Avoiding Motivation Burnout

the first step

It’s easy to get really enthusiastic about a new goal, start working hard and then completely burn yourself out a week later. For some people it’s an annual event, usually starting about January 1st. Diets that crash in a month. Financial plans that aim to hit your first million in a year. Like a kid on Halloween who eats a bit too much candy, there can be such a thing as too much motivation.

A lot of self-help tells you to set big goals, get really motivated and inspired. Although this is a nice idea, it can easily lead to motivation burnout. You don’t start a marathon by sprinting the first mile. So why try to run your life that way?

Be in it for the Long Haul

According to the book, The Millionaire Next Door, most millionaires held stocks for years. Hardly the flashy day trading you see glamorized in books and CNBC. A commonly cited statistic is that healthy dieting should cause the loss of ½ to 1 pound per week. Jack Countryman a personal friend and author of several books said to me, “You have an entire life to learn to write.” Pretty boring, huh?

You have an entire life to grow. Trying to do it all in the next thirty days is going to cause you to crash and burn. Fast growth is good, but unless it is sustainable, you will end up going in circles.

I believe that changing your habits is a key part to achieving goals. But you can’t do it all at once. It takes at least a month to change just one small habit. In the short-term this does seem painfully slow, but after a year or two of doing this you can completely alter the patterns in your life. Isn’t it funny how the next month can seem like forever but the past year feels like it went by in the blink of an eye?

See the Now, See the Future, See the Next Step

I break down almost all my growth into those three steps. See the now. Figure out exactly where you are right now. See the future. Figure out exactly where you want to go. See the next step. Figure out exactly what you need to do next. Surprisingly that simple philosophy has made about 90% of my growth.

I think the real reason people don’t slow down is because most people can’t visualize how a single step contributes to the end result. Because every step works upon the ones before it, your next action often seems insignificant compared to the whole. The human brain isn’t very good at counting out a geometric progression. Take this example:

Let’s say I’m really good at folding paper. I take out a large, regular thickness piece of paper and start folding it. After one fold, the thickness of the paper has doubled. After two folds, its quadrupled. Now let’s say that I keep doing this and fold the paper fifty times. How thick will it be?

I like asking this question because to this date I haven’t had a single person answer correctly. Some people make a linear guess like five inches. Other people who understand that it progresses exponentially may wager a hundred or two hundred feet. But because the human mind wasn’t designed to think exponentially, most people don’t even come close.

The real distance after folding 50 times is approximately the distance between the earth and the sun. Go ahead, break out a calculator and multiply paper thickness by 2^50 if you don’t believe me.

Gradual Revolution

I don’t blame people for wanting to grow really fast. When you look at successful people, often there success appears to skyrocket. Notable blogger Steve Pavlina is earning a six figure salary off of a business he started only a few years ago. I’ve followed his writings since before the website started and I can say that the growth is still ridiculously fast.

Even if you believe that most success takes years, it can be easy to buy into the myth that internal changes happen all at once. This belief in the epiphany, that you can sit down one day have a great idea and suddenly change every aspect of your personal life is nonsense. Internal changes happen gradually, externally changes even more so.

A tipping point may cause your growth to appear fairly rapidly. But what is missing is all the tiny steps of improvement that went in before the tip. Steve is a blogging success only after a decade in internet entrepreneurship, writing and personal growth. The manifestation of success may look revolutionary, but the buildup was gradual.

Plan out your motivation to avoid burnout. Take things one step at a time and focus on the largest chunk that you, not anyone else, can handle before moving forward. In foresight, this approach may seem painfully slow. But the beauty of a gradual revolution is that it is actually the fastest strategy in the long-run. Just remember to smile when someone asks you for advice about how you got so successful, so fast. 😉

Image courtesy of flickr

  • Tonya

    Great Blog!! I am the photographer of the picture you used in this blog. I don’t mind at all, thanks for letting me know and sharing your blog.

  • Scott Young

    Thanks Tonya.

  • Basu

    This slow and steady way seems to be a good thing for me. I used to watch Star Trek: Voyager a few years ago. Since we got it after it was over in the US, we had daily shows. I really liked the whole Vulcan logical thing and started to make myself think more logically, and be much calmer emotionally. That time was one of the best in my life and I remembered how planned everything was, I loved it. Unfortunately I lost all that along the way due to numerous reasons I won’t go into. Anyway I’m trying to get it back, and I think it’s started to have some effects.

  • Dave

    Great post. We all know that motivation is a good thing for everyone but like every good thing in life, each has a limitation. We probably don’t notice it because we don’t get that much motivation.

  • Scott Young


    It isn’t really too much motivation more than it is uncontrolled, unfocused motivation. You’d be surprised how common it is.

  • Helen

    The gradual revolution is a good idea. Doing things one step at a time is a safe way of doing it. I think that this strategy will work pretty much well for me.

  • max night

    Unfortunately, I dont have enough motivation for myself to set new goals, or even have them for that matter. I mostly take things as they come. I only know that I want to pursue a career in the medical field, but I also know that some of the things in the medical field strongly conflict with my personal beliefs. It might be that I rant to people on the Internet, but I guess that I would be very happy with finding all natural cures and medicines that wont harm anyone, or anything. Anywho, just a voiced opinion that i wanted to voice.

  • Birgit

    Actually, you can’t fold a piece of paper that often 🙂

    I totally agree with this post, though my strategy involves a lot more reverse engineering – which helps me to set priorities on my “next steps” and makes my time/motivation investments more focused.
    Not all things pay off equally, so I try to identify the things that build up most.

    For example, I want to get into that uber-uber grad program in a few years from now – so I wrote a fictional application that would wow those people.
    Looking at this plan, I actually saw the geometric progression you mentioned –
    For example, getting that terrific research position
    is a consequence of impressing the right people
    is a consquence of doing impressive work at a project
    is a consequence of joining the right student research club
    Is a consequence of simply researching.
    And it was the same thing with all those impressive achievements. Actually, some of them were consequences of the very same things.

    If I hadn’t done this reverse engineering, I might have joined a different club, spent that time taking a relevant class – done things that are good for my application,too, but they don’t really build up that much, they are too short-timed.

    Sure, life doesn’t always go according to plans (thank God for that), but choosing things that open up doors is certainly my personal way to realise my dreams.
    And right now, I’m doing pretty well with that. 🙂