The key to success and motivation is to make sure you use the In & Out Rule

This post is the second part of The nerd guide to lifestyle design: an engineered process to create your inspiring life.
The previous part is here.


Have you ever heard the key to success is discipline and a strong will?

Sorry to break this to you, but this is terrible advice!

You see, to build your success, you need to stay motivated. That is, you have to manage your motivation properly.

If your rely on your willpower to push through and build your success, you’re soon going to run out of steam. And you’ll end up out of breath on the side of the road, while others are cruising along.

A study showed the limits of willpower. In the study, people had to remember either a two-digit or a seven-digit number. Then, they were tempted with chocolate cake. The result?

People who had to remember the seven-digit number were 22% more likely to give up to the cake temptation. If you distract the brain with a more difficult task, it gets harder to also make a healthy food choice.

What’s the bottom line?

Using willpower to resist a temptation is taxing. It requires cognitive power and will use up a lot of your energy.

In short, when you rely on willpower to stay disciplined, you’ll constantly be fighting off the temptation to give up. In the end, you’ll end up exhausting yourself.

So, here’s the deal:

To be successful, you need a well-oiled machine that will let you cruise to your destination. To make sure you don’t run out of steam, you need the In & Out Rule.

Never heard of it?

Here’s how it works.

The In & Out Rule

In & Out Rule
The In & Out Rule

Picture your motivation as the battery of your smartphone.


You’ve charged your phone overnight. You start with a full battery.

During the day, you make calls, check your emails, play a game or surf the Web. So your battery goes down. The processor and screen of your phone need energy (electrical current) to do their job.

At the end of the day, if you used your phone a lot, the battery will be almost empty. But if you didn’t use it much, you’ll have plenty of battery left.


The same goes for your motivation. The more computer (brain) intensive activities you do during your day, the more your energy and motivation goes down.

This is where the In & Out Rule kicks in.

Take your motivation as a battery. What goes in recharges it. And what comes out empties it.

To keep your motivation high, you need to take cares of what goes in and what comes out. This is the In & Out Rule.

Now, here is what will refill your motivation (the In):

  1. Sleep
  2. Meaningful Work
  3. Small Wins

And here is what will empty your battery (the Out):

  1. Mentally taxing activities

It’s simple then.

To stay fully charged and motivated, you need to sleep enough, have strong reasons to pursue your goals and create small wins for yourself. Also, you need to limit the amount of mentally taxing activities you undergo.

Let’s now dig into the In and Out.

1. In

Have you ever started a new activity, fully pumped with motivation and with a clear goal in mind? But after a few days, your motivation goes down, fast.

So you kick yourself and give yourself pep talks so you can carry on. You look for motivational stories or quotes. You’re desperate for that extra spark that will re-fill your battery.

You keep going for a little while.

Then, you start slagging of. You put off some of your tasks to tomorrow. And the day after.

Before you know it, you’ve stopped working on your goal. At this stage, you start telling yourself that pursuing that goal wasn’t that valuable. So you decide to start working on another goal.

And the cycle often repeats itself. Sounds familiar?

Here’s the deal: You need to understand what motivates you. Then, you can use this learning to put a process in place that will fuel your motivation.

Lucky for you, I’ve done the research. And the results and process are just here.

Let’s dig in, shall we?

The Sleep Of The Just

The Sleep of the Just
Some well deserved sleep

When we fall behind with our goals, we tend to push harder. And often, we sacrifice sleep so we can catch-up. Unless it’s a one off, this is a bad strategy. I’m saying this as someone who has sacrificed a lot of sleep to catch up on my goals.

Here’s why it’s a bad strategy:

When you sleep, your brain cells shrink slightly. This allows the brain to flush out toxins that have accumulated during the day. The toxins are the results of neurodegeneration in the brain.

The bottom line: if you don’t sleep enough, some toxins will stay trapped in your brain. These toxins will affect your brain performance. They’ll affect your thinking.

In short, you’ll be less efficient. In the end, the time you’ve saved by not sleeping will be more than lost again due to your inefficiency the next day. And you’ll fall even further behind.

Once you go down that spiral, you’ll end up exhausted and demotivated.

If you want to stay fresh and fully motivated, you need to sleep enough. You need to re-charge your batteries.

Research recommends that, on average, you should sleep at least 7 hours a day as an adult.

If you want to stay charged and motivated, this is the first key to the process.

I hear you saying: But wait! Someone like Elon Musk works 80 hours a week, sleeps 6 hours a night and doesn’t seem to run out of energy and motivation.

To this I answer: Elon has a clear mission in his life, a mission that fuels his motivation (more on this later). He’s also put in place the habits he needs. He has learned to be effective.

Finally, not everyone is the same. Some people don’t need much sleep or rest. The recommended 7 hours is an average.

But chances are, you’re not an exception. And even if you are, the principles exposed here will serve you well.

Since we touched on having a mission in life, let’s transition to this topic.

Do you mean it?

Do you mean it?

Have you ever worked on something to then find out you couldn’t see much point in doing it? Maybe you were doing something out of habit or obligation?

How did that make you feel? Motivated? I bet not!

If you want to stay motivated, you need a good reason for doing what you’re doing. A reason gives you meaning, purpose. Your motivation comes from the expected reward at the end.

As Friedrich Nietzsche said: He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.

So, how do you find your reasons for wanting to pursue your goals? You ask yourself “why” questions.

Here’s an example to explain the process.

Let’s say your goal is to run your own business.

First, you ask yourself: Why do I want to run my own business? One reason might be: To have full control over what I’m doing and when I’m doing it.

Then, you ask again: Why do I want to have full control over what I’m doing and when I’m doing it? You answer might be: So I have the freedom to take time off whenever I want.

Then, ask again: Why do I want freedom to take time off whenever I want? Your answer: To be able to spend time with my kids and attend their important events.

And again: Why do I want to spend time with my kids and attend their important event? Because they’re growing up fast and I’ll never be able to catch up on the events I missed. Because life is too short and I want to enjoy it.

That’s it, that’s your reason for wanting to run your own business: To enjoy your short life and be able to spend time on what is important to you.

Use “why” questions to find your reason for everything you want to pursue. Make your work meaningful.

When you have a strong reason for everything you do, you secure yourself ongoing motivation. This will regularly recharge your battery.

Be A Winner

Be A Winner

Early rewards cause a release of dopamine in your brain. And dopamine keeps your motivation going.

You want to get more details about how it works neurophysiologically in one of my previous posts HERE.

Bottom line: if you want to get regular bursts of motivation, you need to create rewards for yourself. You can get them by creating small wins.

Set yourself daily, weekly and monthly goals. That way, you’ll constantly reach small goals. They are your small wins.

Small wins will re-fill your motivation, in particular at the early stages of a new activity. Over time, you will build intrinsic motivation that will replace your small wins to re-charge your battery. Then, you can celebrate big wins.

Celebrating big wins will make you proud of your achievements. And pride causes the release of serotonin. Serotonin makes you happy. Happiness will be an extra motivation to keep going.

To sum it up, to ensure you are constantly recharging your motivational battery:

  1. Get enough sleep
  2. Do meaningful work
  3. Create small wins for yourself and celebrate big wins

Now, let’s see how you can limit the drain on your motivation so you don’t flatten it out.

2. Out

Re-charging your battery is key. But if you empty it too quickly, it will get flat. So, controlling what comes out is also crucial.

The Out of the In & Out Rule is about limiting the number of taxing activities that will deplete your energy and motivation level.

Here are three ways to do it.

Cut The Crap

Cut The Crap
get rid of The Crap

The first way is to be effective.

Being effective means getting the same result with less effort. It calls for a strategic approach.

Here’s how you can do it:

Use the Pareto principle and Parkinson’s law.

The Pareto principle states that you get 80% of your results from 20% of your actions. How can you use it to be more effective?

Every time you’re working towards a specific goal, look at all your activities, and your results. You need to figure out which activities have brought you most of your results.

Once you’ve got them, focus your effort on these. If you can, drop the rest. Cut the crap. You’ll save yourself a lot of work and get more time to rest.

Parkinson’s law states that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

Bottom line: the shorter your deadline, the less you’ll work on unnecessary tasks.

Give yourself short deadlines. Slice up your activities in several milestones so that you have short deadlines. Ideally, you should always have daily goals.

That way, you focus on what you have to do for that day. The more focused you are and the least unnecessary activities you’re engaged in, the more energy you’ll save.

This is the equivalent of a new generation chip in your phone, that does the same job as before but for half the current consumption. If you’re more effective than you were before, you’ll use up less energy to get the same work done. It’s simple maths.

One trick I use is to keep a challenging plan every week. This forces me to then make hard choices as I can’t do everything. I have to always focus on the top activities that will bring me closer to my goals.



Once you’ve reduced your activities to the most crucial ones, you need to stay focused.

To do so, the strategy is to work in short intense bursts. Working in short bursts with a timer gives you a sense of urgency. Also, it makes any task more digestible.

We can call it the Sprint technique.

When you face working on a single task for the whole day, it’s daunting. Daunting tasks favor procrastination. And when you procrastinate, you deplete your motivation.

If instead, you slice your single task in 60-90 minutes sessions of intense work, facing each session becomes much easier and less daunting. When you only focus on 60-90 minutes tasks, you’re less likely to procrastinate.

I chose an extreme case to illustrate. Of course, most of the time your don’t work the whole day on a single task. You often split across two to three days anyway.

But you should split your tasks further.

The efficiency of working in short bursts is backed up by research.

Peretz Lavie led a study on ultradian rhythms. The study showed that, during the day, we follow a natural cycle of 90 minutes when we feel awake and productive, followed by a period during which we feel drowsy. So it’s best to work with this cycle for maximum productivity.

Also, research from Ericsson has shown that expert best violin students were practicing in sessions of maximum 90 minutes. It showed that practicing in sessions of 90 minutes or less and a maximum of 3.5 hours of deliberate practice a day brought the most rapid progress.

One technique that favors working in short burst is the Pomodoro technique. It consists of working in 25 minutes timed bursts, followed by a 5 minutes break. This is a good technique to get you started into the habits of slicing up your work.

But once you’re disciplined in the sprint technique, the 25 minutes are too short.

It breaks the state of Flow (see below). I would advise increasing the time progressively to 45, then 60, then 75 until you reach 90 minutes.

Taking your focus to the extreme, you can access a state of Flow. Flow is the mental state of operation in which you’re completely immersed in what you’re doing. In it, you get a feeling of energized focus, full involvement and enjoyment.

A study by Weber and Huskey showed that flow activates reward networks. That means dopamine gets released.

Here’s the kicker:

In essence, you can motivate yourself by accessing states of Flow. The release of dopamine will fuel your motivation. It’s a sort of closed loop, when what comes out (brain power to start Flow) directly goes back in (dopamine reward) to recharge your battery.

It gets better:

Some evidence came out of the study that flow could be linked to cognitive synchronisation theory. If this proves to be correct, it would show that a state of flow is cheap, mentally speaking. In Flow, the energy expenditure of the brain to perform a similar task would be lower.

Reducing the energy that comes out is what we want. And it looks like Flow can further deliver on that front.

What’s the bottom line?

Work in sprints and stay focused to improve your effectiveness and limit how much your deplete your motivation. Enter Flow states to refuel your motivation and further limit the energy you use to perform a task.

One last thing: run your sprints away from distractions. Focus is crucial to stay on task, effective and save your energy. Distractions kill your focus.

Sprint is one area of the In & Out Rule I admit I have to still improve. I’m not always timing my work. When that happens, I can feel my energy and concentration going down.

But when I do time myself, it keeps me extremely focused and puts pressure on myself to finish quickly. The end result is that I waste less energy and get the job done quicker. And that gives me a motivation boost.

So far we’ve looked at how you can minimize the amount of mentally taxing activities you do. And be more effective doing them. What if we could transform these mentally taxing activities and simply make them less taxing?

This is the last technique.



When you take a task and transform it into a habit, here’s what happens:

At the anatomical level, you slowly move the processing of the activity from the reflective (located in the prefrontal cortex) to the reflexive (located in the basal ganglia) brain.

The reflective brain is slower and requires more energy to work than the reflexive brain. The latter is energy efficient, fast and reacts automatically.

In short, performing a habitual task will limit the energy that comes out of your motivation battery.

This is the last piece of the puzzle, but an important one. Focus on building habits. On average, it will take you 66 days.

Do it systematically for any recurring task you have. The more habits you can build, the less taxing activities on your brain. Always limit how much you use up your motivation battery.

Habits are so important that I see them as secret weapons.

Time to go

Enjoy The Journey
Enjoy The Journey

Here you have it: The In & Out Rule to motivation.

Now, stop relying on your willpower to keep you going and motivated. Instead, use this simple rule.

And enjoy cruising along on your way to success.

But wait, before you leave, I’ve got a quick question for you:

Are you disciplined and motivated already and if not, what’s holding you back?

Leave a comment below and let me know.


You still want to create an inspiring life for yourself? Then head on to part 3: A Project Manager’s Guide To Stay Focused And Reach Your Goals.
And don’t forget to get your No-Excuse Action Plan below.
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