Where does the motivation come from to improve your life? At first glance, this seems like a strange question: why wouldn’t you automatically want things to be better? But the good life is hard work, so we often fail to do the things we know would make our lives better.
Cal Newport  told me that, while in grad school, he noticed a lot of people became much better students after they had kids. This is paradoxical because children are time-consuming, and thus, it ought to be much harder to succeed academically.
I noticed something similar in myself, when I decided I wanted to run my own business. There were a lot of spillover benefits to other areas of my life, even though they weren’t related to entrepreneurship. I started reading books, exercising regularly and eating healthier, for instance.
The difficulty of the new challenge forces you to take things seriously. Cal’s observation was that, with fearsome time constraints, procrastinating is out of the question. Taking studying seriously pushes you to do better than you might have, absent those constraints. In my case, becoming my own boss was a difficult enough goal that it forced me to build better habits throughout my life.
What’s Your Core Motivator?
It goes without saying that these examples aren’t universal. Plenty of new parents find it harder to succeed in their work and studies, not easier. A lot of people start businesses and don’t find themselves getting into shape.
But the fact that these examples exist at all is interesting. If everyone were rational, then adding extra challenges could only make life harder. The fact that there are counterexamples points to an intriguing feature of our motivational hardwiring.
Much of self-improvement has an activation cost. It’s harder to exercise regularly, read books and work on yourself than to binge watch Netflix all day. But, once you’re already doing those things, it’s easier to keep doing them.
The problem is that a lot of the things we should do to live well just aren’t motivating enough on their own. You know you should do them, but they often slip through the cracks.
However, when you do have a goal that deeply motivates you—becoming your own boss, getting through grad school to build a good life for your family—then that enthusiasm often helps overcome the activation costs in other areas of life. If you’re going to be productive all day and organized, you might as well also start flossing.
Finding the One Reason to Do Everything Else
You have the ability to put in far more effort into things than you normally do. The reason you don’t is that, most of the time, a full effort isn’t necessary.
We think that a full effort will be draining, that we ought to save our energy for when we really need it. Yet, more often than not, the opposite is the case. When we really use our full effort toward a central concern that matters deeply to us, we feel more energized—not less.
The paradox is that life is often easiest when it is hardest. When you’re working on a pursuit that may fail if you don’t take it seriously, you find the energy to take it seriously. And, in doing so, you find the other nagging things in life that needed effort weren’t so hard either.
The key is to find the one thing that will necessitate all the rest.