The Only Two Secrets to Motivating Yourself You’ll Ever Need

By Leo Babauta

I’ve written about motivation a bunch of times before here on Zen Habits, but the more I learn about it, the more I realize that motivation isn’t that complicated.

Sure, there are numerous tips that can help, numerous tactics and strategies I’ve used with success. But it really all boils down to two things.

And those two things are so deceptively simple that you might decide to stop reading after I name them: 1) make things enjoyable and 2) use positive public pressure. But read on for more on how to use those two things to motivate yourself for any goal.

It’s Motivation, Not Discipline

First let’s back up a little bit. A number of readers have emailed me about sticking to their goals — anything from exercise and eating right to being organized and productive to creating new habits — and have said they simply lack the discipline to stick with things for very long.

But what is discipline, really? It’s mostly an illusion, in my experience.

When people say that someone has “discipline”, as I’ve written about before, they really mean he has the motivation to stick to something.

In a previous post I used the example of someone in the military, a typical case of somone who is said to have discipline. This military man might get up super early, fix his bed neatly, go on an early-morning run, do a bunch of other exercises, and generally do a disciplined job throughout the day.

But is that just because he’s disciplined? I think it’s mostly because he’s in a situation where there’s public pressure (both positive and negative) to do all of the things listed above. If he doesn’t do them, he might get yelled at or demerited or look bad in front of his peers. If he does do them, he’s an exemplary soldier.

There’s also the fact that after awhile, these things become pleasurable for him. He gets a sense of satisfaction out of staying in shape and keeping things neat. He enjoys the early morning. He feels good about being conscientious about his job.

So in the end, it’s not some vague quality (“discipline”) that allows him to stick to these habits, but rather the two secrets of motivation: positive public pressure and enjoyment.

What I Learned From My Experiences

Over the last few years, I’ve been experimenting with achieving various goals — from waking early to exercising to eliminating my debt and living frugally and simply and more. And what I’ve learned has repeatedly taught me that these two key motivation principles are all you need.

I’ve learned other things as well, but the more I stick to my goals, the more I realize that it’s these two themes that keep repeatedly surfacing. It’s almost eerie, actually. Just a few goals as illustration:

I could go into many more examples of how I used these two forms of motivation, but you get the idea. Now let’s take a look at each one and how you can use them to your advantage.

Positive Public Pressure

While pressure is often seen as a bad thing (“I’m under too much pressure!”), if used properly it can actually be a good thing. It’s important that pressure not be applied in too negative a way and too high an intensity. Keep things positive and at a manageable intensity, and things will move along nicely.

Some examples of how to use positive public pressure to motivate yourself:

You get the idea. I’m sure you can come up with some ideas of your own.

Enjoy Your Goal Activity

You can motivate yourself to do something you don’t like to do, using positive public pressure as motivation. But if you really don’t enjoy it, you’ll only be able to keep it up for so long. And even if you could do it for months and years … is that something you’d want to do? If you don’t enjoy it, why do it for very long?

But, you might say, what if it’s something I really want to achieve but I don’t enjoy it? There are ways to find enjoyment in most things — the key is to focus on the enjoyable parts. Focus on the positive.

Here are some ways to use this motivational principle to your advantage:

Find the enjoyable parts of any activity, and focus on those. In time, you can really learn to love something. Or, switch to something you love more and stick to that.

These two principles, especially when used together, can be powerful motivators. In fact, in most cases, they’re all the motivation I ever need.