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How to motivate yourself

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Do you know what most motivational “experts” hope you’ll never find out?

The stuff they teach is total BS.

When was the last time a motivational poster changed your life? (“You know what, yes, I WILL dream a little bigger today!”)

getoffyourchairDoes seeing this on your newsfeed help you reach your goals?

Never. OK, then how do you get — and stay — motivated?

How motivation actually works

Motivation comes in waves. Some days we hop out of bed, ready to take on the world. We start big projects, dream big dreams, and know that FINALLY we’re going to accomplish something.

But then, tomorrow comes.

We sit down in the same place we sat yesterday — where we were on fire and ready to go and… nothing. We look at our Netflix queue or go and buy a cup of coffee. We can’t seem to get that spark back.

That is how motivation works. So, if we rely on motivation alone, we are setting ourselves up for failure.

What can we do instead?

One of my mentors, BJ Fogg, who runs the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford, says we should assume that our “future self” is going to be lazy with no motivation. We need to set up systems to make achieving our goals as easy as possible — even when our motivation is low.

In other words:

Motivation copy

Motivation DOESN’T work. Systems do.

Here’s how to use systems to keep yourself going even when motivation slumps.

Step 1: Plan for failure

Successful people aren’t luckier than most people. But they do try more things, and they’re willing to fail.

For example, my good friend Tim Ferriss was rejected 26 times before a publisher finally accepted his idea for The 4-Hour Workweek (that later became a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-seller).

Almost anyone who’s been successful has a similar story of failure before triumph.

But the difference between average and top performers is that average people are blindsided by failure and give up when it strikes.

Top performers, on the other hand, actively seek out failure because they know success is on the other side.

BJ Fogg and I sat down and talked about how we can use failure and “motivational waves” to our advantage so when others tire out we can have a system to follow through.

How you can start using this right now:

  1. Make a list of everything you need to get to accomplish your goal.
  2. Then, set up those pieces to make it impossible to fail.

Here’s an example what that might look like:

BJ Fogg wanted to drink more tea. So he bought all the tea, an electric kettle to boil water, and set everything up in easy reach on his counter. Even when he felt like drinking something else, it was right there and a no-brainer to make.

I was trying to form a gym habit. I’d get up in the morning planning to go, but after a few minutes decide not to. I discovered that if I put my gym clothes and my shoes next to my bed, I would put them on first thing and by that point, I “might as well” just go.

Chandler Bolt of The Productive Person wrote 365 Thank You notes last year by pre-stamping and adding address labels to batches of 50 cards. By keeping the cards close by, he was able to make it easy to write and send the cards with or without motivation.

Step 2: Put it on your calendar

Imagine playing in a basketball game against LeBron James. We have the best shoes, the most expensive pair of athletics shorts, a fancy headband, and the greatest jersey in the world. And he has no shoes, ripped shorts, and a dress shirt. Who would win?

It sounds ridiculous but we play this same game against motivation every day.

The tools don’t matter as much as we think.

Novices LOVE to focus on productivity hacks, apps and tools. It’s easy — and frankly, more fun — to play with new shiny tools than to simply do what works.

But usually, the fundamentals — things like a simple calendar, pen and paper — work as well if not better than some app.

Take a look at a sample of my calendar system.


See how it’s not a super advanced set of apps. I purposely make it easy on myself so I can follow through and easily update it.

EXECUTION is more important than the tactic itself.

How you can start using this right now:

  • Decide ahead of time and map out your schedule for the week either on paper or in a simple calendar system.
  • Set an alert in your calendar or on your phone to review this every week. Keep thinking ahead and you’ll never be caught off guard or pressed for time.

Step 3: Develop laser-guided focus

In the video above, BJ Fogg talks about “competing motivations” — sometimes even our best efforts are thwarted because something else comes along.

Sometimes these are external distractions: an emergency comes up, we have family demands, and work gets busy.

But, just as often, we cannibalize one goal by shifting focus to another. The result? We don’t make much progress on either.

Developing FOCUS and being able to put some ideas on hold is a skill that almost guarantees we make progress on what matters.

Let me show you what I mean. One of my close friends, Noah Kagan, a former employee of Mint and Facebook and the founder of AppSumo, showed me the power of having laser-guided focus — he was able to start not one, but two multi-million dollar businesses that continue to see growth year after year.

He does this by setting one big goal at a time.

Watch Noah explain here (pay particular attention to 3:56 where we talk specifically about how he sets his goals):

How you can use this right now:

  1. Pick your number one goal. Is it earning more money? Getting in shape? Finding your Dream Job?
  2. Grab a pen and paper and write it down. Really do this now. This isn’t a silly “thought exercise.” We’re doing this to commit ourselves to one course of action and follow through.

BONUS STEP: Test and Adjust

Setting up systems is the best way to motivate yourself. And to maximize impact, we have to find the best system for us and then adjust if it’s not working.

To help you shortcut the process, I asked some of the world’s top experts on productivity, business, and fitness to share the simple experiments they’ve run that have lead to extraordinary results in their lives.

You can see all the results in this free guide:


You’ll learn tests that achieve massive results like:

  • How to change your body composition with one 20-minute workout a week
  • How to text message important people (and girls)
  • How to increase your impact with a photo
  • How to triple your productivity by testing how you measure success
  • How to increase your gym attendance by 300%
  • How to triple your learning rate with one simple switch
  • How to increase your energy level in one week

You can download your free guide here.

Also check out the comments on the download page. You’ll find thousands of additional tests that my readers have used to improve their lives — everything from parenting, to waking up earlier, to improving their mood.

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  1. Nice Ramit,

    I’ve been huge on systems instead of goals ever since I read this article by James Clear:

    While it’s helped in several ways, I think the biggest benefit was being able to focus on my purpose (“become better at X” or “teach readers about Y”), KNOWING that the goals would come as a byproduct of that focus. It felt like a weight off my shoulders when I first realized it.

  2. Awesome piece you have here Ramit! This is going to help me greatly! Thank you!

  3. Ramit, I love the way you differentiate between failures and top performers. I am on module two of ZTL and I had a major setback (literally lost a direct fishing pond of 7,000). I was crushed but then I went back to my top performer agreement and read it over and over. Failure is one step closer to success – it hit home. I read that you had the opportunity to share one of your tested articles with an audience of 400,000 and only 15 signed up. It is far better to have an engaged audience of just 20 vs. a disengaged audience of 2,000. I had two choices – I could either let this setback break me or make me stronger. What did I do? I went back to the drawing board. Thank you for making a top performer out of me, for helping me take one of my best qualities (focused determination) and make it even better.

  4. That’s Correct!! We need to learn a new habit of positive attitude at all times to reach the goals that we set.

    Gino Bulova

  5. My challenge often is just getting started. I’m regularly unmotivated to tackle a project or task, but more times than not, if I can just force myself to get into it for an hour, I’ll feel increasingly motivated and productive, which becomes sort of self-reinforcing. But how to stop procrastinating and just get started… that’s the hurdle for me!

  6. Never seen it put quite that way before: Assume your future self will be lazy. That’s a super powerful piece of advice.

    We’d add to this the power of social support. This is definitely true in fitness, where exercisers who take part in group activity have much higher rates of adherence than people who workout alone. Not quite sure how to build that into financial pursuits, other than blogging about it and getting that positive feedback loop, but good to consider!

  7. Here’s the thing I struggle with on this: I can have laser guided focus on something and end up getting in shape. But when I switch my focus to something else after achieving the goal, and try to keep the system in place, I lose it. I end up spread too thin somehow. My system for staying in shape breaks down, and I have to switch focus back to it to stay in shape, sacrificing the ability to focus on making more money, etc.

  8. It’s very hard to comment in your blog.

  9. Being an introvert is not a problem at all rather it changes with time. Just try to open-up little bit more day after day and talk to people around you. It is nothing but just a muscle that you have to flex to some extent and you will notice things changing in no time. If you want to learn the art of succeeding in a challenging environment then subscribe to my free e-book at Thanks

  10. It was great reading the measures taken to keep our self motivated as mentioned in your article. Thanks for sharing, It has proved to be a great help. Looking forward for some more related articles.