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The Science of Motivation

The Science of Motivation

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.

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    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.)

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    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.

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    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.

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    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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    Last Updated on March 31, 2020

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Procrastination is very literally the opposite of productivity. To produce something is to pull it forward, while to procrastinate is to push it forward — to tomorrow, to next week, or ultimately to never.

    Procrastination fills us with shame — we curse ourselves for our laziness, our inability to focus on the task at hand, our tendency to be easily led into easier and more immediate gratifications. And with good reason: for the most part, time spent procrastinating is time spent not doing things that are, in some way or other, important to us.

    There is a positive side to procrastination, but it’s important not to confuse procrastination at its best with everyday garden-variety procrastination.

    Sometimes — sometimes! — procrastination gives us the time we need to sort through a thorny issue or to generate ideas. In those rare instances, we should embrace procrastination — even as we push it away the rest of the time.

    Why We Procrastinate After All?

    We procrastinate for a number of reasons, some better than others. One reason we procrastinate is that, while we know what we want to do, we need time to let the ideas “ferment” before we are ready to sit down and put them into action.

    Some might call this “creative faffing”; I call it, following copywriter Ray Del Savio’s lead, “concepting”.[1]

    Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the time spent dreaming up what you want to say or do, weighing ideas in your mind, following false leads and tearing off on mental wild goose chases, and generally thinking things through.

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    To the outside observer, concepting looks like… well, like nothing much at all. Maybe you’re leaning back in your chair, feet up, staring at the wall or ceiling, or laying in bed apparently dozing, or looking out over the skyline or feeding pigeons in the park or fiddling with the Japanese vinyl toys that stand watch over your desk.

    If ideas are the lifeblood of your work, you have to make time for concepting, and you have to overcome the sensation— often overpowering in our work-obsessed culture — that faffing, however creative, is not work.

    Is Procrastination Bad?

    Yes it is.

    Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re “concepting” when in fact you’re just not sure what you’re supposed to be doing.

    Spending an hour staring at the wall while thinking up the perfect tagline for a marketing campaign is creative faffing; staring at the wall for an hour because you don’t know how to come up with a tagline, or don’t know the product you’re marketing well enough to come up with one, is just wasting time.

    Lack of definition is perhaps the biggest friend of your procrastination demons. When we’re not sure what to do — whether because we haven’t planned thoroughly enough, we haven’t specified the scope of what we hope to accomplish in the immediate present, or we lack important information, skills, or resources to get the job done.

    It’s easy to get distracted or to trick ourselves into spinning our wheels doing nothing. It takes our mind off the uncomfortable sensation of failing to make progress on something important.

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    The answer to this is in planning and scheduling. Rather than giving yourself an unspecified length of time to perform an unspecified task (“Let’s see, I guess I’ll work on that spreadsheet for a while”) give yourself a limited amount of time to work on a clearly defined task (“Now I’ll enter the figures from last months sales report into the spreadsheet for an hour”).

    Giving yourself a deadline, even an artificial one, helps build a sense of urgency and also offers the promise of time to “screw around” later, once more important things are done.

    For larger projects, planning plays a huge role in whether or not you’ll spend too much time procrastinating to reach the end reasonably quickly.

    A good plan not only lists the steps you have to take to reach the end, but takes into account the resources, knowledge and inputs from other people you’re going to need to perform those steps.

    Instead of futzing around doing nothing because you don’t have last month’s sales report, getting the report should be a step in the project.

    Otherwise, you’ll spend time cooling your heels, justifying your lack of action as necessary: you aren’t wasting time because you want to, but because you have to.

    How Bad Procrastination Can Be

    Our mind can often trick us into procrastinating, often to the point that we don’t realize we’re procrastinating at all.

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    After all, we have lots and lots of things to do; if we’re working on something, aren’t we being productive – even if the one big thing we need to work on doesn’t get done?

    One way this plays out is that we scan our to-do list, skipping over the big challenging projects in favor of the short, easy projects. At the end of the day, we feel very productive: we’ve crossed twelve things off our list!

    That big project we didn’t work on gets put onto the next day’s list, and when the same thing happens, it gets moved forward again. And again.

    Big tasks often present us with the problem above – we aren’t sure what to do exactly, so we look for other ways to occupy ourselves.

    In many cases too, big tasks aren’t really tasks at all; they’re aggregates of many smaller tasks. If something’s sitting on your list for a long time, each day getting skipped over in favor of more immediately doable tasks, it’s probably not very well thought out.

    You’re actively resisting it because you don’t really know what it is. Try to break it down into a set of small tasks, something more like the tasks you are doing in place of the one big task you aren’t doing.

    More consequences of procrastination can be found in this article: 8 Dreadful Effects of Procrastination That Can Destroy Your Life

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    Procrastination, a Technical Failure

    Procrastination is, more often than not, a sign of a technical failure, not a moral failure.

    It’s not because we’re bad people that we procrastinate. Most times, procrastination serves as a symptom of something more fundamentally wrong with the tasks we’ve set ourselves.

    It’s important to keep an eye on our procrastinating tendencies, to ask ourselves whenever we notice ourselves pushing things forward what it is about the task we’ve set ourselves that simply isn’t working for us.

    Learn more about how to fix your procrastination problem here: What Is Procrastination and How to Stop It (The Complete Guide)

    Featured photo credit: chuttersnap via unsplash.com

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