Motivation vs. Inspiration: What You Need To Know Before You Tackle Your To-Do List

Motivation is NOT inspiration. In fact, motivation, if not properly understood, can actually hinder inspiration and keep you operating at dangerously low levels of thinking and acting. It’s easy to think that they’re synonyms and mean the same (or similar), however they couldn’t be more opposite.

Understanding the distinction between the two can make a big difference between gracefully moving forward with our goals, visions, and desires or struggling to gain momentum while we burnout from running around in circles.

Knowing when and how to strategically use both can give us a great advantage and push in being more productive and effective in our lives, not to mention ease up unnecessary frustration and anxiety.

Understanding Motivation:

Have you ever attended a personal or professional development seminar or some other course or experience that really got you fired up? At the end, on the final day, you leave floating on Cloud 9. You feel fueled up, pumped up, and elevated. It’s like a sweet feeling high.

Then you go out into the ‘real world’ again. Slowly, (or not so slowly), that high starts to fade. Days after the course ends, it seems harder to access that feeling, but you really want it back. So you either sign up for the next course, or you take some other form of outward action to try and replicate and recreate it.

That’s motivation you’re after.

Motivation is generated from outside of us; it requires an external agent of some sort.

When we’re motivated we’re trying to do something to gain control over something else. Motivation is usually a short term force, fleeting, and volatile characterized by highs and lows.

When we ‘need’ or ‘should’ do something or are resisting, we look for external motivators to help us ‘get going’ and ‘do’ the thing we don’t want to do.

It’s linked to our primal (reactive) survival mechanisms and originates in the more primitive brain regions, namely associated with the limbic center’s amygdala, the part of our brain that oversees our ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response:

“Although fear is the emotion best understood in terms of brain mechanisms, the amygdala has also been implicated in a variety of other emotional functions. A relatively large body of research has focused on the role of the amygdala in processing of rewards and the use of rewards to motivate and reinforce behavior. As with aversive conditioning, the lateral, basal, and central amygdala have been implicated in different aspects of reward learning and motivation…” [1]

Because of this, motivation is driven by our “avoid pain, seek pleasure” mechanisms first and foremost. Also, due to the often times emotional nature of motivation to either avoid something or seek something, it’s characterized by being “time-full” and temporal. This means that our motivations are based either on an avoidance of the past or a fear of the future.

Given all of this, it’s no surprise that when we’re blinded by motivation we block inspiration.

Understanding Inspiration:


inspired 2

The archaic meaning of inspiration is to breathe life info.

Inspiration is generated from within; it begins inside us.

When we’re inspired, we come from the place of ‘loving to’ and ‘choosing to’ do something. No external motivation or incentive is required because the desire comes from within and the natural progression is to take action upon inner guidance.

I’ve found that learning to cultivate inspiration is much more powerful than running on motivation alone. Motivation is tied to our willpower and force, and it eventually runs out. It can feel heavy and contracted.

Inspiration feels light, it feels expansive. It’s heart opening. When you’re inspired you’re tapped into the natural flow of your highest vision and values. When you’re inspired you’re unstoppable because in that moment you’re aligned with that vision to the point where other forces are no longer a factor.

When we’re inspired we transcend that “avoid pain, seek pleasure” animalistic mechanism and understand that both pain and pleasure will be present in our quest and we embrace both as part of the process. This allows us to be able to sustain true inspiration for longer periods as we anchor into the present moment instead of being confined to the past or future.

Another hallmark of inspiration is insight:

“Two different brain imaging techniques have revealed that a specific area of the brain “lights up” when the ‘Aha’ moment arrives, according to cognitive neuroscientists Mark Jung-Beeman and Edward Bowden of Northwestern University and John Kounios of Drexel University…

The increased activity was observed in part of the right temporal lobe (the anterior superior temporal gyrus.) The researchers were concentrating on that area because previous studies have linked it to complex language skills.

“When you need to tie together things that are distantly related,” Jung-Beeman says. “That’s exactly what an insight is. It’s tying together information that people already know, but they don’t recognize how they are related until that key moment.” ” [2]

This insight generates an authentic enthusiasm from within you.

Think of a time you were so inspired by someone or something you were moved to tears. These tears of inspiration are the feedback of your timeless self calling you forth, pulling you. Other feedback might include: goosebumps, shivers up and down your spine, your heart feeling expanded and opened, a definite feeling or sense of knowing.

I knew for sure I was having a soul led moment of true inspiration when I first watched Katie Meyler’s TEDx talk “What I Witnessed On the Front Lines of Ebola.” I was riveted and mesmerized by this woman’s own inspiration as she shared her courageous story of staying behind to help out not only the girls at her school More Than Me, but the entire community. I couldn’t contain the tears as they ran down my cheeks. My heart felt warm and expanded in my chest. I wanted to be a part of what she was emanating. Inspiration is contagious; it creates ripples.


Hacking Motivation:

As with everything in life, motivation has both its upsides and downsides.

The upside:

By its very nature, motivation gives us the impetus we need to get sh*t done. It puts the proverbial fire under our derriere!

The downside:

If we’re running solely on motivation we may miss the subtle promptings of our higher mind because we’re so fixated on reaching a specific goal or arriving at a certain finish line that we can’t hear, see, or intuit anything else. Hence, we might:

spin our wheels unnecessarily
unwisely utilize our strengths and resources
chase the wrong dangling carrot
climb up the wrong mountain

How do we make motivation work for us, not against us?

1. By stopping, stepping back, and reassessing our to-do list AND the Big Picture.

It’s really important to take the time to step back far enough to see the ‘Big Picture’ of why we’re doing what we’re doing. The more we can ensure that the ‘Big Picture’ is as inspiring to us as possible, the more we’ll work with our motivation centers to get the job done.

Are you inspired by what you’re doing?

If not, how can you reframe what’s on your plate to link it to your inspiration?

For example, one of my least favorite steps in creating each episode for my podcast is reviewing the spanish translations of each transcript. I was definitely looking for outside motivation to help me get these done because I was resisting them. I found them extremely tedious and time consuming. (Plus my spanish is not as fluent as my english so it took me longer to review than the actual transcripts, which were already 20+ pages each.)

I had to reframe the entire process. So I got clear on why I was inspired to create this podcast and each of the 24 episodes of each season. My true inspiration laid in the fact that I get to be a facilitator of empowering knowledge that my audience can directly implement and use to upgrade their minds, bodies, and lives. I linked that inspiration to then envisioning that with each freshly transcribed spanish episode, my message and work was getting out to an even bigger audience and therefore creating an even bigger impact across the globe. That, along with other productivity hacks such as the Pomodoro Technique, have helped me get these done and feel grateful for this step in the process.

2. By taking advantage of the brain’s motivation and reward networks.

“Researchers have found that the neurotransmitter dopamine is central to the human brain network governing motivation and a sense of reward and pleasure.” [3]

Each time we feel rewarded or reward ourselves our brain releases dopamine, the ‘feel good pleasure chemical.’ Each item we complete and check off from our to do lists gives us a little dopamine fix. This then creates a ripple effect that builds momentum and motivation to ‘do more’ and ‘keep going.’

Set yourself up to win by chunking down tasks so each little win is attainable and doable. By understanding that motivation has a ‘short attention span,’ we can ride its waves to heightened productivity, feelings of accomplishment, and self fulfillment.


Cultivating Inspiration:

The upside:

Instead of allowing your quest for motivation to blind you, why not allow inspiration to guide you?

Inspiration can lead you on the path of your most authentic purpose and values. Revisit the glaringly apparent moments of inspiration in your life. Where were you? What were you doing? What were you witnessing? Do more of it. Pay attention to your own body’s feedback; listen to it when it speaks to you.

Be mindful of the sensory input your feed your mind and awareness. What you read, watch, and how you spend your time matters. Cultivate your inspiration by inputting inspiration. Who are you inspired by? Study them – their life, their work. What books inspire you? Read them. What music makes you feel expanded? Listen to it.

The downside:

Inspiration comes with a cost – sometimes you’re led to unexpected places you hadn’t planned to end up in. Cultivating inspiration means that sometimes you won’t be choosing the easiest path of instant gratification and immediate pleasure. Fulfilling on the ‘Big Picture’ often times implies you’ll be called to endure things that your lower minded self will resist in the moment. This is when I like to remind myself that the long term rewards far outweigh the momentary perceived discomfort.

Create the right inner and outer environment for inspiration to flourish. Rest your body and mind when you need to. Feed and nourish your body with energy giving clean foods instead of energy zapping foods. What we ingest and what we eat has a big impact on how we feel and think and perceive the world.

Going back to the dopamine hack for motivation – it also works for inspiration as well:

“Dopamine may also play a role in creative discovery through its effect on novelty-seeking… People vary in terms of their level of creative drive according to the activity of the dopamine pathways of the limbic system.” [4]

The most strategic thing we can do is learn how to dance between the both motivation and inspiration as both are essentially two sides of the same creative coin.

There are times to push and drive forward. There are also times when it’s best to cease pushing and flow in a state of openness and receptivity. The way we accomplish our goals and build our lives requires both and requires us to be smart about it.

From a yogic philosophy stance, what we’re left with is learning to dance the yoga of motivation and inspiration for maximum creative growth:

Yoga is a dance between control and surrender – between pushing and letting go – and when to push and when to let go becomes part of the creative process, part of the open ended exploration of your being.

– Joel Kramer, Author of ‘Yoga As Self Transformation.





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