Motivation Cycles

Originally published February 24, 2016

You could find the Abstract listening to hip hop
My pops used to say, it reminded him of Bebop
I said, well daddy don’t you know that things go in cycles
Way that Bobby Brown is just amping like Michael
 — Excursions (A Tribe Called Quest)

I work in a challenging environment where the effects of improvement efforts are only perceivable in retrospect over quite some time. It is one thing to state that improvement has occurred, even to cite specific examples as evidence, and something else altogether to vividly experience the difference. (We humans tend to recalibrate our expectations frequently based on current circumstance, but our perception often misses the quiet signals of small changes over time).

One way or another, the circumstance has led me to notice that motivation waxes and wanes in a somewhat cyclical pattern.


Objectively, a motivation model being cyclical is not problematic, as long as some degree of positive learning or other progress can be observed along the way. I’m not yet sure if “learning” is the right way to describe it, though, or if there should even be a linear measure of it in the first place. It seems that a cycle can enable a new level of something, be it fundamental understanding, existence, or maybe happiness.

Assuming the something is positive, I’d want to exploit such a model to maximize the movement in a positive direction (i.e., towards periods of high motivation) while minimizing the opposite.


The problem is that these cycles can vary in severity, length, and frequency, but no cause will be immediately apparent, except in retrospect. In other words, motivation is complex.


Complexity isn’t a reason to give up. Rather, operating within a complex space necessitates deliberate experimentation. The key is to amplify the effects of good experiment results and dampen those of poor ones.

Recognition of the cyclical nature of motivation enables certain awarenesses. For example, what does a series of motivation cycles without positive movement in learning or improvement or that something indicate?


All I know is that I do not want to be there, so I thought I might try something to disrupt the cycle when it’s not in my favor. What is the effect on the motivation cycle if I take a break from work for a period of time (e.g., take a vacation day) whenever there’s a trend towards “unmotivated,” for example? If the effect is positive, then it can be amplified by more deliberately planning for such opportunities in the future. If the effect is negative, it can be dampened by doubling down on involvement in order to restabilize the situation or by pursuing other activities within the context already known to be motivating.

I ran a few tests, and sometimes found myself recovering by the following day (trending towards “motivated”). Other times, it was a less effective treatment, but it might have kept the dive a shallow one. I can’t know for certain. The experience leads me to believe that disrupting the cycle has value, but a more fundamental change might be necessary.


Other pursuits may have longer cycle times skewed in favor of motivation; I’ve experienced them before. Their discovery is not deterministic and viability not guaranteed, though, so here I am. More on that in the future.

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