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Newton’s Law of MOTivatION

What does Sir Isaac Newton has to do with psychology and self-help? The man invented the formula for motivation, that’s what.

Ever felt “lack of motivation” for everything that is not binging on food and TV series? We know that we have this inevitable task coming up but we keep on delaying and procrastinating. The most painful experience is when this task/goal is something that we have been working hard towards, something that we have put our hopes, dreams, time and money in, something that we want so bad, but at the same time it’s something that scares the heck out of us. “What if I fail?”, “There’s too much at stake!”, “It’s too stressful!”, “I can’t do it!”… Sometimes we even engage in, what I call, “productive procrastination”. Fix that Ikea cabinet, wash the dog, finish that book… we find ourselves doing a bunch of less painful, but time consuming stuff so that we have an excuse to keep avoiding that one horrible thing that makes our stomach twist upside down.

Many of us err assuming that motivation precedes action and spend precious minutes of our life whining for “lack of motivation” and waiting for that muse to strike us. Mr. Newton knew all along and had been telling us quite the opposite for over three centuries. The first Newton’s law of motion states:

An object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by an external force.

Hence, you’ll most likely remain inanimate in your armchair or move at a constant velocity between Netflix, fridge, bed and bathroom UNLESS some sort of an external force (which is not a muse, but it might be a muse… and by all means do wait for a muse if you have extra time on your hands that you want to spend existing in this unproductive loop of misery).

So what is this external force? I’ll tell you in a sec, but relax, you don’t have to be Yoda to figure your way out of this dreadful situation. The science of psychology has you covered. Keep on reading.

We as human beings are not living in a vacuum. On contrary we are living in an ever changing environment where adaptation is key to survival. There is no one reality that we are living in. We all see life through our own unique lens and thus create our own reality. In other words, there are approximately 7.4 billion realities out there. Our unique realities are comprised of thoughts, emotions and behaviors. When our thoughts tend to become gloomy and negative, we feel anxious and stressed and, of course, act accordingly – stay in bed, stuff our faces with marshmallows and ice-cream and procrastinate any kind of action. This is where I-have-no-motivation-thinking is maintaining the dysfunctional loop.

motivationmindheart3According to the first law of motion motivation follows action. Action requires effort and it is darn hard to put effort when the only thing you are able to invest your energy to is opening that sticky jar of marshmallow fluff. In order to make it possible for us to take action some kind of a force needs to be applied. The Force, dear Jedi, here comes in the form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). By applying the tool of cognitive restructuring we can almost instantly up our motivation and change our course of moving from our goal to moving towards it.

Let me give you some background for why modifying your thinking can increase your motivation and help you change your behavior. Dr. Arthur Freeman (a famous CBT therapist and researcher) does us a favor and explains the mechanism behind the I-have-no-motivation thinking. Dr. Freeman states that we as human beings attribute our failure to take action to lack of motivation. We don’t engage in action because we are not motivated and, applying the Newton’s law, we are not motivated because we don’t engage in action. Sounds like a vicious cycle, doesn’t it? Dr. Freeman explains that we find ourselves in this dysfunctional loop due to fears about the consequences of our actions or due to experienced negative emotions. According to dr. Freeman:

Individuals who lack motivation typically do not have clear goals in mind, have not identified a course of action that will result in their attaining the goals, or doubt their ability to succeed at the endeavor.

We are experiencing a bunch of negative emotions that stop us from engaging in steps toward reaching our goals and these negative emotions are the result of negative automatic thoughts that pop up into our heads when we think of our scary goals. “I’m not sure I can follow through with that assignment”, “I’m not even sure if I still want this”, “I’m too anxious to even think about the steps I’d need to take”, “I’m not competent enough”, “I’ll fail”, “If I’ll fail I wont be able to get over it”, “Why did I even start doing this?!”, “This is too stressful for me, I’m such a wuss”, “I’m a NoGoodnick”, as Albert Ellis would say. This type of thinking is most often a) distorted and not realistic and b) not helpful. The key of cognitive restructuring is to a) correct your thinking into more realistic and b) develop more helpful alternative ways of thinking.

Dr. Sarah Corrie (another inspiring CBT therapist) and the author of the Art of Inspired Living, says that in order to live an inspired (aka motivated) life you need to know your a) mission (goal), b) attitude (beliefs and values), and c) process (plan). When we experience ourselves feeling lack of motivation we often times do not have clear goals in mind, we do not have set ourselves a clear action plan and we doubt our ability of succeeding. Dr. Freeman agrees with dr. Corrie and states that when individuals can see that their actions can lead to valued goals and they are reasonably confident that their attempts at attaining the goal can be successful, they typically feel enthusiastic and motivated. Thus, in order to move from our dead end we need to tweak our thinking from a non-adaptive to a more adaptive one, come clear on what our goals are, develop a plausible plan for attaining those goals, and increase our belief in success by listing our strengths that are on hand in order to fulfill the plan.

Here’s an action plan that worked for me and might work for You in the pursuit of reaching your most wanted and most frightening goals:

  • Learn COGNITIVE RESTRUCTURING to tweak your unhelpful thinking (you can find some neat tools over here):
  • Assess and know your STRENGTHS so that you’re sure you can do it (you can do the VIA Survey of Character Strengths here for free);
  • Make yourself a MAP leading to your goal (with the help of dr. Sarah Corrie).

Good luck with your work, and remember, as dr. Sarah Corrie says: “Motivation is a direction not a fixed state of mind” and “If fear is the price you must pay to pursue what matters, then courage is the currency used to settle the debt.”


Corrie, S. (2009). The art of inspired living: Coach yourself with positive psychology. London: Karnac.

Freeman, A., Pretzer, J., Fleming, B., & Simon, K. M. (2004). Clinical Applications of Cognitive Therapy. Springer; 2nd Edition.

Newton, I. (1995). The Principia. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.



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