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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 January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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