From Knowledge to Action

How do you get from knowing something you should do to actually doing it?

At a high level, we know the answer is motivation. We have to want to do it. But that’s as deep into motivation that most of us know. And when we can’t seem to “find” the motivation to do what we thought we wanted to do, we give up. As a result, many people live their lives never really feeling a sense of accomplishment or fulfillment.

In this post, we’ll look at three models of motivation to get you from knowledge to action:

  1. The NPI Model
  2. The Five Levels of Motivation by Jay Shetty
  3. The Three Requirements for Change by Liao Fan

Different models will likely resonate more for different people and different goals. These models can also be applied to motivating others, but the focus of this post is on motivating yourself.

The NPI Approach to Motivation

The Naylor, Pritchard, and Ilgen (NPI) theory to motivation is one of the most memorable things I learned in school. In mathematical terms, the NPI theory states:

There are 3 variables that multiply together to give motivation: action link to result, result link to evaluation, and evaluation link to outcome. Let’s illustrate an example of someone trying to start a consistent blog.

1. Action link to result

First, the actions you take must reap results, otherwise you’ll have no motivation to continue. So if someone is trying to start a consistent blog, their writing efforts must actually yield blog posts than can be published. Two things can be done to increase the value of this variable:

1. Lower your definition of “results”

2. Increase your ability to perform the action

To lower the definition of “results”, the person could follow the guideline of one “bad” post a week rather than aiming for a perfect post every time. To increase her ability to write blog posts, she can read other blogs, get advice, and practice more.

2. Result link to Evaluation

After attaining results, you need feedback to let you know you are making progress. If you can’t tell whether you’re making progress or not, you’ll probably stop. To continue our example, the person can get feedback from her friends and colleagues on her posts. She can also reflect on how much confidence she has gained in writing a blog. The key is to set recurring feedback sessions with yourself and/or with others to keep that motivation going.

3. Evaluation link to Outcome

Outcomes are tied to the satisfaction of needs. Examples of needs include basic living needs, a sense of belonging, self-esteem, and purpose (if you’re wondering, yes, that list was my rewording of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). This step is crucial because you really need to reflect on why you want to do something. If you know your “why” or your desired outcome, your can better pick a evaluation metric.

Let’s say the person in our example wants to feel a stronger sense of belonging in her industry. Then appropriate metrics would be number of views, shares, and comments. If instead, her purpose is to improve her writing, then appropriate metrics would be her self-reported confidence in writing and feedback from her friends about the quality of her posts over time.

The Five Levels of Motivation by Jay Shetty

In his video on motivating others, Jay Shetty lays out the thought model that there are five levels of motivation, with each successive level being more effective and fulfilling. The goal is to identify which level of motivation you are using for a given goal and then to identify how to move up the staircase to a better motivator. Sometimes, multiple motivations will apply; the key then is to have the strongest motivator be as high up on the staircase as possible. I further categorized the motivators as healthy (green) and unhealthy (red) in the figure above.

Fear

Fear is a tricky and wild motivator that can easily go out of control. The key with fear is that the dosage needs to be healthy: not too much, not too little. An example of a healthy dosage of fear might be the fear that you will fail your final exam, and as a result, have to waste a lot of time re-doing the whole course. That fear can motivate you to study hard. But in general, I consider fear to be an unhealthy motivator because it can easily grow out of control and paralyze you. If you feel this to be the case, I highly recommend the tool of fear setting that Tim Ferriss describes in his Ted Talk.

If you’re motivated by fear, then after you achieve the results, you will feel a sense of relief. Relief is a lower outcome than a sense of accomplishment, which is achieved by higher-leveled motivators.

Power

Power is the desire for control over something, which can be as broad as your entire life or as small as an occurrence in that life. Power is a higher on the staircase than fear because at least power doesn’t paralyze you like fear can. But it is still an unhealthy motivator because, like fear, it can easily grow out of control. For example, first, we want a nice car, then a nicer car, then an even nicer car. Eventually, our desires exceed our ability to obtain, and we will feel like a failure.

To use this motivator effectively, we need to focus on things within your control and to give your best effort at them. For example, instead of focusing on how much money you have, focus on how good of an employee or business owner or investor you are being. By improving that, you will acquire the character, knowledge, and skills that enable you to achieve the wealth you wanted.

Results

Being motivated by results means being motivated by progress, and it is the first of the healthy motivators because it encourages diligence. Almost any worthwhile goal will take much effort and time. Someone who’s motivated by results looks forward to being further ahead on their path every day. So if someone is learning a new language, she looks forward to reviewing all the new words she learned that day. Most of the satisfaction doesn’t come from that moment in time where you accomplish that goal. Rather, it comes from the accumulated mini-accomplishments you achieve along the way.

Duty

Duty comes from the goodness within us. It is related to our feelings of responsibility, integrity, and morality. Duty is higher than results because it gives a never-ending purpose, whereas the motivation that comes from results ends once you achieve the final goal. For example, if you live your duty to be a good parent, you will keep thinking of goals you can set to be a better parent.

Love

The word “love” is highly overused in today’s society, so it’s worth distinguishing its meaning in the context of this post. It does not refer to romantic love or the causal “I love reading” that people say. In this context, “love” refers to a sincere and selfless caring for something greater than our individual selves: other people. Love is unconditional, and it is the highest form of motivation because there is nothing more fulfilling than helping others without expecting a thing in return.

The Three Requirements for Change by Liao Fan

This framework is specifically for those trying to improve themselves. If you ask anyone “would you like to improve?”, their answer would probably be “yes.” In fact, they can probably identify some specific shortcomings that they’d like to improve. Yet they aren’t taking any steps to actually do something about it. And a big reason for their low motivation is probably because they haven’t identified the factors that affect their motivation, so they can’t figure out how to increase it.

Liao Fan’s model for motivation has three drivers:

1. Shame

2. Fear

3. Courageous determination

Shame

In The Paradox of Our Times, the Dalai Lama mentions things like “we have taller buildings but shorter tempers, wider freeways but narrower viewpoints…we’ve split the atom but not our prejudice…higher incomes, but lower morals…fancier houses, but broken homes.”

Nowadays, so many people are ashamed about the wrong things. We are ashamed of our appearance but not our characters, ashamed of our status but not our effort, and ashamed of how little we have and not how little we give.

Shame should lead to humility, to the realization that I have so many faults and I could do so much better. Instead of making excuses, I need to take responsibility. Instead of focusing on the faults of others, I need to fix my own. And instead of blaming the world or circumstance, I need to be proactive to create my own circumstance.

If you are not ashamed of your lack of character, think about Emperor Shun or Mahatma Gandi. Shun was someone who never looked at the faults of others and lived his humbly life in servitude of others, to the extent that he was chosen to become emperor despite lacking royal descent. Gandi’s name is synonymous with peace, and his birthday (October 2) is now commemorated as the International Day of Nonviolence.

If you are not ashamed of your lack of effort, think about Elon Musk and the 100+ hours a week he works to build a brighter future for humanity. When asked how he could work on so different many projects — Tesla, SpaceX, SolarCity, PayPal — at such ambitious scales while being so innovative, his answer was simply, “I don’t know actually…I work a lot. I mean, a lot.”

If you are not ashamed of your lack of kindness, think about Sindhutai Sapkal, also known as the Mother of Orphans. Here’s a short version of her story:

Coming from abject poverty, she was forced to marry a person who was 30 years old at age 10. By the time she was 20, she had three sons and was pregnant with her fourth. Then, someone from the mafia tricked her husband into thinking Sindhutai was having an affair with him, and that the child is actually his and not the husband’s. So the husband kicked Sindhutai nearly to death, then dragged her to the cow ranch so that people would think she got trampled by cows. One particular cow protected her by standing over her so that she wouldn’t be trampled. She gave birth to her daughter under that cow, and had to cut the umbilical cord with a stone. She made a vow to protect others in need in the same way that the cow protected her. She found orphans, which were really common in India, and she sang and begged to provide for them. Over her life, she’s helped over 1500 orphans and honored with over 750 awards, and she uses any award money she receives to build orphanages.

Fear

People usually prefer the safety of the status quo and fear risk and discomfort. This desire for comfort prevents people taking on the unpleasant and challenging work of self-improvement. Why have that difficult conversation when I could just avoid them? Why pursue that side-project or opportunity when I could just relax instead? We come up with so many excuses that emphasize the comfort of the status quo.

But we should be more afraid of the opportunity cost of not changing than the risk and discomfort of taking action. If you think you can just keep avoiding that person or that conversation topic, you’re just deluding yourself, and it will only be worse when the confrontation eventually happens. And if you think you’d rather just relax instead of pursuing that side project or opportunity you’re interested in, you’re sowing the seeds for regret when you realize in the future how little time you have left. The opportunity cost of inaction is more severe consequences in the future. Really try to visualize those consequences. Visualize that confrontation. Visualize your elderly self thinking back on what you wish you’d done in your life. That should get you motivated to act now.

Courageous Determination

Pursuing the things that really matter in life, like purpose and love, will not be easy. We need to have courageous determination to start and to persevere through the tough times. The adjective “courageous” is used because it takes courage to continue when times are tough and it’s so easy to just give up. Courageous determination also means not-stupid determination, which means we need to be confident that we should continue to persevere.

Liao Fan explains courageous determination by saying,

A person who hesitates to reform his faults is one who really does not want to change, but is content with what he can get away with. His willpower may not be strong enough, making him afraid to change his wrongdoings. For a reform to take place, one must use all his efforts and resolve to change immediately…a minor fault is like a thorn sticking into our flesh, and should be quickly removed. A big fault is like a finger bitten by a poisonous snake. We must cut of that finger without hesitation to prevent the poison from spreading and taking our life.

Final Thoughts

Motivation is a complex topic with many thought models. Hopefully, these three models will help you analyze the drivers of your motivation so that you can increase it to do the things that are important to you.

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Alex Chen

Passionate about self-cultivation, happiness, and sharing wisdom.