The Science of Motivation

What motivates you?

While there are thousands, millions, maybe billions of answers to that question, a growing body of research, some of it dating back 50 years, shows two things that don’t motivate us very well – the promise of rewards and the threat of punishment.

It seems counter-intuitive, since after all we take it for granted that we need incentives to do work. It’s the basis of our whole economic system, for crying out loud! And yet, the research is abundantly clear: once a reasonable standard of living is achieved, rewards and punishment not only don’t motivate us to do more, better, or faster, they often demotivate us.

One classic example of this is a study involving lawyers asked to provide legal services for low-income persons. One group was asked to do so for a low fee, $10 or $20 an hour, while the other was asked to do so for free. Interestingly, the subjects asked to provide services for a fraction of their typical rate were unwilling to do so, while those asked to do so for free were overwhelmingly willing. By offering a small fee, the subjects were actually less motivated, since they could only think of the work in relation to their normal, much larger fees. The other subjects were not pushed to think about their work as an economic transaction (in which the fee was nothing) and so were able to imagine other ways in which the work itself was its own reward.

Rewards force us to consider our work in a limited way, even work that we might gain great satisfaction from doing without the promise of reward. In fact, offering incentives can limit not only one’s perception of the work but one’s ability to even do the work. Consider the “candle problem” (watch author Dan Pink’s TED talk on the candle problem for more information). Subjects are seated at a table against a wall, given a candle, some matches, and a box of tacks, and told to work out a way to burn the candle without getting wax on the table. In one study, one group was offered money for figuring the puzzle out, while another wasn’t – and the subjects who were not offered any reward did remarkably better.

(The solution, by the way, is to empty the box of tacks and set the candle up inside of the box – most people ignore the box at first, because they see it only as a holder for the tacks and not as part of the equipment available to them. People working for a reward have a much harder time making the creative leap to seeing the box as part of the puzzle than people who are not being incentivized except by the pleasure of solving the puzzle itself.)

I should clarify here: it should be clear by now that it’s not rewards in the abstract that demotivate us, it’s rewards that are external to the task at hand. We are actually very easily motivated by any sort of challenging work, which is why so many of our hobbies involve complex problem-solving (working on motorcycles, woodworking, gourmet cooking, reading mysteries, sailing, training pets, collecting rare things, fantasy sports, and so on). But when someone else offers us money (or some other reward) to complete the same problems, it gets shunted into the category of “work” and our creativity shuts down.

The trick to motivation, then, is to find the intrinsic reward in our work and to enjoy it. Note that this doesn’t mean that nobody should ever accept money for anything – before our drive for mastery and personal challenge lies our drive to survive! But there’s a reason why so many painters are willing to suffer for their art while so few people are willing to become hobby investment bankers – one kind of work has its own intrinsic motivation while the other, except for a very rare few of us, does not.

Knowing all that, there are a few things you can do to keep yourself motivated.

1. Have a mission.

Perhaps the single most motivating factor in our lives is the sense that we’re fulfilling a greater purpose. That’s why lawyers will do for free what they won’t do for cheap – the sense that they’re contributing to something greater than themselves. A lot of people have taken a page from the corporate world and written a short, one- or at most two-sentence mission statement, against which their actions can be evaluated. If your mission is, for example, “to make the world a better place” (which is maybe too vague to be all that effective, but it’ll do for illustration purposes) then knowing that some task is helping to make the world better can be very motivating, indeed!

2. Measure improvement.

While work that engages with the rest of the world can be very intrinsically rewarding and thus very motivating, so too can work that makes us better people. Personal growth is an important motivating factor. But most of us take little time to determine just what constitutes being “better” – we set goals like “be more moral”, “spend more time with family”, or “do my job better” but those aren’t very powerful motivators because they’re not concrete. This is the idea behind S.M.A.R.T. goals, goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Set goals whose progress you can measure – according to whatever metric matters most to you! – and keep track of your progress.

3. Make learning a primary goal.

An important part of personal growth is achieving or moving towards mastery – of a body of knowledge, of a tool or system, of a particular task. Work that helps us move closer to mastery is generally rewarding in its own right.

But it’s not always clear what, if anything, we’re learning. So I’d like to borrow an idea from marketing “guru” Seth Godin. Godin advises readers of business books, to “Decide, before you start, that you’re going to change three things about what you do all day at work. Then, as you’re reading, find the three things and do it.” This can apply to just about anything: ask yourself, as you start a new project or a new job or anything else, “What three things am I going to learn from doing this?” This will put you in a mastery frame of mind so that you’re aware of the learning you’re doing as you move through your various tasks.

4. Examine your life.

Alan Webber, the founder of Fast Company, keeps two lists in his pocket on index cards. One is a list of things that get him up in the morning, the other of things that keep him awake at night. Ask yourself what gets you out of bed in the morning, and what keeps you up at night. If your answers are positive things, you’re in pretty good shape – but if they’re not, you’re begging for a motivation problem. When you get out of bed eager to tackle the challenges of the day, and lay awake at night dreaming up new challenges, new projects, and new directions to take your life in, motivation comes pretty easily!

5. Separate work from rewards.

This is a tough one, because we often battle procrastination by depriving ourselves of something positive and promising ourselves we can have it once we’ve gotten some work done. The problem is that it paints the work we’re doing as something undesirable, something we wouldn’t do unless we had that grand latte, trip to the mall, or afternoon swim as a reward. In his classic, The Now Habit, Neil Fiore suggests that procrastination comes not from the nature of the work but from our relationship with it – work we see as drudgery that we have to do in order to get something we want is ripe for procrastination. Instead, he suggests we change the very language we use to talk about our work, emphasizing that we choose to work on a task or project. Work we choose to do – like hobbies – rarely suffers from motivation problems!

With all that we’ve discovered about what motivates people, it will be interesting to see how businesses, who have until now depended on perks, stock options, and other bonuses to increase motivation, will adapt. It’s become clear that, while rewards and punishments might have increased productivity on the factory floor, it actually hinders the kind of knowledge work that makes up the vast bulk of our economy these days. Already a few companies are experimenting, quite successfully, with ways of helping employees to discover the intrinsic rewards of their own work – Google’s 20% time, which gives engineers one day a week to work on whatever project they choose and which has resulted in products as crucial to the company as Gmail, AdSense, and Google News, is one prominent example – most managers remain convinced that their employees will never do work without the promise of a reward or the threat of punishment.

Which is kind of a sad commentary on all of our lives, isn’t it?

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