Motivation is Overrated: This Is What Really Works

Over recent years, the idea has often been proposed that you should listen to your body and your intuition. However, fortunately, motivation involves more than merely following your desires at any given time.
Motivation is Overrated: This Is What Really Works
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Motivation is one of the psychological processes that’s received the most attention in recent years, to the extent of its role being completely overvalued. Many point to it almost like the Rosetta stone, an extraordinary resource that transforms every will into an achievement, every goal into a success. However, as you know, the issue is often far more complex.

Being motivated, as most self-help manuals will tell you, implies activating your internal drive, setting yourself valuable goals and focusing on them, and overcoming any obstacles and difficulties. The definition sounds great. Nevertheless, the reality is quite different. Therefore, how are you supposed to trigger the mechanism of motivated behavior?

If an athlete depended on motivation every day to go to training, they’d probably find it once in every ten sessions. If a writer depended on inspiration to shape their novel, they’d find it once in every fifty. That’s because what we feel most of the time is a lack of initiative and even apathy.

However, the fact that this happens isn’t a reason to form a negative perception of yourself. It’s completely normal. So, what can you do to be more resolute in your objectives?

To achieve a goal, you must learn to tolerate the discomfort generated by your daily effort. You may even have to give up certain things to achieve it.

woman thinking motivation is overrated
To achieve our goals, we often have to learn to manage our negative emotions.

If motivation is overrated, what really works?

Remember those days when you had to study a subject for an exam? Did you feel motivated to do it? Unless the matter fascinated you and it was your strong point, probably not. As a rule, when you’re starting a task, an objective, or a specific task, you feel uncomfortable, full of doubt, lacking in energy, and even stressed.

It takes a lot to feel 100 percent motivated every day and in any situation. Furthermore, you can’t control your thoughts and emotions so they work together to help you achieve a goal. In fact, often, your mind goes one way (I have to get on with that project) and your emotions go the other way (I feel stressed, I’d better put it off until tomorrow ).

Therefore, if motivation is overrated, what does work? Well, out of your whole psychobehavioral repertoire, what you can control are your actions. It’s your behavior that can change your mood. What you choose to do in each moment, no matter how you feel, is what’ll make it easier for you to achieve a set purpose.

We’ll explain how it works.

If you wait to be motivated by your positive emotions every time you want to start something, you’ll end up procrastinating. 

Behavioral activation is your best friend

Behavioral activation is an approach that’s traditionally used as a clinical intervention in patients suffering from depression. It consists of getting the person to introduce behaviors into their life to bring about changes in their thoughts, moods, and quality of life.

Research conducted by Curtin University of Technology (Australia) claims that this resource also has great benefits in the non-clinical field. The study states that behavioral activation shows us that we don’t have to ‘feel good’ to do something.

People with depression deal with thoughts like “I can’t take it anymore” on a daily basis. Along the same lines, when you want to start a task or go to the gym, your mind seduces you with the idea of procrastination and you find yourself saying “I’ll start tomorrow”. The key is to use self-discipline and start the work, despite your feelings of frustration, boredom, or lack of initiative.

Choose which thoughts to value and which to put aside

You probably wish you had a switch that could change the trend of your thoughts. It’d certainly be great to feel energetic and hopeful every day. However, motivation is overrated and the truth is that you don’t always feel ‘superpositive’ when starting to do something. Indeed, you find the “I can”, I’m worth it”, and “I’ll achieve what I want” are often lacking.

In these kinds of situations, there’s only one option. You can’t choose how you feel every day, but you can choose which thoughts you value. If your mind tells you “Today, I just don’t feel like doing anything. Better leave it till tomorrow”  replace those thoughts with “I know I don’t really feel like it, but I’m just going to get going and see what happens”.

Remember, only a disciplined mind reaches the top. This means not giving value to negative and intrusive ideas, but reminding yourself of the reasons why you want to achieve something.

Despite your brain telling you “this isn’t worth starting”, start it anyway. Soon, you’ll notice how the negativity and the clouds of apathy vanish.

brain with mechanisms symbolizing that motivation is overrated
When you feel trapped by apathy and lack of energy, activate your body, do what you intended to do, and you’ll soon see the change.

Motivation is overrated: use discipline and self-esteem

Motivation is like the wind, sometimes it appears, hoists your sails, and speeds up the pace at which you sail. However, what do you do when there’s no wind or it’s not blowing in the right direction? On those days, you have your own mechanisms to make your ship move in the desired direction. Nevertheless, it requires accepting that you’re going to have to go against your own wishes and what your body asks of you.

Motivated behavior originally appeared in our brains to maintain homeostasis. It meant if we were hungry we looked for food. If there was danger, we ran away from it. As humans, we don’t like to feel uncomfortable and have to strive for goals. Nevertheless, this almost always requires dealing with all kinds of inconveniences (getting up early, giving up leisure time, etc).

This explains why your brain makes you procrastinate or emits a stress response. The secret lies in discipline, in the behavioral activation mentioned above, and in healthy self-esteem.

You shouldn’t only remind yourself every day of the hard work required to achieve your goals. It’s also a good idea to remind yourself that you deserve those goals.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Mazzucchelli TG, Kane RT, Rees CS. Behavioral activation interventions for well-being: A meta-analysis. J Posit Psychol. 2010 Mar;5(2):105-121. doi: 10.1080/17439760903569154. Epub 2010 May 7. PMID: 20539837; PMCID: PMC2882847.
  • Matthews, G. (2015). Goal research summary. Paper presented at the 9th Annual International Conference of the Psychology Research Unit of Athens Institute for Education and Research (ATINER), Athens, Greece.
  • McClelland, D. C. (1985). How motives, skills, and values determine what people do. American Psychologist, 40(7), 812-825.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.