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How do people do that?

About the site

My older sister, Su, was a mystery to me in one particular way for many years. Here’s the mystery: all the time we were growing up, Su had a modest weight problem that, I think, really bugged her. The year she graduated from college, she moved to New York City and took an administrative job at Cooking Light magazine (she has since moved up through theĀ ranks to become an editor of a sister magazine).

From a chapel ceiling by Correggio

Four or five years after Su moved to New York, there was a change in her: she started eating differently, getting more exercise, and from what I could see, thinking differently. I remember, for instance, how enthusiastic she was about a particular brand of popsicle that fit in really well with the kinds of meals she was planning.

And in due time, her weight problem was gone. Su became downright svelte–and has continued in an extremely healthy lifestyle ever since.

The great mystery to me was how Su became so powerfully motivated: she acquired focus, discipline, and enthusiasm for her goals that she hadn’t had before. This has always struck me as impressive, even a little heroic. How do people do that? I wondered for a long time. And although I learned what some of the pieces to that puzzle were and years later even made my own fitness transformation, for a long time it was just a hypothetical question. It didn’t occur to me for quite a while that there might be a real answer to it, if I broke the question down into its key elements.

But in doing research on a book project, it became clear to me that I needed an answer for this question, the question of how people become motivated to achieve what has always been beyond them in the past. And there must be an answer, because people like Su did it. So I started researching, and thinking, and taking notes, and rapidly pieces of the puzzle began to become clear, some of them pieces that I had already turned up over 8 years of reading and studying about cognitive psychology and related topics but just hadn’t realized had to do with self-motivation. Soon I decided I needed to put aside my previous book project for a while and instead begin shaping a book about self-motivation.

Each insight led me on to more clues, and I began investigating tangental subjects–neuropsychology, schema therapy, even body language–that yielded more answers. I began working systematically on my own self-motivation with goals that were important to me, and later began doing a little bit of coaching for friends who wanted to work on their own self-motivation.

And since I think about this subject every day, and am turning up more information than I’ll even be able to fit in that single book, I started this site.

This site is not about motivating others; that’s a different topic, a question of management and communication and strategy and interpersonal relations. And it’s not about inspiration. There are any number of people who can offer inspiration or experiences that will charge us up for a day or a week, to help give a motivational push.

Instead, this site is about the specific mechanics behind how we become motivated, and about what specific techniques we can use to make those mechanics work in our favor. It draws on many books, on psychological studies, on personal experience, on my coaching work, and on my discussions with other people about their own lives. And because I hope to show the inner workings of self-motivation, how the parts fit together, where the power comes from and how it’s transmitted, I’m calling this “The Willpower Engine.”

I’m always looking for comments: questions, ideas for research, contact from people who are interested in the subject, post suggestions, and so on. Willpower is a complex subject, but it’s one that’s well worth mastering, and for me, one that’s well worth talking to people about.



  1. Mer Haskell  •  May 1, 2009 @2:17 pm

    Great idea for a blog, and thanks so much for starting it! I love the first three entries, and look forward to finding out the rest of what you’ve learned.

    I’ve noticed that I go through periodic surges of willpower. (I guess that’s what I mean.) I will be in a rut for months, and really feel stuck; then wake up one morning, and like a switch has been thrown, go into hyperdrive. I establish new routines, clear out old baggage, finish old things, and start new projects, in this pell-mell whirlwind that starts out huge and slowly winds down. Some of the projects and habits stick–usually 2-5, depending on how big they are–and some don’t, but in about three or six months, I start feeling in a rut again, and go through the whole process again. I’d really like to figure out the triggers of the process, and just… what’s my brain *doing*?

  2. Luc  •  May 2, 2009 @8:08 pm

    Merrie, that’s really well-described; I’ve experienced those kinds of cycles, too. General stress level certainly seems to have an impact on motivation, and not getting things done is stressful, but there are some other factors that I’m thinking might play into it as well. I’ll dig into my notes and see if I can come up with a post that might shed more light on things. Thanks for bringing up the topic!

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