What’s Your Motivation Threshold?

Over the past year and a half, I’ve seen just what a vital role purpose plays in the pursuit of personal growth. I believe that growth is an inborn human need to a certain degree, and apparently so does Tony Robbins, who includes growth on his list of the six human needs. However, I’ve found that if your only interest in personal growth comes from the level of biological need, you’ll be very limited in the amount of growth you can achieve. As an end it itself, personal growth is certainly motivating, but for some goals it just isn’t motivating enough.

Fulfilling our needs is obviously a strong driver of human behavior. If you’re hungry or thirsty, you’ll be compelled to seek food or water as your highest priority until that need is filled. There’s no motivation quite so great as that which comes from an empty stomach or a dry throat.

Are you familiar with the story about Socrates where a young man came to him near a lake and asked Socrates to teach him how to acquire wisdom? Socrates grabbed the man and plunged his head under the water. As the young man struggled for his life, Socrates continued to forcibly hold him under the water. Finally, Socrates let him up to breathe, and when the man, gasping for breath, asked why Socrates nearly drowned him, Socrates replied, “When your desire for wisdom is as great as your desire to breathe, then you will find wisdom.”

I love that story. I don’t know if it’s actually true, but it sure makes a great point. If your motivation for a goal is high enough (as compelling as the desire for air, food, and water), then you’re virtually assured of success if the goal is possible at all. However, in most cases our motivation to achieve a goal isn’t anywhere near the level of biological need. This is especially true when taking on growth-oriented goals.

Consider the example of waking up early each morning. For many years of my life, I wanted to become a consistent early riser. My goal was to condition myself to get up every morning at 5am. But during the decade I ran my computer games business, I largely failed at that goal despite making many serious attempts. I could do it for several days at a time, but I could never get the habit to stick consistently. I’d be lying in bed when the 5:00 alarm went off, and as my brain faced the choice between mustering the discipline to get up vs. sleeping in, invariably there would soon come a time when I chose to sleep in.

It’s not that I didn’t get enough rest or that I physically needed the extra sleep. It’s just that waking up early wasn’t motivating enough for me. The growth element gave me the drive to make the initial attempt at getting up early, but come day 3 or 4, that element was considerably reduced as the novelty wore off.

When I was at my best — when I made the decision to become an early riser — my motivation was at its peak, and I felt certain of success. But at those pre-dawn moments of decision when I was jolted awake by my alarm, my brain still drenched in sleep hormones, the power of my conviction couldn’t always overcome the desire to continue sleeping. So I’d sleep in.

However, months after starting my personal development business, I made the attempt to become an early riser again. And this time I succeeded right away. Yes, I had a good strategy, and certainly the previous attempts helped a little. But the main difference was that my motivation to get up early was now much higher. And that extra motivation boost was just what I needed to get past the hump and establish the habit once and for all.


My main reason for getting up early was to be more productive. I wanted those extra early morning hours while the rest of the family was still sleeping, so I could get a head start on my day. I also loved how I felt about myself when I got up early and dove straight into action. It felt wonderful when I could actually do it. The difference in motivation came from what I was producing though. What was the real value of that extra productivity? What was I going to do with it?

With my games business, those extra hours would ultimately mean producing more entertainment value for people. With my personal development business, it meant spending more time helping people grow. For me, the former seemed moderately motivating… perhaps a 7 on a scale of 1-10. Most of the time, I genuinely enjoyed running my games business. But getting up early to help people grow was far more motivating… on a scale of 1-10, it was an 11. And the motivation I needed to get up early every morning was about an 8 on that scale.

What made the difference between success and failure was purpose.

I think one of the reasons many people will initiate new goals and then fizzle out after just a few days is that the motivation to succeed just isn’t strong enough. If you’ve been struggling with a goal where you’re suffering from this pattern of repeated failure, instead of beating yourself up, get curious instead. Ask yourself what the ultimate purpose is. If you were to succeed in achieving your goal, what would it ultimately mean to yourself, to others, and to the world? What’s the actual value your goal would create?

We’re all unique individuals, so we may each have a different motivation threshold for achieving a particular goal. Establishing the habit of getting up at 5:00 each morning required me to have a level of motivation of about an 8 on a scale of 1-10. For some people that same habit may only require a 3, while for others it may require a 10.5.

Interestingly, I not only mastered the habit of early rising, but later that same year, I blew that accomplishment out of the water by adapting to polyphasic sleep (which for me required about a 9.5 in motivation). And once again purpose was a key factor in my success. I’d love to be able to report that having all that extra time for myself was enough to succeed, but that isn’t remotely true. If that was my source of motivation, I’m certain I would have failed. But being able to share the experience with thousands of other people pushed me over the edge.

If you find yourself facing a big goal and you just aren’t making much headway with it because you keep giving up after a time, consider the motivation threshold for the task. On a scale of 1-10, what level of motivation do you feel is required to succeed? Notice that different goals have different numbers. Your motivation threshold for checking email might be a 2, whereas the motivation threshold for doing public speaking might be a 9.5. Everyone is different, so your specific numbers may vary.

We often get blindsided by failure because we compare the success threshold to our level of motivation when we’re at our best. When you’re at your best, your motivation may be a 9 or 10. But that isn’t where you make the decision to give up. When you’re at a 9 or 10 in motivation, you will get out of bed early, you will make the trek to the gym, and you will read that book that’s been sitting on your shelf for months. But we aren’t always at our best. There will be times when you aren’t at your best, and you’ll still have to make the decision between getting up vs. sleeping in, between going to the gym vs. going out to dinner, and between reading a book vs. watching TV. Where will your motivation be in all these moments of decision? Will your motivation to succeed ever dip below your goal’s motivation threshold?

An inspiring purpose is like getting an automatic +4 for all of your 2D6 attacks. That’s a role-playing analogy that loosely translates as, “Purpose provides a motivation bonus for every goal you set, making it more likely that you’ll pass your motivation threshold.” Suppose your goal’s motivation threshold is an 8. And suppose your level of motivation for this goal normally falls in the 4-9 range. When you’re at your best, you’ll succeed, but there will eventually come a time when you aren’t at your best, and then you’ll fail. But with a +4 purpose, now your whole motivation range shifts from 4-9 to 8-13, and in every situation, even when you’re at your worst, you’re still above the goal’s motivation threshold. So no matter what, you’ll succeed.

With a strong purpose, you’ll score more hits and suffer fewer misses. Just as a 2D6+4 will grant you victory in battle against fiercer opponents than a plain old 2D6, a compelling purpose will enable you to successfully achieve more goals and establish more new habits than you’ll be able to achieve without it. For my RPG-challenged readers, a 2D6 means to role two regular six-sided dice, and the total you get represents the strength of your attack (higher numbers are better). A 2D6+4 means to take your 2D6 roll and add 4 to it. So the range of possible rolls for a 2D6 is 2-12, but the range for a 2D6+4 is 6-16.

Now if as you read that description, you were thinking, “You forgot to mention fumbles and criticals,” you really need to get out more. 😉

All purposes are not equal, so you may need to experiment to see what purpose gives you the greatest motivation bonus. For me, entertaining people is perhaps a +2 bonus, but helping people grow might be a +4 or +5. The former is like a short sword, while the latter is like a two-handed magic axe. For someone else, however, such as a stand-up comedian, those numbers might be flip-flopped. What motivates you most is something you’ll have to discover for yourself, but I will suggest that it almost certainly has to do with finding a way to be of genuine service to other people.

What would get you out of bed early every morning? What work would be so compelling to you that you’d joyfully lose yourself in it? What do you find so motivating that you’d even ignore a growling stomach for hours just to stay with it?

Purpose isn’t the only thing that provides a motivational bonus. Consider that all parts of your life either add a motivational bonus or penalty. Is your job a +4 or a -2? What about your relationship, your home, your friends, your family, your diet, your income, your spiritual beliefs? Are these giving you positive bonuses or dragging you down with penalties? If you really want to learn about yourself, make a list of the various factors of your life, and assign each a bonus number, perhaps in the range of -5 to +5. Sinking into debt might be a -3, while falling in love may be a +5. This will show you where you have the greatest opportunities for growth.

If you’re mathematically inclined as I am, you may enjoy thinking of personal growth as a numbers game. Look at all the bonuses and penalties in your life, and see how they add up. Where can you add new bonuses? Where can you eliminate penalties? What can you do to take your character to the next level?