Advertising
Advertising

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.

    Advertising

    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.)

    Advertising

    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.

    Advertising

    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.

    Advertising

    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?

    More by this author

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain) How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works) Building Relationships: 11 Rules for Self-Promotion

    Trending in Featured

    1 How to Stop Procrastinating: 11 Practical Ways for Procrastinators 2 How to Master the Art of Prioritization 3 How to Find Your Passion and Live a Fulfilling Life 4 What to Do in Free Time? 20 Productive Ways to Use the Time 5 Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Read Next

    Advertising
    Advertising
    Advertising

    Last Updated on September 16, 2019

    How to Stop Procrastinating: 11 Practical Ways for Procrastinators

    How to Stop Procrastinating: 11 Practical Ways for Procrastinators

    You have a deadline looming. However, instead of doing your work, you are fiddling with miscellaneous things like checking email, social media, watching videos, surfing blogs and forums. You know you should be working, but you just don’t feel like doing anything.

    We are all familiar with the procrastination phenomenon. When we procrastinate, we squander away our free time and put off important tasks we should be doing them till it’s too late. And when it is indeed too late, we panic and wish we got started earlier.

    The chronic procrastinators I know have spent years of their life looped in this cycle. Delaying, putting off things, slacking, hiding from work, facing work only when it’s unavoidable, then repeating this loop all over again. It’s a bad habit that eats us away and prevents us from achieving greater results in life.

    Don’t let procrastination take over your life. Here, I will share my personal steps on how to stop procrastinating. These 11 steps will definitely apply to you too:

    1. Break Your Work into Little Steps

    Part of the reason why we procrastinate is because subconsciously, we find the work too overwhelming for us. Break it down into little parts, then focus on one part at the time. If you still procrastinate on the task after breaking it down, then break it down even further. Soon, your task will be so simple that you will be thinking “gee, this is so simple that I might as well just do it now!”.

    For example, I’m currently writing a new book (on How to achieve anything in life). Book writing at its full scale is an enormous project and can be overwhelming. However, when I break it down into phases such as –

    Advertising

    • (1) Research
    • (2) Deciding the topic
    • (3) Creating the outline
    • (4) Drafting the content
    • (5) Writing Chapters #1 to #10,
    • (6) Revision
    • (7) etc.

    Suddenly it seems very manageable. What I do then is to focus on the immediate phase and get it done to my best ability, without thinking about the other phases. When it’s done, I move on to the next.

    2. Change Your Environment

    Different environments have different impact on our productivity. Look at your work desk and your room. Do they make you want to work or do they make you want to snuggle and sleep? If it’s the latter, you should look into changing your workspace.

    One thing to note is that an environment that makes us feel inspired before may lose its effect after a period of time. If that’s the case, then it’s time to change things around. Refer to Steps #2 and #3 of 13 Strategies To Jumpstart Your Productivity, which talks about revamping your environment and workspace.

    3. Create a Detailed Timeline with Specific Deadlines

    Having just 1 deadline for your work is like an invitation to procrastinate. That’s because we get the impression that we have time and keep pushing everything back, until it’s too late.

    Break down your project (see tip #1), then create an overall timeline with specific deadlines for each small task. This way, you know you have to finish each task by a certain date. Your timelines must be robust, too – i.e. if you don’t finish this by today, it’s going to jeopardize everything else you have planned after that. This way it creates the urgency to act.

    My goals are broken down into monthly, weekly, right down to the daily task lists, and the list is a call to action that I must accomplish this by the specified date, else my goals will be put off.

    Advertising

    Here’re more tips on setting deadlines: 22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    4. Eliminate Your Procrastination Pit-Stops

    If you are procrastinating a little too much, maybe that’s because you make it easy to procrastinate.

    Identify your browser bookmarks that take up a lot of your time and shift them into a separate folder that is less accessible. Disable the automatic notification option in your email client. Get rid of the distractions around you.

    I know some people will out of the way and delete or deactivate their facebook accounts. I think it’s a little drastic and extreme as addressing procrastination is more about being conscious of our actions than counteracting via self-binding methods, but if you feel that’s what’s needed, go for it.

    5. Hang out with People Who Inspire You to Take Action

    I’m pretty sure if you spend just 10 minutes talking to Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, you’ll be more inspired to act than if you spent the 10 minutes doing nothing. The people we are with influence our behaviors. Of course spending time with Steve Jobs or Bill Gates every day is probably not a feasible method, but the principle applies — The Hidden Power of Every Single Person Around You

    Identify the people, friends or colleagues who trigger you – most likely the go-getters and hard workers – and hang out with them more often. Soon you will inculcate their drive and spirit too.

    Advertising

    As a personal development blogger, I “hang out” with inspiring personal development experts by reading their blogs and corresponding with them regularly via email and social media. It’s communication via new media and it works all the same.

    6. Get a Buddy

    Having a companion makes the whole process much more fun. Ideally, your buddy should be someone who has his/her own set of goals. Both of you will hold each other accountable to your goals and plans. While it’s not necessary for both of you to have the same goals, it’ll be even better if that’s the case, so you can learn from each other.

    I have a good friend whom I talk to regularly, and we always ask each other about our goals and progress in achieving those goals. Needless to say, it spurs us to keep taking action.

    7. Tell Others About Your Goals

    This serves the same function as #6, on a larger scale. Tell all your friends, colleagues, acquaintances and family about your projects. Now whenever you see them, they are bound to ask you about your status on those projects.

    For example, sometimes I announce my projects on The Personal Excellence Blog, Twitter and Facebook, and my readers will ask me about them on an ongoing basis. It’s a great way to keep myself accountable to my plans.

    8. Seek out Someone Who Has Already Achieved the Outcome

    What is it you want to accomplish here, and who are the people who have accomplished this already? Go seek them out and connect with them. Seeing living proof that your goals are very well achievable if you take action is one of the best triggers for action.

    Advertising

    9. Re-Clarify Your Goals

    If you have been procrastinating for an extended period of time, it might reflect a misalignment between what you want and what you are currently doing. Often times, we outgrow our goals as we discover more about ourselves, but we don’t change our goals to reflect that.

    Get away from your work (a short vacation will be good, else just a weekend break or staycation will do too) and take some time to regroup yourself. What exactly do you want to achieve? What should you do to get there? What are the steps to take? Does your current work align with that? If not, what can you do about it?

    10. Stop Over-Complicating Things

    Are you waiting for a perfect time to do this? That maybe now is not the best time because of X, Y, Z reasons? Ditch that thought because there’s never a perfect time. If you keep waiting for one, you are never going to accomplish anything.

    Perfectionism is one of the biggest reasons for procrastination. Read more about why perfectionist tendencies can be a bane than a boon: Why Being A Perfectionist May Not Be So Perfect.

    11. Get a Grip and Just Do It

    At the end, it boils down to taking action. You can do all the strategizing, planning and hypothesizing, but if you don’t take action, nothing’s going to happen. Occasionally, I get readers and clients who keep complaining about their situations but they still refuse to take action at the end of the day.

    Reality check:

    I have never heard anyone procrastinate their way to success before and I doubt it’s going to change in the near future.  Whatever it is you are procrastinating on, if you want to get it done, you need to get a grip on yourself and do it.

    More About Procrastination

    Featured photo credit: Malvestida Magazine via unsplash.com

    Read Next