Have you ever had a hard time starting an important project? Ever lacked the motivation to read or exercise, even though you know it’s in your best interest?
I have too. Sometimes scrolling through Twitter seems so much more thrilling than reading a book, even though I know I’ll learn more from the book.
It’s frustrating and confusing to feel this way. Why wouldn’t you be motivated to do something that’s productive and healthy?
The answer may be simpler than you think. The problem may be that you’ve miscalculated the costs and benefits. You may not even be aware that you’re making this calculation (our brains actually do it all the time).
You lack the motivation to start the project because you semi-consciously believe that the benefits don’t outweigh the costs. However, our brains often make mistakes when making these calculations.
This article covers how you can use a simple cost-benefit exercise to boost your motivation.
What is cost-benefit analysis?
Cost-benefit analysis is a decision-making technique that’s used to determine the strengths and weaknesses of alternative courses of action, and then select the option with the best returns.
Cost-benefit analysis is most commonly used to make business and financial decisions. However, it has strong applications for making important decisions in life, and influencing behavior.
According to Douglas Lisle, Ph.D., our brains are constantly running cost-benefit analyses, and we may not even realize it:
Swirling through all mental processes is a cost-benefit analysis that you are performing inside your own mind constantly, and often barely aware to you consciously.”
When you don’t feel motivated to do something — such as read a book — it may be because your subconscious mind perceives that the costs exceed the benefits. You may instead decide to keep watching TV, which may seem to have a more favorable cost-benefit ratio because TV is entertaining and getting off the couch seems hard.
Things go awry when we miscalculate the costs and benefits — which we often do. This leads to a lack of motivation for important projects and habits — such as reading — and/or behaving in a way that’s not in our best interests — such as watching too much TV.
Dr. Patrick Keelan provides examples of how these miscalculations can motivate bad behaviors and de-motivate good behaviors:
People are more likely to repeat behaviours for which they are rewarded and are less likely to repeat behaviours for which they are either not rewarded or are punished. In other words, you are more likely to keep doing behaviours for which there are many benefits and few costs. On the other hand, you are less likely to keep doing a behavior for which there are few benefits but many costs.”
Beware of these common ways that we miscalculate costs and benefits:
- Underestimating long-term costs and benefits. It’s hard to comprehend the benefits we’ll receive from starting a side business, or the costs we’ll incur from skipping the gym, five years from now because it’s so far into the future.
- Overestimating small but immediate costs and benefits. Putting away your phone and picking up a book seems like a giant leap, even though it’s not. The taste of that Twinkie bar seems so great, even though it will only last for a minute.
- Underestimating intangible costs and benefits. How will your reputation, relationships, health, happiness, and sense of congruence with your personal ethics and values be affected by your decision and behavior?
- Underestimating opportunity costs. When you choose to invest your time, money, and energy into “Project A,” you are forgoing time, money, and energy for “Project B.” What are the costs and benefits of “Project B?”
A four-step cost-benefit exercise
Cost-benefit analysis is a technique for making decisions. Our subconscious brain runs this analysis all the time, but it’s not always accurate. Complete this exercise to get a more accurate picture of your best course of action:
- List all of the costs and benefits of your options
- Estimate the value of the costs and benefits
- Compare the costs to the benefits
- Choose a course of action with a cost-benefit ratio that’s less than one (or the lowest amongst alternatives)
Running a more accurate cost-benefit analysis can help you make better decisions and boost your motivation. You may realize that some of the TV that you watch doesn’t benefit you very much — or that reading a book isn’t as costly as you thought. Once you have a more accurate picture of the rewards and consequences of your actions, it will be clear what’s in your best interest. You’ll then feel more motivated to, say, do that tedious project that your boss asked you to do because if you don’t it could hurt your career; or wake up early to study investing because it will help you retire earlier.
Complete the four step exercise above when you find yourself procrastinating, lacking energy to complete difficult projects, or struggling to maintain habits. Be aware of the common pitfalls of making these cost-benefit calculations. Think diligently about the potential rewards and consequences of your decisions and actions. If you’re still not feeling motivated, read on…
Pursue your best opportunities
You’re supposed to do something, but you still can’t bring yourself to do it. It’s a frustrating feeling. You might get down on yourself for being lazy or self-destructive. However, lacking motivation isn’t always irrational.
Here are some examples of projects that you may not be motivated to do for perfectly good reasons:
- Pursuing a business idea that is unlikely to get the results that you’re hoping for or requires taking risk that you can’t afford
- Pursuing a job that requires 80-hour work weeks even though you value flexibility more than money
- Going above and beyond at work when you’re not likely to be rewarded for it or your extra time and energy would be better spent on a side business or finding a better job
- Starting a blog about rocket science when you really don’t have enough experience to add value to your readers
Be sure to take the intangibles — such as your values — and the opportunity costs — what else you could be doing instead—into account when running your cost-benefit analysis. If you’re still not feeling motivated, it may be for good reason. Don’t be afraid to remove something from your to-do list so that you can focus on your best opportunities.