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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 July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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