This is part 2 of the Flake-Friendly Productivity series
If you’re interested in behavior (human or animal), you’ve probably heard about positive reinforcement.
The quick version is: any creature with more than about three brain cells will tend to adjust its behavior to move toward pleasant sensations and away from negative ones.
But if you ever read Daniel Pink’s book Drive, you may be skeptical about the role rewards can play in getting us big-brained humans to do things.
Here’s a video summarizing Pink’s key points:
Pink summarized research suggesting that incentives (rewards) for performance don’t actually work the way we think they should.
The research showed that big rewards actually tended to undermine excellent performance, except for extremely simple tasks.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t get benefits from incorporating smart rewards into your “getting stuff done” plan.
Sometimes, intrinsic motivation just isn’t enough to get the job done. If you’re facing a task like that, here are some techniques I’ve found useful.
Tip #1: Don’t try to reward performance; reinforce behavior
My friend Susan Garrett is a genius dog trainer, and (not coincidentally) also a multiple world champion in dog agility.
Susan doesn’t give her dogs steak when they win a gold medal, and kibble when they place third.
She reinforces the behaviors that tend to eventually lead toward a successful performance.
For an agility dog, that might be sitting alertly to wait for a cue, then driving explosively toward the first course obstacle.
For those of us who aren’t lucky enough to be border collies who live with Susan Garrett, we can still benefit from this approach.
We can reinforce the behavior that leads toward the performance we want.
If you have issues with procrastination, motivation, energy levels, or distraction, the behavior you want to reinforce is starting.
In other words, sitting down and bringing your attention to your project.
Every project is made of a whole bunch of times when you sat down and brought your attention to it. Think about how you can reinforce that behavior by associating it with something nice.
You can do that with anything you find rewarding, like:
- A lovely cup of coffee or tea
- Some music you love (if that won’t distract you)
- A small corner of work space you truly enjoy being in (try not to use it for anything other than work)
- Lighting a candle that smells good to you
- Some tasty mints or other small treat
Brainstorm your own ways to make it pleasant to start a work period.
Then practice starting, and re-starting, and starting again, and making sure that experience is rewarding.
One reason we tend to procrastinate on work (often in favor of cheap dopamine hits from social media or games) is that starting work isn’t associated with anything pleasurable or fun.
Tip #2: Make a dopamine sandwich
It’s also smart to develop a pleasurable habit that you always do when you come out of a work session.
When you complete a session (for example, your break timer comes on for a pomodoro), do something quick and fun.
Play with your dog, do a few minutes on a hobby, or listen to a great tune. (This is the perfect time to switch to music that you would find too distracting to work to.)
When you associate a positive experience with starting and a positive experience with ending, you’ve made yourself a dopamine sandwich — work in the middle, surrounded by fun.
Keep repeating that to build a strong mental habit. The treat doesn’t need to stay the same every time, but you should try to make sure there’s always a treat.
Over time, you’ll start to be the kind of person who gravitates to getting more work done.
And even in the shorter term, it will get easier to get over that “ugh, I don’t feel like it” hurdle.
Tip #3: Leverage a delayed treat
Sometimes, you’ll have a medium-sized task that’s so boring and annoying that you put it off for weeks. (Or months. Or more.)
When these can be broken into smaller tasks, you can use dopamine sandwiches to move them forward. But another option is to give yourself an incentive for getting the damn thing crossed off.
This works best if the task is something well-defined, and that could be completed in a reasonably short amount of time. It doesn’t work nearly as well for projects like “write a book” or “run a marathon.”
But for something like “make a stack of annoying phone calls,” give it a try.
The idea is to take a somewhat self-indulgent purchase (or other behavior) that you’re probably going to do anyway.
Maybe you’ve been eyeing a new houseplant, a pair of cute jeans, or some supplies for your hobby. This should definitely not be a budget-breaker — it’s something you want and will make use of, but that you could also delay buying for awhile.
I find it’s particularly useful if it’s the kind of thing you need to do a little research on, like picking a color or deciding on a configuration.
Assign that purchase as your incentive for completing the annoying project.
To make this work, you need:
- A well-defined project finish line
- A reward that’s genuinely fun to think about
- Realistic, sufficient time and other resources to complete the tasks
One caveat: Don’t use this to overspend, or to buy something you would otherwise have passed on. The point isn’t to add to clutter or screw up your finances.
The point, instead, is to harness the energy from a fun purchase or other treat (that you were going to make anyway) to power through a boring or annoying roadblock.
It’s like solar energy, but for your to-do list.
Your incentive also doesn’t have to involve spending money. You can use anything that counts as a medium-sized treat for you.
Autonomy, mastery, and purpose are still really important
Pink’s book comes to the conclusion that autonomy, mastery, and purpose are what drive high performance when we’re talking about the complex work of the 21st century.
Those three are absolutely the wisest goals to chase in the longer term.
That means work that gives you autonomy to do things your own way, that leads to satisfying mastery, and that is aligned with your sense of purpose.
That’s the kind of work that will bring you the most satisfaction, and that you’ll end up getting really good at.
But you can have all the long-term motivation in the world and still struggle with sitting down to work.
Contrary to what some might tell you, having a “Big Why” is not enough for everyone to get focused and do great things.
When your intrinsic motivation doesn’t seem to be doing the trick, play around with some incentives.
- Use small rewards to reinforce the behavior of starting work (again and again).
- Build a rewarding dopamine sandwich around your work periods, so you associate them with pleasure instead of stress or boredom.
- And harness the energy of your medium-sized treats to give you energy for tasks you don’t want to do.
September 12-16, get live support and encouragement for your big project
Next week (September 12), I’m holding a free focus sprint, and you’re invited. Just drop your details in the form below (beneath the comment section) and we’ll make sure you get the invite.
This is a great time to make significant progress on a tough project. You could use the time to:
- Plan your next launch
- Make progress on a book
- Get your finances organized
- Declutter your work space
- Map out the final quarter for the year
- Polish your website
- Tackle the homework for the course you bought this summer
Or anything at all that’s hard to work on!
You don’t have to make every session, and it’s completely fine to show up late or leave early. All focus is good focus!
I’d love to see you there!