Book Review – The Motivation Hacker

In The Motivation Hacker, Nick Winter provides a guide to being able to get things done, through self-modification. From the foreword, it’s clear that he’s a motivated individual – in it, he provides a list of all of the things he did alongside writing this book in three months, and it’s a fairly impressive list. Does it deliver?

I believe so. I gained a lot from having read this, powering up hard and becoming a far more active and dynamic version of myself. Prior to reading it and applying the suggestions within, I struggled to achieve twenty hours of worthwhile work done in a week. I would often find myself struggling on Sunday to hit this really quite low total. I fell in love with his mention of his lapsed protagonist license, and the idea of doing everything I wanted to, time in a day being the only limiting factor. I was ready for a change, and for the person who wants change, The Motivation Hacker will make you far better equipped.

My experience support’s Nick’s contention that with a large load of motivation, what used to be dragging yourself out of bed and through your day becomes leaping out of bed to challenge the day and take what you want from it. One of the central ideas here is to load and overload yourself on motivation. You could motivate yourself enough to get something done, and be sort of sad and stressed while you push yourself through, or you can pile it high and charge that task, tackling it with intensity and joy. I can’t speak for everyone, but I certainly find living this way more fun than what I was doing previously.

Getting into the meat of the matter, Nick explains the motivation equation: Motivation = (Expectancy x Value)/(Impulsiveness x Delay). What are these pieces?

Expectancy is confidence of success. If you try something, do you believe you will succeed, or fail? If you expect to fail, there’s not much drive to start. If you’ve been a ‘loser’ all your life (I was, at the outset of this, by my standards both now and then) doing anything is going to feel like a chore that you will not want to face.

Value is, straightforwardly, the expected payoff of the task in question. If it’s valuable to you, you’ll be more motivated to do it. This isn’t limited to financial rewards or accolades; doing something you expect to enjoy doing has a higher motivation behind it, and thus, actually does feel more enjoyable in the moment.

Impulsiveness is your likelihood of being distracted. Will you work for five minutes, and then check your email, and your newsgroups, and maybe read a little reddit? That’s impulsiveness, a quality that everyone has, and that those of us with ADHD get an extra helping of.

Delay is the temporal distance between you and the reward. Taking up a task that will pay off five years from now is much, much harder than one that will pay off in five minutes. Humans engage in hyperbolic discounting, and this can drain your motivation quite quickly, leaving you looking around for something else, anything else, to be doing.

The conjunction of the latter two reminds me of a quote from Order of the Stick, a fantastic Dungeons and Dragons oriented webcomic I’ve been following for years: “Hard work and persistence may pay off in the long run, but laziness always pays off right now.” It’s fairly true, assuming you get nothing from the work; a true assumption for the undermotivated, but not one that’s compulsorily true.

Adjust any of these variables, and your motivation shifts accordingly. Adjust all of these values, and turn yourself into a superhuman dynamo of activity (maybe). Nick contrasts a PhD student comparing her options between working on her dissertation (low Expectancy, 2/5ths of such students don’t get a doctorate, low Value, given her beliefs about the jobs available to her, and the tedium of writing conference papers. High Impulsiveness, being surrounded by interesting people and things to do, and high Delay, given the years between her and that piece of paper) and working on a web game she hacked up one weekend (High Expectancy, since she knows she can keep improving it, high Value, since working on the project is fun, and her players reward her with praise. Low Impulsiveness, since many people are asking her to work on it, and low Delay, because with every improvement, the change can be rolled out immediately.)

From here, Nick delves into techniques. Chapter 3 starts with success spirals, an Expectancy hack of starting to achieve one goal, known to be within reach, every day. By completing this goal every day, you build your belief that you can achieve your goals, and with this experience, your Expectancy rises.

Nick lays out his first success spiral, and notes that he probably started too ambitiously. I followed in his shoes, tracking nine goals rather than one for a month; I felt like I really needed that Expectancy boost, and as I’ve described elsewhere, I do better with an extreme, than with a median goal in mind.

The next technique he delves into is precommitment. One common form of precommitment is to publicly announce your goal to people whose opinion you value. To do so changes the act of smoking a cigarette from a choice between nicotine now and health years from now, to the choice between having that cigarette, and not having to admit to someone you respect that you haven’t followed through on your plan to quit. The stronger the precommitment, the more it can drag your Impulsiveness down, and the more boost it will give to your Expectancy; knowing you really don’t want to break that commitment means you’ll have a stronger belief that you can follow through.

A specific version Nick recommends is to “burn your ships”. Instead of leaving alternative choices around to challenge your will regularly and boost your Impulsiveness, get rid of them. Want to lose weight and eat healthy? Don’t buy any more cupcakes, and get rid of the ones you have. Want to do more work and spend less time on social media? I did this one personally, by clearing almost half of my subscribed subreddits, turning off never-ending reddit, and further by installing an extension called Friction, that puts a load time in front of any site on a specified list. Watching those fifteen seconds count away has redirected me away from wasting time dozens of times so far, and I expect it to keep working.

This review is already fairly long and detailed, and I don’t want to take the enjoyment of reading the book yourself from you. Engagingly written, humorous, packed with solid advice and examples of how he used every bit of it, The Motivation Hacker is a good use of time for anyone who’s not already a fusion-powered hero, charging through every obstacle in their way. I gained a ton from it, and I can’t say enough good things about it without sounding like a religious convert. Read it for yourself, and make your own judgement. I doubt you’ll regret it.