Challenges Coffee Break stoicism

141 – Motivation and Willpower

Motivation and Willpower

I’ve been thinking a lot about motivation and how we accomplish the goals that we set out to do. And I think there’s a bit a confusion about motivation and how it helps us get things done. Let’s take a look at the definition of motivation:

The state or condition of being motivated or having a strong reason to act or accomplish something

And let’s look at the definition of willpower:

Control of one’s impulses and actions; self-control.

Motivation is the reason why you want to do something. It’s the fuel that gets going. It is not the thing that actually propels you. The engine that actually gets you to do something is willpower.

Willpower is “like a muscle that can be strengthened with use, but it also gets fatigued with use,” says John Tierney, co-author of Willpower, with Roy F. Baumeister. If you simply rely on willpower to get you to do something, it’s going to take a lot of effort. According to the authors, the best way to reduce willpower fatigue is to turn something into a habit or a routine, which takes a lot less willpower.

Just Do It

“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”

– Epictetus

Sometimes we wait until we “feel” like doing it. The problem is, we may never feel like it. Usually, the motivation to do something comes after we get started. The hardest part about working out at the gym is often just getting yourself to go to the gym. The hardest part about writing is just sitting down and getting started. If you can eliminate the barriers to getting started, then your chance of success is far greater than waiting for inspiration.


One the most important factors though is what Epictetus reminds us:

“To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it occurs.”

– Epictetus

Sometimes, we attach some kind of negative emotion to the task we’re trying to accomplish. The task may feel overwhelming, or just plain scary. We may be too focused on wanting a specific outcome and we’re afraid that we won’t be able to do it. By focusing on the things that we can control, then we can focus our time and energy on something that will actually have some impact, and not waste our time on things we can’t control


Most people who are successful create a process for accomplishing what they want. They figure out what they have control over, then put down the steps to accomplish their task, and then they follow those steps every time. They create an environment where it’s easy for them to fall into that routine, and where there are limited distractions.

Marcus Aurelius said,

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

If there is something that is distracting you, if it is something within your control, you find ways to either take care of it right then or plan time to take care of it later. If it is something you can’t control, you let go of it.

For example, Stephen King sits down and writes 10 pages every day. He doesn’t care if they are good. He writes 10 pages while listening to the same Metallica album at a little desk in his office. He doesn’t wait to feel motivated. He removes all distractions and just does the task he set out for himself in his routine, and he does it every day.

Create Your Plan

You can start off by asking yourself some questions (I’d suggest writing the answers down):

  • What are the things that I can control?
  • What are the steps that I need to take?
  • What are the tools I need to accomplish it?
  • What are the obstacles in my way?
  • Are there other potential obstacles that I can think of?
  • What steps can I take to work through those obstacles?
  • What can I do to create an environment that eliminates distractions and helps me focus?

Once you have those questions answered, you have the start of your plan. Create an environment that is most conducive to helping you accomplish the tasks. The next thing is to just start doing it. Often times, this is the hardest part. If you wait until you “feel” motivated, you probably won’t. Just do it for 3 minutes then quit if you want. You can do just about anything for 3 minutes, and usually, once you get started doing something, it’s easier to keep that momentum going, and you usually feel even more motivated to keep doing it.

Remember, a routine will beat relying on motivation and willpower any day.

Photo by Jessica Lewis on Unsplash