A model that explains why your enthusiasm when planning disappears when doing

[This post is part of a series on “Mental models and beliefs: an exercise to identify yours.” If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

Scene 1: You plan something big. You’re excited. You know there will be challenges, but you also know you’ll overcome them. You will do what it takes no matter what.

Scene 2: You started the project but it petered out. You don’t know what happened to that feeling of invincibility, but it’s gone.

What happened? How did you lose your motivation? Why didn’t your willpower work?

Today’s model answers.

A model that explains why your enthusiasm when planning disappears when doing : Your emotions react to what perceive in the moment. When the moment changes, your motivation changes.

When you’re planning, you’re comfortably thinking about what you could do, which isn’t the same as doing it. You’re also thinking about the great consequences. Thinking of doing the project takes moments and suddenly you’re thinking about the great results you’ll get.

Doing the project takes time and requires overcoming the challenges. The need for motivations kicks in then. But you’re in a different time and place, perceiving different things. Your motivations now are different than then.

Motivation comes from your perceptions of your world in the moment. Our ancestors evolved motivations to react to their world in the moment. If a lion starts chasing you now, you better run or hide now. Not a moment later.

Facing actual obstacles evokes actual discouragement you don’t feel when imagining obstacles.

Your emotions react to what perceive in the moment. When the moment changes, your motivation changes.

Psychologists call this effect “empathy gaps” and it’s a popular study now.

Empathy gap examples

  1. Trying to make a hot shower fast on a cold morning. Even if you were in a huge hurry to get to work on time before the shower, feeling that warm water will motivate you staying in that shower.
  2. Trying to eat healthy when surrounded by rich food. Whatever your diet plans, we evolved motivation to eat rich foods.
  3. Distance running. It’s easy before starting a ten-mile run to say you’ll run the whole way no matter what. By eight miles your motivations may change.
  4. Maintaining an exercise plan. When you plan to get in shape you feel relaxed. A rainy day exhausted from the office discourages you from going to the gym.
  5. Not getting angry. Before talking to someone who always pushes your buttons you can easily say you won’t take their bait. When they’re pressing your buttons you don’t think, “I’ll drop my plans.” You think “they need to learn a lesson and I’m the one to teach it.”
  6. Waking up quickly when tired. You might say before getting in bed, “I’ll wake up quickly tomorrow no matter what.” You wake up to different perception, so your motivation changes.


Overcoming empathy gaps isn’t easy. You don’t always realize your environment is changing so you can lose your motivation without realizing it, just thinking you’re behaving consistently with your environment.

One strategy is to know about the effect. When planning, remember how your environment will change when you’re trying to go to the gym after a long day at work. How will your willpower work then? What can you do to prepare for feeling discouraged?

Another strategy is to observe empathy gaps in others, where the effects are easier to see. Their change in emotion might not happen with you. Then you can better understand the effect.

Another strategy is to build on experience. When you sense your emotions have changed, note how the change feels. consider how you can prepare for it next time.

Also, build experience by creating empathy gaps and overcoming them. Marathon training helps me prepare for marathon-like obstacles because the motivation to climb a hill at twenty-miles is like the motivation to keep my patience with someone antagonizing me at work. Overcoming one prepares me for overcoming the other.

A big strategy is to change your environment. When you don’t feel like doing something you told yourself you wanted to before, simply changing your environment can change your motivations. Getting up off the couch, turning off the TV or computer, and changing into your workout clothes may do the trick.

Another big strategy is to change your beliefs. Your beliefs filter how you perceive your environment. My model for processed industrial food is that some major corporation is trying to deceive me to make money at the expense of my health. Whatever pleasure their products might give me, I don’t want to do business with people like that. I don’t even want to increase demand for their products. So I don’t eat them.

When I use this belief

I use this belief when planning something that will require motivation in a difference context than when I’m planning.

What this belief replaces

This belief replaces losing motivation in the middle of a big project with preparing for it and knowing you can do something about it.

Where this belief leads

This belief leads to foreseeing, preparing for, and handling emotional challenges more effectively.

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3 responses on “A model that explains why your enthusiasm when planning disappears when doing

  1. Pingback: A challenge in starting a technology company in New York City » Joshua Spodek

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