Motivation – There’s an equation for that


A few weeks ago I was preparing for a senior leadership offsite where I was going to lead a session on Extreme Ownership when I stumbled onto an equation for motivation during my research.

At first I just thought it was a cool equation. It wasn’t until I presented the motivation equation during the offsite session (which I had almost decided to skip over), and the ensuing discussion with the team, that I really began to understand how looking at motivation through the lens of this equation can be a valuable leadership tool.

The equation looks like this:


Breaking down the components


Motivation: Motivation is the act of motivating and motivating is the action of providing a person with a motive, which is the need or desire that causes a person to act.

Let’s put that into a real life scenario. You are going to get married in one month and you want to look good at your wedding, but you feel you may be a few pounds over your desired weight. The act of wanting to look good (motivation) at your wedding creates (motivating) the desire in you to lose weight, (motive).

Now let’s look at the variables in the equation.

Expectancy: Expectancy is how likely you feel you will be able to complete the task. This is pretty straight forward.

If we continue with the example above, say in the one month before your wedding your goal is to lose 5 pounds, your expectancy to lose those 5 pounds in one month is likely pretty high. On the other hand, same example, one month prior to your wedding and you want to lose 30 pounds. The expectancy of being able to lose those 30 pounds is probably not very high. It doesn’t mean you don’t want to, that is the value, but we will get to that variable next.

Value: Value is the worth or importance of a thing to you.

Back to our example, if you only have 5 pounds to lose and you feel like it would be nice, but if you didn’t lose those 5 pounds it would not be the end of the world, then the value you feel about losing those 5 pounds is likely pretty low.

On the other hand, if those 5 pounds are the difference between being able to fit into the clothing you want to wear at your wedding or having to wear something less pleasing, then the value is much higher.

Now for the bottom half of the equation. This is where things can get confusing.

Impulsivity: Impulsivity is a measure of how easily you are distracted from a task or give in to impulses. Some may argue, but this is a contextual constant based on your current state. What I mean by that is right now you have a certain level of impulsivity in relation to the context. You can change this or use tools to manage your impulsivity so that it has less of an impact on your motivation.

Let’s apply this to our example. You may have a complete love for chocolate or other sweets (I am more of a chips and salsa guy) and it is very difficult for you to resist chocolate when it is available.

In this example where you want to lose weight prior to your wedding, your impulsivity to consume chocolate is high and is going to have a negative impact on your motivation in achieving your weight loss goal. It is going to be even higher if you know you will be attending two birthday parties during the month prior to your wedding.

If you recognize this tendency to be impulsive with chocolate and sweets, you can apply various techniques to reduce your impulsiveness such as setting a goal to not eat sweets prior to events where they may be present, or avoiding them all together during this weight loss period. Impulsivity can be managed and it is very important to recognize its impact on your motivation.

Delay: Delay is the amount of time until you achieve your goal, or are able to experience the value. The longer the delay the more time there is for our motivation to decrease. There are many ways you can modify delay to have a positive impact on your motivation, but you need to be careful. Modifications to delay can have a negative impact on expectancy. We will take a look at how that can happen in our example.

When we apply this to our example, it is very obvious how delay plays a factor. Weight loss takes time, there is no magic method to instantly lose weight. The methods you employ to lose weight will directly influence the delay. If the goal is to lose 5 pounds the delay could be fairly small if you watch your diet and add exercise. On the other hand, with the same goal of losing 5 pounds, if you do not avoid the sweets or add exercise the delay could be much larger, which will impact your motivation.

When delay is so large that it completely destroys any motivation, it may be helpful to look at how to modify the influence of delay into motivation. Say you had a weight loss goal to lose 50 pounds. This will likely take months. This delay influence can make it very difficult to be motivated. By creating sub-goals we shorten the delay influence and our motivation increases. While our overall goal may be to lose 50 pounds, by making shorter term goals of 10 pound increments, our motivation will increase toward that goal.

This is the same principle used when hiking long distances. When it is difficult to visualize the end goal miles and miles away, pick a point up the trail and make that your goal. You have now dramatically shortened the impact of delay on your motivation.

Putting it all together

As we worked through the variable inputs of the motivation equation, we saw how each one independently impacts our motivation. The real power of the equation comes from looking at them together. This is especially so when the task or goal is something we think we don’t want to do.

Using an example of something we may not “want” to do, but know we have to do. Say it is Thursday afternoon at work and your boss comes in asking for a report he needs for a meeting first thing Monday morning.

Filling in the variables to our equations may go something like this:

Expectancy: You know you can do the report. You have the skills and knowledge. Your expectancy would be HIGH.

Value: The report is for a meeting with a partner client who could bring a lot of value to your company. Your boss is depending on this report. Also, you like your job. You have been doing well and are up for a promotion. The Value of preparing this report is also VERY HIGH.

Impulsivity: You really do not like working on the weekends. You put in 100% during the week to give yourself the freedom to use your weekends as you want, but a longtime friend arrives in town tonight, and is here through the weekend. The impulse might be to push off report until the Friday night or the weekend so you can visit with your friend tonight, it has been years since you have seen each other. There is no time during the day Friday since you are already committed most of the day. Impulsivity in this case may be a little HIGHER THAN NORMAL.

Delay: The report itself will take you about four hours to prepare, five if you do not do it all in one session. The impact of delay on your motivation here is likely to be LOW.

When we look at all the inputs, you know you can get the report done. Also, it is very important to you and the company that the report is produced in time for the meeting. While you are not normally very impulsive, your friend is in town and you may feel like doing the report later. The time it takes to produce the report is not so great that it decreases your motivation. The result of this analysis would be that your motivation is likely to be high to work on the report tonight and get it out of the way.

I am sure you are now thinking, “This is silly. I am not going to do this kind of analysis for every task in front of me!” You are correct.

Where the value of the motivation equation comes in is when you are faced with a task or goal and you are not motivated to complete it. It can help you understand why you do not feel motivated.

  • Is this really of value?
  • The value is high, but can I actually achieve it?
  • Can I break it down it smaller tasks or goals?
  • Am I dedicated enough to stay focused?
  • Can I maintain my motivation over the time it takes to complete the task?

Another thing to consider is looking at how impulsivity and delay influence your motivation in all things. Are you easily distracted? How can you develop an ability to remain focused? Can you appreciate delayed gratification?

Application to your team

During our offsite session the motivation equation became a hot topic of discussion. It became evident to the team how they could use it when dealing with their teams. Why is your team not motivated by a project? Do they believe they can accomplish the project? Do they understand the value? As a company or team are we constantly shifting priorities? Is the project so large and the timeline so long that the team they cannot see the end in sight or celebrate the small wins along the way?

Final thought on motivation

If we look again at our definition of motivation:

Motivation is the act of motivating and motivating is the action of providing a person with a motive, which is the need or desire that causes a person to act.

Motivation is merely how we get to our motive for doing something. It is not necessarily the thing that is going to help us accomplish something. To help illustrate this, many people are motivated to lose weight; since they know they are overweight and have the desire (or need if their health is at risk) to lose weight, but they struggle to do so or even start the process. Motivation is not going to get you there, it is just the starting point. Self-control and self-discipline are the mechanisms that help us actually achieve our goals. We will talk about these in a different post.

The motivation equation can be a useful model to aid in understanding our own motivation and specifically that of our teams.

This is not a perfect model, but rather a tool to have in your tool box should you find yourself in a situation where it is the ideal tool. Our team found it useful in helping us better understand our teams. I hope that you too will have similar results.


  • Have there been times in your life or with your teams where finally understanding the value of a thing has given you motivation?
  • How well do you deal with delay? Are there tactics you use to overcome the need for instant gratification?
  • How do you see impulsivity in your own life?
  • Can a high value overcome a low expectancy?

Thanks for getting this far

I welcome all comments, criticisms, and thoughts.

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