that don’t properly form. One of which being responsible for motivation.

    If I understand your article correctly, you’re saying that we should put a TV inside our brain? With vivid colored and loud movies? This sounds to me more like ‘sugar-cubicles’ motivation, rather than a mature man discipline.

    • You already form movies in your mind, even if you don’t realize it. If I were to ask you what side the handle on your door is on, or how many windows are in your room… you would form a short “movie” in order to answer my question.

      The difference between “manly man motivation” where you grit your teeth and plow through it, and the method I propose is that… in one the different parts of your mind struggle against one another, while in the other you align them all so they pull in the same direction.

      The hallmark of real personal development isn’t achieving things through a huge effort to overcome barriers. It’s precisely about doing great things in a way that feels almost effortless.

  10. I loved the story from your childhood. It shows how all the positive feedback makes such a difference. This is an excellent guideline on motivation. I could really see the power of the visualization process you describe by imagining the party exercise. The thing is we are all visualizing all the time, but usually the bad staff. Thanks for showing us how to make the switch.

    • Exactly! A lot of people say the can’t visualize, but as you say, we all already visualize, all the time.

      I’m just hoping to help people become conscious of that, and then start visualizing the good stuff 🙂


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