Against the Pressure Theory of Motivation

When we were growing up, one of my dad’s favorite phrases was: “if they’re hungry enough, they will eat.” This was meant literally, meaning that my mom needn’t worry so much about making every meal delicious – we might refuse to eat it at first, but as long as we didn’t eat anything else, eventually we would be forced by our hunger to eat. My mom never listened to this advice, and I grew up eating delicious, fussed-over food.

He had a similar theory of motivation, roughly “if you aren’t acting towards X, it’s because you don’t want it enough.”

I think of this as a pressure differential theory of motivation. Imagine two rooms A and B separated by a barrier, where room A is initially filled with a colored gas and B is not. If the barrier is very leaky, gas will naturally diffuse from A to B. If the barrier is sturdier, the gas might stay contained in room A. However, if you continually pump A full of more and more gas, eventually it will leak into B somehow, either by forcing itself through small leaks, or eventually by blowing out the wall between them.

Therefore, if you want to move the gas into room B, it’s not necessary to understand the strength or build of the wall between them. All you need to do is increase the pressure enough.

(For this metaphor, the containing walls around the system are infinitely strong – although you could come up with allegorical extensions for ‘blowing out the outside wall’ etc.)


I have not found this advice to be very practical in my life. The most common cause of distraction seems to be some low-level anxiety. One common thing that will happen is that I’ll find myself looping between Reddit, Discord, Twitter, checking each website three times in five minutes. Obviously I know that not enough time has passed for anything to have changed. What’s really happening is that I have a bit of anxiety about the actual task at hand, so I try to self-soothe by procrastinating. But procrastinating is actually making the anxiety worse, so I then try to self-soothe with something slightly different, and so on.

The pressure theory of motivation does not provide any solutions for this loop. It’s tempting sometimes to up the pressure with negative self-talk. Stuff like “you’ll never succeed if you keep on like this”, “this is why you never get anywhere”, etc. But I am already too anxious, so more pressure only amps up the anxiety, encourages more maladaptive procrastination, and deepens the loop.

If we want to extend the pressure metaphor, we can think of a special valve that only operates within a certain range of pressure difference – too high and it shuts itself off, like a Chinese finger trap snapping shut when you pull your fingers apart too fast.

There’s a different failure mode of genuinely low motivation that probably can be fixed with some self-applied pressure, but that hasn’t usually been my problem. If anything, just trying to avoid boredom is enough to kick me out of that mode.

The point is, you can’t just blindly increase the pressure to get more progress. The pressure has to be in just the right zone, not too high and not too low.

It could be that this problem specific to negative self-talk. There are other ways to ramp up pressure that may be more adaptive. For example, you could make an agreement with a friend that if you don’t accomplish a goal by a certain time, you must donate $100 to a charity, perhaps even one that is run by people who you don’t like very much. I haven’t explored these avenues very much though, because I expect them to have similar problems.


The final problem with the pressure model of motivation is that it doesn’t distinguish between short-term motivation and long-term goals. Personally I’ve found that long-term goals have relatively little immediate effect on getting me to do something in the present. (Yeah, I do want to have a popular blog, but I also want to hit the snooze button. Which one do you think wins?)

Focusing purely on short-term motivation, I’ve found that there are three components that almost always play a major role. Actual aversion to the task, the displeasure of starting costs, and the pleasure of flow state. Each of these has an associated trick.

To get over actual aversion to the task, I try to generate a sense of compassion towards my future self. This task will be done eventually, and I might as well eat the disutility with my present self, instead of inflicting it on a future self who might be less able to afford it.

To get over the displeasure of starting costs, I just try doing the task for five minutes. This might ease me into the flow state. Once I get into a flow state, it becomes naturally pleasurable to continue working on the task.

To remain in flow for as long as possible, I separate out the brainstorming, planning, and execution. Each of these has their own distinct flow, and moving from one to another breaks flow.


Overall, I’ve found it more helpful to focus at a detailed level on how to get things flowing on a moment-by-moment level. This is more difficult because each task has a slightly different shape in my mind and requires different tactics to get myself moving on it.

In contrast, the pressure theory of motivation is one-size-fits-all – if you aren’t working hard enough, just yell at yourself more! But the more detailed and flow-based way of getting things done is the way that usually works for me.