The Motivation Equation: How to Generate Motivation On-Demand

Why do we procrastinate?

Even when we know something is good for us, it’s easy to delay taking action.

It’s a weird feeling. You know the thing is important. You know you wanna do it. 

Yet procrastination happens anyway.

This phenomenon might seem mysterious. But it’s actually not.

There’s a simple equation that reveals the reasons why we procrastinate on some things and feel motivated with others. 

Piers Steel, Ph.D. breaks it down in his book The Procrastination Equation. (Though, with a hat tip to Brian Johnson, I prefer to think of it as The Motivation Equation. It’s more constructive to think about creating motivation than avoiding procrastination.)

When you know this equation, you’ll have deeper awareness about A) Why you don’t feel motivated to do things (even when they serve you) and B) What to do about that.

It’s both a diagnostic tool and your recipe for improvement.

Ready to learn it?

The Motivation Equation

The equation is pretty simple. 

M = (E * V) / (I * D)

“M” stands for motivation. (Though you probably guessed that one.)

That’s what we want to feel for the things that serve us and help us reach out goals. And we do that by increasing the top part of the equation (E * V), and decreasing the bottom part (I * D). 

The Numerator: E * V

“E” stands for Expectancy. Do you expect that you will be able to reach your goal? How confident are you that you can create what you want to create?

“V” stands for Value. Do you see the thing you’re pursuing as valuable to you? How valuable do you believe it to be?

So that’s the numerator: Expectancy * Value

If you don’t believe you can actually reach a goal, you won’t feel motivated to pursue it. No matter how awesome it is.

(e.g. Would it be awesome to play professional basketball in the NBA? Heck yeah! Do I actually believe I could do that? Nope. Hence, I don’t feel motivated to pursue that goal.)

And if you don’t really believe something is valuable, you won’t feel motivated to take action. No matter how likely you know the result is.

(e.g. If you told me I’d receive 100 free packs of cigarettes if I completed 5 jumping jacks, I wouldn’t feel any motivation to do so. You couldn’t pay me to take those cigarettes. I don’t value them.)

The more you believe in your ability to reach your goal, and the more you value it, the more motivation you’ll feel.

The Denominator: I * D

“I” stands for Impulsiveness. How often do you pursue immediate gratification? How distractible are you to follow your impulses to seek little pleasures throughout a day?  

And lastly, “D” stands for Delay. How far delayed into the future is your goal? How far away from today is your deadline?

If you constantly get distracted by your thoughts and impulses, you’ll struggle to take action on meaningful long-term projects. It’s easier than ever to get distracted. The easy path of not-doing-work is always there. The more you give into this impulsivity, the less motivated you’ll feel. 

And if your deadline for completing something is far away, you won’t feel motivated to complete it. This is why so many students pull all-nighters before a paper is due. When the paper is due in 2 weeks, it feels unimportant to work on it today. (Especially when there are so many other fun things you could occupy your time with.)

Motivation Equation Recap

In sum, Motivation = Expectancy * Value / Impulsivity * Delay.

  • Motivation = How energized you feel to do something
  • Expectancy = How likely you think it is that you will receive the payoff you want from doing something 
  • Value = How highly you value the payoff of doing something
  • Impulsivity = How distractible and impulsive you are while seeking to do something
  • Delay = How far away the deadline is for you to do something

Now that you know the equation, you can use it to diagnose where your lack of motivation might be coming from. And from there, you can increase your motivation on-command.

Put it Into Practice: How to Generate Motivation On-Demand

Generating more motivation on-demand happens in two parts.

First, by diagnosing your current state. This will show you what’s holding you back from feeling motivated. And what’s contributing to your procrastination.

Second, you’ll use your diagnosis to reframe the task at hand. And you’ll see how you can CREATE more motivation at will.

Diagnosing Motivation and Procrastination

How do you can figure out why you’re procrastinating on something that’s important to you?

Simply ask yourself the following questions:

  • What would be the payoff of doing this thing? (Value)
  • How likely do you think it is that you’ll receive that payoff of doing this thing? (Expectancy)
  • How far away is your deadline with this task? (Delay)
  • How impulsive / distractible are you as you take action? (Impulsivity)

Give yourself a rating from 1-10 for each of these questions.

  • Value: 1 = You couldn’t care less. 10 = EXTREMELY valuable
  • Expectancy: 1 = Highly unlikely that you’ll receive the payoff. 10 = You are as certain as you can be that you’ll receive it.
  • Delay: 1 = There’s none at all. The deadline is knocking on your door! 10 = The deadline is super far away.
  • Impulsivity: 1 = You are hyper-focused. 10 = You are immensely distractible and always choosing immediate gratification.

The specific number doesn’t matter as much as the awareness you will build by completing this diagnosis.

Once you know where your current status is, you can go into improvement-mode.

Increasing Your Motivation by Choosing a New Perspective

To increase your motivation, you want to increase the numerator (Expectancy * Value) and decrease the denominator (Impulsivity * Delay).

Below are a few reflection questions that re-frame the task at hand. 

Increase Value by Clarifying Potential Payoffs of Taking Action

  • What would be the best case scenario of completing this task?
  • How would that impact your life? Your health/career/relationships?
  • What are all the ways in which doing this benefit you?
  • Why is this task AWESOME?

Increase Expectancy by Identifying What’s In Your Control

  • What about this task is in your control?
  • What’s most important for you to bring to this task to set yourself up to success?
  • What are the obstacles most likely to derail you as you take action?

Related Article: WOOP: The Scientifically Validated Dream-Realization Exercise

Decrease Delay by Re-focusing on the Process and Your Next Actions

  • What would it look like to break this big goal down into bite-sized pieces?
  • What’s the most important next step in the process? 
  • What’s the action you want to take TODAY to make meaningful progress towards this goal?

Related Article: Journey Over Destination: How to Find Consistent Satisfaction in Your Work

Decrease Impulsivity by Minimizing Distractions and Increasing Focus

  • Are you wiling to allow yourself to be fully-present to this task for the next period of time?
  • Are you willing to let go of distractions and impulses as they surface?

Related Guide: 21 Proven Ways to Stay Focused Every Day

Related Article: How to Minimize Distractions and Be More Productive (The 3 I’s Framework)

You Can Create Your Own Motivation

Motivation isn’t about the task itself. It’s about your perspective on the task.

When you CHOOSE to see the task in a new light, you can tap into hidden stores of motivation in an instant.

And now that you know the motivation equation, you have all the tools you need at your disposal.

Put them into practice. Start doing more of what matters. And continue living your life free of regrets.