Everyone has dreams about what they want to do in the future. Write a novel, learn a new language or make a trip around the world. Yet it can be hard to motivate yourself to work on realizing these dreams on a consistent basis. How can we align our daily activities with our long term goals? I address this question with a three part series on goals. In this second part we look at one of the key challenges for mid- to long term projects: motivation.
During my teenage years I worked in a bakery during weekends. This required getting up early and performing physically intensive work. After a while I did many of the tasks on autopilot. However, there was little to look forward to, other than doing the same things again next week. After a day’s work I always went home exhausted: physically and mentally. While the people I worked with were friendly, I had some income and I felt I was doing something useful, the job did not intrinsically motivate me. It had low value for me. Hence, it did not take long for me to quit and move on to other things.
Making dinner, going to the toilet or taking a nap. All of these things come naturally as your body generally tells you when to do so with hard to ignore signals. However, for higher level goals these signals do not exists, except perhaps a gnawing sense of unease. Hence the need to learn to motivate yourself to actively move towards those goals. In order for this to work you need to adopt a motivation system that applies specifically to you. The key is finding out what drives you and aligning that with your goals. Consider that while my work in the bakery aligned with the goal of getting income, it did not align well with my preference for learning.
What drives us? Throughout history simple reward and punishment systems have been used to ‘motivate’ people. In many societies, wealth and status form the main scales on which these extrinsic rewards and punishments are applied. If you perform well at work you get a raise: a reward. However, if you do not, your salary remains the same: punishment. This ‘carrot and stick’ approach may work to a degree for some specific tasks, but it seems rather primitive. At best it can get people to comply, at worst it produces bitterness and resentment. It may win their minds, but definitely not their hearts. Can we do better?
An alternative is thinking of motivation as something intrinsic. The three main ingredients of intrinsic motivation: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Firstly, autonomy: self-directed people perform better. Think back to when you were told to do something versus when you were given a goal combined with the freedom to find your own way to achieve it. That second approach likely felt better. Secondly, the path to mastery: sharpening your skills, learning new things and eventually mastering something. The most recent skill you mastered may have taken a lot of effort, but when you finally did, you likely felt a lot of satisfaction too. Finally: a higher level purpose. This should be something that extends beyond yourself and your own interests. Remember the last time you did something for someone else, or for a higher cause, and how that made you feel? Doing something you believe in is very powerful.
As an example: say that you want to learn an instrument. You need autonomy. So, first you dabble in it, then you take regular lessons with a teacher that clicks with your learning style and gives you the opportunity to bring your own selected music. You improve as you put in regular time, the constant feedback loop with your teacher helps you progress towards mastery. Finally, you may want to play that special song for your family or friends, or even play in public to brighten other people’s day: a higher-level purpose.
Even with the right drive, it can be hard to stay focused on our goals. We want to do other things as well, and rightly so. Leisure time, which can involve all kinds of different activities, is no less important than working towards goals. However, many people do not consciously make a choice for leisure time, instead their attention drifts away from something they really did want to work on. This guilt-ridden dark zone is the worst place to spend any time. It is not really leisure time at all, it is putting other things off: it is procrastination. This is more or less the opposite of motivation, but the cause and solution is more complex than one might think at first. Let us dive deeper into the causes of procrastination.
Think back to your childhood. You sit in a room in front of a large white table on a small yellow chair. On that chair is the only thing in the room with you: a sweet pink marshmallow. If you manage not to touch that marshmallow for the next fifteen minutes you will be greatly rewarded with: two marshmallows. What do you do?
This experiment was done with children in the late sixties and has been repeated many times since. The objective: to find out a person’s capacity for delayed gratification. Some children found very creative ways to tackle this problem. For example: taking the marshmallow, scooping out the inside with one finger, and putting it back as if nothing had happened. Nevertheless, a key finding was that the children that managed to delay their gratification were more successful later in life. They had better test scores, better jobs and better health.
You can train your ability to delay gratification. However, at the heart of beating procrastination is aligning rewards with your current ability to cope with delayed gratification. If you require frequent rewards: divide tasks into chunks small enough to get those frequent rewards. If you can deal with less frequent rewards you will likely be able to handle larger chunks.
If you ever applied for a job, you know how hard it can be. Applying to dozens of jobs, only to be rejected. The first time they found someone better suited, the second time you were just too late, the third time they did not even bother to give a reason for the rejection. The more applications you sent in, the lower you believed your chances were. You might have ended up being downright pessimistic. Expecting nothing in return for the effort you put in. This downwards spiral is one of the reasons people procrastinate: low expectations.
Low expectations means believing that you no longer expect any effort on your part will lead to success. The trick here is to change what success is: the reward. Our natural tendency would be to say the reward is getting that job you want. However, this reward is very unpredictable and for a large part also beyond our own control. It does not make much sense to criticize yourself for something that you do not control, does it? In this example the reward should shift to the investment of effort and time. Each letter you send is a success, or even better: each minute put into the job hunt is a success. Instead of your rewarded feeling depending on something beyond your control, now the reward is tied to something that is within your control.
When your expectations are low: divide the task into small chunks of time and actually reward yourself for completing each chunk. Rewards are personal and should be tailored to you, something you enjoy: playing a video game, going outside for a walk or calling a friend for a chat. Rewarding yourself consistently for any effort you put in gets you into a positive feedback spiral, which lifts you out of your low expectations.
You really needed to work on that project proposal. However, since you did not like working on it, you instead ended up surfing the web until it was late at night. You felt bad about it, but had no choice but to go to sleep. The next day you repeated the same routine, until the day came when the deadline was tomorrow and you had to clear your schedule and work on it all day long, to deliver only a mediocre end result. This is a second reason people procrastinate: low value.
When a task is of low value, you do not like the activity itself. We all put off what we dislike. For this case rewards can also help. However, as a first action you should increase the task’s value. One way would be to make it more meaningful for yourself: perhaps the project proposal can be aligned with a personal goal that you feel passionate about. If writing the proposal is too easy: make it harder, and if it is too hard: make it easier. For accountability: tell a friend that you are working on it, and by when you will have completed it to create some peer pressure.
When the value of a task is low, align it with something you feel passionate about, adjust the difficulty so it is challenging but doable and use external accountability. This will make the task more intrinsically rewarding, increasing its value.
You decided to book a tour through a foreign country. Since you like to be on top of things you booked your flight six months in advance. Plenty of things still needed to be arranged, like a plan for the tour itself, places to stay and tickets to major attractions. However, you would get to that later, or so you thought. As your holiday approached, work, social media and other responsibilities distracted you. You kept putting off finalizing your holiday plans. Weeks later, as you packed your bags you realized there was no plan. Arriving at the airport you had to pay an extra fee for your checked luggage, finding a half decent hotel room took hours, and all the major sights you wanted to see were fully booked for the duration of your stay. This is the final main way in which people procrastinate: impulsiveness.
Impulsiveness is the process of being continually distracted by ‘other’ things. The problem is that these other things are either things that you do not initiate: the doorbell rings, your phone beeps or someone steps into your office; or they are unconscious consumption-based habits: checking your e-mail, reading social media or watching news. The more you are interrupted or fall back to unproductive habits, the less likely you are to get into a flow state that helps you move towards your goals.
To curtail impulsiveness one obvious way is to eliminate the distraction. You can disable your door alarm, turn of your telephone or go out of office to a place where you can not be disturbed. Disabling notifications for e-mail, social media and news can help a great deal. If you are still tempted: indulge, but set a timer for five to fifteen minutes tops, then get back to your task.
To help you reach your goals it is essential to stay motivated. Motivated, that is, to work consistently towards your goal. For this you will need to set up a motivation system that is tailored to you. It should provide a high degree of freedom on how to approach the next step towards your goal, a sense of increasing accomplishment as you take each step and ideally a higher-level purpose. As goals differ widely, so do systems: each goal may require its own specific system.
Even with systems in place, there will be the tendency to procrastinate for various reasons: you do not think you can do it (low expectations), you do not have the patience to wait for the reward (low delay tolerance), you do not like the task (low value) or you get distracted (impulsiveness). Keep your expectations positive by rewarding yourself for putting in effort that is under your control. Divide your tasks into chunks of time that are small enough to align well with the reward frequency that best fits your current ability to delay gratification. Increase the value of the task by making it challenging enough for your current capability, making it about something you care about and letting others know you are committed to it. Finally, decrease your impulsiveness by eliminating distractions and indulging into temptations only for a short time.
Everyone struggles with motivation. Setting up a reward system helps you move towards the next step. Noticing that you are procrastinating and consistently dealing with it helps you stay on course to reach your goals. Consciously choosing when to engage in leisure activities will make you actually enjoy them. With some forethought, everyone, including you, can stay motivated.
- Pink, D. H. (2009) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.
- Steel, P. (2010) The Procrastination Equation
- Vermeer, A. (2012) Get Motivated
- Muehlhauser, L. (2011) How to Beat Procrastination
- Clear, J. (2014) Delayed Gratification