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The Phenomenology of Motivation

Motivation is an existential issue, not a problem to be solved.

Pamela J. Hobart
Pamela J. Hobart
3 min read
The Phenomenology of Motivation

Lots of creatures apparently feel motivation. Push motivation keeps us away from danger. Pull motivation draws us towards things like food and sex. Pulls and pushes happen on some level via physiological means (blah blah neurotransmitters blah blah), but the experience of being pulled or pushed shows up like an emotion: fear, curiosity, love.

I used to think that all motivations boiled down to simple self-interest. This is a reductive view, known as "psychological egoism."

But people discuss their varied motivations all the time - duty, honor, pleasure - and it seems counterproductive to explain that away. So I'm not much of a psychological egoist any more.

It is almost tautological that you can't do something unless you feel somehow motivated to do it. Like, you literally cannot.

So, "productivity" (whatever that is) faces deep motivational constraints.

Unfortunately, motivation is not something you can turn on at will. It is more like having a janky old faucet controlling the flow of a tap with disappointing water pressure.

You arrive at your shitty motel, feeling scuzzy from the road. You turn on the water to wash your face: a spurt comes out, then dribbles. You do what you can with the water that comes out, then you jiggle the faucet to see if you can get another spurt. Jiggle, wash. Jiggle, wait.

How Regular Productivity Methods Handle Motivation

I said it once and I'll say it again: productivity discourse is shallow.

Regular productivity methods tend to imply that (1) motivation is indeed solvable, and (2) if their "solutions" don't "work" then the problem is you.

  • Put everything on your calendar in realistic blocks of time.
  • Develop the right habits: once established, they'll do all the hard work for you.
  • Just start! But also always plan what to start first!
  • If you plan your day in a certain way, your productivity will become "failure proof" (lol).
  • Strike a "power pose" (lol lol lol)
  • If you try to "do what you love," but your motivation still flags, then go back to the drawing board. You must not love it. There will be something else you love more. #passion
  • Incentivize, gamify, but also be intrinsically motivated. Try a commitment device, but don't accidentally dopamine bomb yourself too early by announcing what you're doing, and also don't feel guilt 🤷

Motivation is Existential

Realtalk, guys. Motivation is a big black box.

You're not going to solve it or fix it. We get clues as to what's going on in there, not formulas.

You can want something, but only some of the time.

You can want something in theory, while not wanting any of the steps along the way from starting point A to goal Z.

You can even want to want something.

Productivity is a genuinely existential issue: a matter unique to the human condition of self-awareness.

A squirrel might die if he doesn't bury enough nuts. But he's not wondering what kind of guy he is, to have procrastinated on nut-burying. He's not wondering why he's empty inside, if he's already got such a nut stash secured.

Motivation Surfing

Did a surfer ever make the waves bigger by worrying about them?

Manage less and simply notice more.

Do what you can, when you can, from and for the reasons that make sense to you.

Do what you can with what you've got, not what you wish you had or what They promised you.

How could you do anything else, really?

This is part 2, check out part 1 here: Towards a Humanistic Productivity

Pamela J. Hobart Twitter

Philosophical Life Coaching in Austin, TX. Also mother of 3, Miata driver, and DIY manicure aficionado.