Follow Us

Eric has talked about the importance of finding your why, and even discussed how to motivate yourself by triggering your why. And he’s right—staying focused on the reason you’re working so hard is absolutely crucial. But what do you do when your why isn’t enough?

I’m not talking about whys that are themselves weak. Like, say you’re already comfortably well-off, but you’re working a job you hate in order to be able to afford a yacht. In that case, you have good reason to not feel motivated. Life’s too short, toys are not that important. Quit your boring job and do something else. But that’s not the kind of problem I’m talking about.

I’m talking about reasons that are genuinely important but seem very far away, and meanwhile, the associated headaches are up-close and personal. For example, putting money into your retirement fund instead of spending it now on something fun, or going to the gym every day and going without dessert so that in two years you’ll be able to taper off your blood pressure medication (maybe)–and meanwhile, that pie is so enticing. Such goals are important, but how do you trigger a why that seems so abstract?

Maybe you can’t, but you can invent a why that’s closer to home.

I decided to go to graduate school so that I would have more job options, so that I could speak with greater authority about things I care about, and because science is cool and I wanted to learn more about it. Charles didn’t enter into it, because at the time I enrolled I didn’t yet know he exists.

He was one of my professors, and for whatever reason, I found myself working insanely hard in his class. I was working insanely hard in other classes, too, but that was because I wasn’t sure I would pass otherwise. Charles’ class, in contrast, landed squarely in my wheelhouse, and I could have slacked off a bit and still passed with a good grade—but instead ,I doubled down. I admired him and wanted him to think well of me.

I’m leaving out his last name on purpose because he doesn’t know this story and might find it embarrassing. I don’t think he was trying to be inspirational. He didn’t give off the vibe of someone who thinks he’s the star in a Robin Williams movie. Nevertheless.

And so, shortly after that semester, I asked him to be my thesis advisor. He was an obvious good choice, given my research interests, but I had another reason. I knew I’d have to push myself very hard, and that a day would come when I wouldn’t want to—when that degree would seem very far away and unimportant. So I deliberately put myself in a position where I could not quit without letting down a man I admired. I was constructing an artificial why. And it worked. That day I anticipated did come (several of them!), but I thought of Charles and finished my thesis and got that degree.

Artificial whys aren’t fake. They don’t work if they don’t tap into something you really care about. The only artificial part is how they got into to your project—you put them there, and you did it because of that other, original why. If I hadn’t wanted my degree, I wouldn’t have invited Charles to get involved.

I have since used other artificial whys as motivation to exercise regularly and to eat better. The technique isn’t limited to big, imposing projects, like finishing grad school. Artificial whys can be private, rewards you promise yourself, but they often work better if someone else is involved to hold you accountable.

For example, you can bet a friend $35 that you’ll go to the gym. You can even ask a friend to take a hostage. For example, say you’re a Buckeyes fan. You can give a friend permission to buy $100 of Wolverines memorabilia “with your money” if you don’t schedule that meeting you’ve been putting off. Or you can simply agree to go jogging with a buddy every morning before work—the thought of your friend waiting will help you get out of bed. Not all artificial whys have to involve a threat!

But in all cases, the original why is still there, and it’s the reason you got the other person involved. Only create artificial whys when the real why is strong and genuine—otherwise, you’ll end up resenting your helper.

Artificial whys are a tool you can use to get important, but perhaps unmotivating, things done. You can also help someone else out by being their artificial why—whether you know you are doing so or not. After all, Charles doesn’t know I finished grad school for him.

Looking for more ways to get your mind right? Listen to this podcast about mental health and hockey.

Recent Posts