I have been increasingly berating myself in many areas of my life over the last couple of weeks. I’ve found myself dragging my feet with work, with exercise, with routine; all of which has created an underlying sense of frustration, as well as growing sense of urgency and anxiety…and the consumption of one too many glasses of red wine.
‘Why do I feel so lacklustre; so drained?’ I have continually asked myself. ‘Why do I feel nothing but demotivation; as if everything’s such as chore?’
Apart from the obvious self-destructive futility of such self-criticism, the answer to my lack of motivation is simple: – I have turned these things into work.
I have placed such excessive importance on everything I do that my usual Stoic care-free indifference to just about everything (a mindset that has taken me years to nurture) has been abandoned to the wolves almost without realisation; replaced with a sense of pressure, of urgency, of necessity to perform.
Even my real passions – reading, learning, playing my guitar – have felt as far removed from passions as they could possibly be – they have transmuted into things that ‘had to be done’…which ironically has led to them being done less and less.
‘You haven’t got time to waste…come on, you have to get this done, to succeed…or else!’ has been the foreboding, incessant mantra of the drill-sergeant in my head.
Whilst I haven’t exactly ground to a halt under the strain of this self-inflicted performance anxiety, I do know that left unchecked that is ultimately…and probably very quickly, what would happen.
It’s the stress fuelled mindset that led me to underperform for years; to spend most of my days (and nights) compulsively smoking one cigarette after another, stuffing my face with Big Macs and pizzas and staring blankly at the TV instead of just getting on with things; all done with the single goal of escaping the intolerable burden of life.
Of course, life is not a burden; neither should it ever be made into such. If it’s a perception you ever find yourself lugging around, it’s one to unceremoniously jettison as quickly as you possibly can.
Yes, life can present many a difficulty and challenge; but if we treat those challenges akin to matters of life and death, they mutate like malignancies into far more destructive foes. They engulf us with fear and worry; and everyday challenges become a cancer of the soul – intolerable burdens not necessarily of reality, but of the mind.
Well, it is the source of my motivation that has become subconsciously corrupted in the last few weeks; and therein lies both the problem and the solution.
I have become engulfed with the desire to achieve various tangible outcomes – to perform at a certain standard and to realise specific goals; and consequently my actions have fallen down that slippery slope of becoming a means to an end as opposed to an end in themselves.
I Don’t Do the ‘W’ Word…
The above is of course, the very definition of ‘work’. And as the chase of external reward has increasingly become the source of my motivation, so too has a psychological can of worms regarding success and failure stripped me of my raw enthusiasm, my creativity, my interest and curiosity…even my peace of mind. All the things in fact, I rely on to get ahead.
The real irony is that I know how vital intrinsic motivation – doing something simply because it stirs your curiosity and interest – is to human performance; and how a focus on external incentive can absolutely crush that intrinsic drive.
In an oft quoted landmark study Undermining Children’s Intrinsic Interest with Extrinsic Rewards, psychologists Lepper, Greene and Nisbett prove the point well.
They took three groups of young children, all of whom had routinely displayed a keen interest in drawing during their school playtime breaks. Out of these three groups, the children in one group were promised a ‘Good Player’ certificate – personalised with their name and adorned with a blue ribbon – which they’d receive if they agreed to draw. The second group weren’t lured with a reward beforehand, but were treated to an ‘unexpected reward’ of the same blue ribbon embossed certificate if they had decided to partake in the drawing session.
The third group, just like in life…were promised nothing beforehand…and they got nothing after.
It was when the psychological dust had settled a couple of weeks later that things got interesting. Secretly observing the entire collective of children two weeks later during a school playtime break, the researchers noted that out of all the children, those who had previously been promised a reward for drawing had become pretty much disinterested in spending their leisure time engaged in the same activity.
The reward, at a subconscious level, had excised the ‘fun’ aspect of drawing for these kids; it had turned a previously pleasurable and intrinsically satisfying pursuit into work…into a chore.
Now I am a big kid for sure; I know that I’m particularly vulnerable to the above psychological trap. In fact, there is no better way to ensure I don’t do something than to tell me that ‘I must do’ it or promise me a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
But it’s not just children and big kids in their thirties who are liable to fall prey to the demotivating effects of extrinsic reward. The behavioural psychologist Edward Deci profoundly surmised the extent of this human vulnerability in a 199 meta-research paper that stated:
Careful consideration of reward effects reported in 128 experiments lead to the conclusion that tangible rewards tend to have a substantially negative effect on intrinsic motivation.
The fact is we all have an extremely powerful internal drive; it’s part of human nature.
I have quoted a billion and one times Abraham Maslow’s inspiring insight into the human psyche, but it makes the point so well here, I shall do it again:
Humans have a higher nature which…includes the need for meaningful work, for responsibility, for creativeness, for being fair and just, for doing what is worthwhile and for preferring to do it well.
In other words, we don’t need to be coerced – by ourselves or anyone else – into doing ‘worthwhile things’. It comes quite naturally to us to want to achieve and excel.
Unquestionably in fact, the most effective way of corrupting that powerful internal drive is to shift the focus to the external…to live with the attitude ‘I will do this in order to get that’.
Goals, Goals, Goals…
I know what I’m saying is likely to open up a can of worms regarding the pursuit of goals.
Am I saying that we shouldn’t have them; that we should never pursue anything for external reward? Most of what we do after all, often has an ulterior motive at some level or another: – be it increased wealth, influence over others, a need for approval and respect, to look sexier to the opposite sex (or the same sex if that’s the side your bread is buttered on), the desire to advance our careers…or to live in a bigger house and have a faster car.
That would be to entirely miss the point though. It would be to suggest that without the pursuit of those extrinsic rewards you would lose all motivation to do anything; that you’d instinctively prefer to sit in front of the TV stuffing your face with Doritos and Pepsi day-in-day-out, 16 hours per day.
The point is, those external rewards don’t help you to achieve anything; in fact they hinder your instinctive higher nature – as you’ve seen above, the science above backs up my claim.
Our human nature is the opposite: - to reiterate the great words of Maslow yet again, to do ‘worthwhile things…and to do them well’. External rewards, despite our own (and societies) obsession with them, don’t even enter into the motivational equation; in fact, they’re often a bad thing.
The moral of the tale…
Strip away your desire for external rewards, be free of them. Focus instead on the intrinsic worth of what you’re doing: – the sense of purpose it gives you, the natural curiosity and interest that it evokes within you.
Paradoxically, that shift away from the pursuit of extrinsic goals will better increase your odds of achieving them – because acting simply through purpose and passion provides an unquenchable source of motivation that an external reward can never emulate.
It’s when your actions are directed purely by purpose that, to coin the immortal lyrics of Mark Knopfler that, “You get your money for nothin’ and your chicks for free”.
I have developed something of a penchant for quoting Bon Jovi lyrics of recent, and so as to not break that tradition, here’s another one that right now, is helping to drag me back out of the wilderness of performance anxiety and stunted motivation back into the self-perpetuating oasis of internal drive:
If there’s one thing I hang onto
That gets me through the night
I ain’t gonna do what I don’t want to
I’m gonna live my life
Shining like a diamond, rolling with the dice
Standing on the ledge, show the wind how to fly
When the world gets in my face
Have a nice day!
Nods, Winks and Interesting Stuff…
Thank you Pauline…
Pauline at Reach Financial Independence has selflessly mentioned my work on her blog several times over the last few weeks, which really has been appreciated and deserves top mention…and I even have to thank her for this idea. I have to admit, I’d usually prefer watching paint dry than either read about someone’s day-to-day life or anything remotely related to finances but…I like Pauline’s blog a great deal. Updates about her trials, tribulations and successes as she carves out a new life by the shore of a beautiful Guatemalan lake are almost as good as East Enders. And whilst my concentration does start to wane when she devotes blog space to banking stuff (sorry Pauline) I still have to say, it’s always very level headed advice. She offered some interesting food for thought about the perils of selling yourself short this week, which although was about selling your work short online, is pretty much applicable to any aspect of life…most definately worth a read.
Everyday observations and life lessons…
CJ and Tammy at The Great Jolly Hoombah always offer an eclectic mix of interesting, sometimes abstract perspectives derived from their everyday lives. What do you do when your medical cover sky-rockets out of control and yet you can’t find an alternative provider? Well CJ and Tammy were not gonna take it and looked for proactive alternatives in order to mitigate the loss. What do you do if you’re on the receiving end of unwanted darts lessons from an overly forward stranger whilst you’re trying to enjoy a relaxing night out at the pub? If I didn’t find them attractive, I’d be tempted to snatch the dart off them and stab ‘em in the eye; CJ fortunately showed a little more good spirit…at least until he got home and wrote about it.
How many times do we do this?
Tony at We Only Do This Once always offers some nugget sized words of wisdom about everything from dealing with debt, to minimalist living…to topics in a similar vein to my own. I particularly enjoyed Be Willing to Look Stupid which nicely highlighted the limitations we place on our own advancement through our irrational need to always look competent; as well as the importance of enjoying the process, as opposed to focusing all your attention on the end result, when it comes to achieving goals.