Converting Empathy for Your Future Self Into Motivation

Envision two competing realities to bypass depleting sources of initiative.

Sean Kernan
5 min readNov 14, 2023


Unsplash Images via Christin Hume

My sister Shannon and I went to the pool every night with my dad. We were on the swim team, but our coaches left an outside lane open for my dad. In my peripheral vision, I’d see him flying past everyone, doing sprints and underwater kicking.

I’d always assumed he just loved swimming, just as my sister and I did. Our endless youthful energy and spirit of adventure were never a bottleneck for workouts. Years later, after failed attempts to exercise, I realized why dad was in those lanes and other people weren’t. It was more than just discipline.

Willpower alone is a problematic approach to goals, being reliant on a depleting resource (also called “ego depletion”). A landmark study by Dr. Roy Baumeister at Case Western Reserve University, which is cited in thousands of papers, proved this. In one experiment, people tasked with eating radishes, instead of tempting and available chocolate cookies, gave up much quicker on an unsolvable puzzle than those with no temptations. In another test, people who suppressed emotions (a form of willpower), also gave up on anagrams much quicker than those who didn’t.

Willpower matters, but is problematic because so many other things depend on it. One alternative leads with empathy.

The shift in thinking on persistence

In the early 20th century, psychologists believed attitude was everything. If you simply believed in yourself, and applied the proper mindset, the results would follow. This approach has largely been scrapped, and shifted towards other factors, such as circumstance surrounding behavioral change.

There’s this painfully obvious hurdle that challenges every productive habit: we don’t like doing things we don’t enjoy doing. Even further, research shows that people don’t change easily unless incentivized — especially if money is involved. Some gyms leverage this insight, charging a larger annual fee, and then awarding back money each time a person goes, resulting in more consistent gym usage.



Sean Kernan

Former financial analyst turned writer. Always on the hunt for a good story. That guy from Quora. Writing out of Tampa, Florida.