The Math of Motivation and the Denominator of Discomfort

I’m only a few days into 2023 and I’m noticing a real attitude of exploration. Instead of traveling the world, I’m traveling inside myself and finding better ways to do the things I like and that matter to me.

One of the last things I did in 2022 was finish Building a Second Brain: A Proven Method to Organize Your Digital Life and Unlock Your Creative Potential by Tiago Forte. At a high level it’s about “Personal Knowledge Management” – capturing and wrangling all of the ideas and knowledge that come from within and from the world into an organized system. And then, once it’s in there, finding ways to get the most out of it rather than doing as I have been wont to do since I started taking notes in school: Capture the note and never look at it again.

Everything now goes into Evernote with tags and highlights. But it’s not just that, I first need to find ways to get the information down. To do this I’ve created a few input streams:

First is the simplest one: I’m on my computer and think of something or find a link that’s interesting. Copy it into a note and done.

The next one is a little more complicated: To spend less time on the computer I am trying not to read on it. Instead I put the article into Pocket. I do this either through a plugin in a browser or my feed reader. Everything in Pocket syncs up to my Kobo e-reader. Then I can read them at my leisure away from the distraction of the Internet. Any notes I take are on paper which I can then either transcribe to Evernote or even just photograph and import.

One of the most productive ones, though, has been how I capture ideas I have in the shower. Like many people I get lots of ideas in the shower – but can never write them down. However, I do have a Google Home in the bathroom. I ask it to take a note, say my idea and it goes into the Google Keep application. There’s no easy way to sync this with Evernote so I’ve made Keep my homepage for my web browser. When I open the browser, I see my shower thoughts: ideas, reminders, thoughts, and put them all where they go.

One of the folders I have in Evernote is for blog ideas and just in a few weeks I’ve had lots of thoughts related to discomfort so it’s clearly time to talk about it.

As I mentioned a few weeks back when I finished up my “Working Toward Winter Happiness” project, I am now working on building up stamina to do longer bike rides faster. This means 3-4 workouts a week and once a week one of them is over two hours – and it increases each week. The latest one was 2 hours and 15 minutes, much of it at a relatively high intensity. This was not my usual touring pace and on Zwift there is no such thing as coasting and relaxing a bit. Every minute of the ride I need to pedal.

I tried the 2:15 ride one day and at about 50 minutes in I did not want to go further. My stomach didn’t feel good, and my mind especially didn’t. It was boring, I hated it, and what was the point of this after all? Five minutes later I gave up. (The downside of Zwift is that had this been a 50 minute outdoor ride I’d most likely have to ride 50 more minutes to get home and might as well finish the full ride.)

Two days later, I was determined to finish it again. 55 minutes later I got to the same place mentally and physically. Why the hell am I doing this? It’s not like I’m going on an interesting tour this year (this was before I figured out I could still have a great time here) And most significantly at that moment, this was the first of three 20 minute long sets at about 80% effort. If I could barely do one of these, how will I feel after two or even three? I’d better quit now because why bother even going further? What’s the point? Off the bike I got, feeling down on myself for letting my fitness go – or worse, maybe this is what being 52 is like.

Then I asked Sage for a pep talk. Sage is great at pep talks but is also not one to mollycoddle. She knew I was capable of it but was choosing to give up on before knowing whether I could or couldn’t do it. In the end I made a commitment. I would try again on Sunday and the only reasons I could stop would be related to injury or illness. Training isn’t good if I end up injured and though many do it, exercising to the point of vomiting is not something I feel is particularly productive either. There would be a carrot and stick too. The carrot was that I’d give myself “double credit” in our habit-based “allowance” system (another future entry) and earn a bit more spending money. But if I failed, then I would not just give Sage all my money, I’d give owe her about two month’s of earnings.

I got on the bike and started on my way. To help with boredom I added a window with 80s music videos to watch. As expected I did great until 50 minutes but then it hit me as usual. Knowing I couldn’t get off the bike without a good reason I pushed onward and it reminded me a little of the story of Buddha’s enlightenment (obviously not in the end result!). My mind and body tried all sorts of tricks. First was simply complaining that this was hard. Could I possibly finish the first of three sets even? My heart rate looks a little higher already. Then at one hour came “Well, you’re ten minutes further than last time. This is a good place to stop.

About to start on my ride – friends my age, do you recognize the music video?

Then came the least fun one: the emotional one. Something about the muscular and aerobic effort felt like Grade 9 P.E. class. I was always the worst at everything but as I’m effectively blind in one eye and have no depth perception, anything requiring catching was a no go. One day after playing lacrosse (throwing and catching a ball with a stick! Even harder!) we had to do laps around the field until I started to feel ill – not unlike I was feeling on this bike. On this day, as we all walked in, one of the biggest bullies in my class insulted me over and over and I ended up in my last fight of my life at age 13. And while that was the worst day by far, there were many awful days in that class. It was like I had one screen playing music videos and another playing a highlight reel from awful times in high school. I felt like crying and I was trapped on the bike with this. Only one thing to do, though, and that was to keep going.

The interesting thing was that even this horrible thing was unsustainable. After 10-15 minutes it started to fade. No doubt helped by the 10 minute “breaks” of slightly lower intensity. But those breaks seemed to break the cycle and for a little bit I just ground away at the pedals.

“Hey wait, what is this?” my mind pipes up half way through the second twenty minute rep. “I think this is a headache coming on.” And indeed, there it was, behind my eyes, a small headache.

“Maybe you should get off the bike. What if this turns into a migraine.” my mind tells me.

But I still keep going, and that, too, fades away and I get to the third set. They’ve not been going perfectly and several times I’ve had to stop pedaling, put my head down on the handlebars for 20-30 seconds and just breathe before getting back to it. The third set is different, though. I can now see the end. Instead of excuses, rationalizations, childhood demons and imaginary illnesses, it is just me and my bike. I focus on the music and handing out “Ride ons” as encouragement to those who pass me or whom I pass.

I get to the end, and even the cooldown is a challenge as the effort requirements automatically ramp down. The floor around me is covered in sweat and my muscles ache but I did it. And I discovered something a bit dangerous – what happens if you push through discomfort, rationalization and excuses. Knowing I can do it is something I’ve remembered in subsequent workouts when I feel like quitting. I was wrong in thinking I couldn’t finish this 135 minute ride, so today’s 50 minute ride is almost certainly doable.

Ever since then I’ve been playing again with modeling this in a “math-inspired” way, trying to see how this all works in my head and then once I have that to see if I can play with some of the levers to make adjustments. Here’s what I have so far:

Motivation – and the likelihood of persisting (or even starting) a task of any sort is kind of a value judgement not unlike the one I did in my last entry about cycling. It’s a simple function of perceived value / importance divided by perceived effort / discomfort.

Value and importance are pretty simple. What’s in it for me? Maybe chocolate cake has a high value for you, maybe it’s intervening when someone is being harassed, or maybe it’s just building up stamina on your bike. Maybe it’s asking that cool friend out on a date. Whatever it is, you’ve got a reason that something is important to you. You might measure this in units of fun, or units of necessity. Whatever works for the situation, use that.

And of course discomfort and effort are like the cost in my previous entry. It’s the price you pay for the value you’re buying. This one can be any number of things from having to work hard as Superman, flying faster than the speed of light around and around the earth to turn back time, maybe you’re riding your bike to Montreal, maybe you’re studying for a test. Embedded in this are all sorts of smaller formulas. Physical stamina, stress levels, how tired you are, how fit or how much you’ve already studied for that test.

Divide the value by the effort and you have your level of motivation. If the motivation exceeds an internal threshold (unique to you at that particular point in time) you’ll do it. If it doesn’t, you’ll do something else.

Each one of those parameters has pitfalls and also levers we can possibly use to help us do the things that are good for us or that we know, on some level, we should be doing.

Let’s start with value. A pitfall is that due to laziness, lack of confidence, or fear we reduce the value. Remember my “What’s the point?” question? What’s in it for me? Probably not much. I might as well quit. But that’s also a lever – starting with our recognizing our own attempts at self-sabotage. But we can also be more specific about articulating what we’re getting out of it. For me, pushing harder in exercise got easier when it went from being something I should do to fit some ideal – “I’m a cyclist, I should do this.” to something specific. I have some interesting places I can go, I might also lose a bit of weight and if I do that likely I can get back to running again which I love. Now I’ve gone from the value of “I can say I finished this ride” to “Maybe I can run the Pride and Remembrance 5K run again.” or “What if I rode to Point Pelee, Ontario – the southernmost point in Ontario?” What can you do with your tasks and goals?

As you likely gathered, my bigger challenge, though, is the pitfall of effort. “It’s going to be too hard! Quit now!” could have been my mantra in phys ed class. Heck, that’s likely why that memory came up – a variation of “Come on, you’re a grown up now! You’re not forced to be here! This time you can just leave!” But the reality was that I had underestimated myself. Underestimation seems like a good bet sometimes – after all, I don’t have to be humiliated by collapsing in front of the other 9th graders. Oh wait! I’m not in phys ed class. What if I got curious instead? How much do I actually have in me? What does giving 100% really look like? I am beginning to find the answer to this question. It’s really hard, really fascinating and really interesting. Get curious and be willing to fail and you can take on more. After all, in this particular case I’m in the safest environment possible. If I truly do work to exhaustion, I don’t have to ride home. I just get off the bike and into a hot shower, have a nice coffee and watch some Netflix. Where’s the risk? There isn’t one. But I’m so habituated to trying to protect myself from failure that unless I am paying attention I don’t even question myself. I give up – sometimes before I even start.

And what about that “Motivation threshold”? That one’s where pep talks, carrots and sticks come into play. In my case, “Follow through on your commitment to yourself or clean the litter boxes for a week.” can push me through past some of the biggest obstacles. Rewards are also incredibly good. A hot bath, a great TV show, or a good post-exercise snack. Whatever works for you, try that.

A possible post-ride snack (but this was actually for Sage)

What are some of your levers that you can (or do!) use to get through difficult challenges whether at work, when writing, or pushing yourself physically?

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