Okay, so while self-motivation isn’t strictly about writing, I would argue that writing is almost entirely about self-motivation. I am definitely a list person, an efficiency-addict, and someone who consistently over-commits myself, so productivity and self-motivation are things I spend a lot of time striving for and thinking about. Like many overscheduled, optimistic people, when I don’t achieve the high standards of productivity that I set for myself, I experience crushing guilt. What I’ve learned over the past few years is that while guilt and anxiety can function as motivators, they certainly don’t motivate in a way that’s sustainable or healthy. I realized that if I want to live my life doing as much stuff as I do, I need find a way to motivate myself through positive reinforcement.
positive v. negative reinforcement
There are lots of different camps on positive v. negative reinforcement based on which work better. And I’m not going to claim to know for sure whether one or the other motivates better. I am, however, pretty darn confident that positive reinforcement motivates more healthily.
Guilt or fear driving a last-minute essay in school is one thing, but consistently capitalizing on negative consequences to motivate your entire lifestyle is a surefire way to suddenly find yourself living an unhappy life. If you’re the kind of person who optimistically sets high goals (I am), then you have to recognize that failing to meet these exaggerated benchmarks doesn’t make you a failure.
Plus, if you’re lucky enough to enjoy whatever it is you’re working on, motivating that work with negativity is like being chased down the aisle at your wedding by a rabid bear. (Weird simile translation: It sucks to mar something you enjoy with a negative motivator.)
Here are some signs you might be motivating yourself with negative reinforcement:
- You work in order to avoid consequences (e.g. “If I don’t complete this, then…”)
- You punish yourself for failure (e.g. “I didn’t finish this task, so I don’t deserve to go to that movie with friends tonight.”)
- You don’t allow yourself to do things for personal enjoyment unless you meet certain criteria (e.g. “If I can finish my whole to-do list, I’m allowed to do some reading.”)*
- You feel guilty or anxious while not completing tasks, tainting your enjoyment of other activities.
A good quick-check indicator is to figure out if you regularly reach the end of your day feeling disappointed that you didn’t achieve more, or proud that you achieved what you did.
*For some this might be positive reinforcement, but if your criteria are set too high, this method can result in never allowing yourself to do anything “just for fun.”
how to turn it around
What motivates you positively will be a little different for everyone, but here are some jumping-off points that I’ve found helpful in changing the way I think about productivity.
- Schedule it. Having an overall to-do list can be daunting, especially if it’s way more work than can be completed in a single day or even a single week. Prioritize each task honestly and schedule those tasks into your life — the more specific, the better. By defining an achievable list of tasks for each day, you can complete only what’s rational and feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of each day, rather than being haunted by the things you still have to get done.
- Have realistic expectations. This can be bizarrely difficult sometimes, so if you have a serious tendency to estimate a two-hour task at forty-five minutes, it might help to get some data rather than relying on your flawed estimation skills. Try timing certain tasks (I recommend the app Clocked, which allows you to “clock in” on named and categorized tasks of your choosing and even export logs) and keeping records. This will help prevent you from constructing to-do lists that are impossible to achieve in your intended time frame.
- Remember that for-fun stuff is important, too. When you have a lot to get done, it can be near impossible to justify doing something with the sole purpose of making you happy. But studies show that we’re more productive when we’re happy, so you should consider your mental and emotional health to be just as relevant to your achievement as your actual work. For me, this means actively scheduling in things like reading time, spending time with friends, drawing, playing piano, baking, bike rides, etc. Actually scheduling that leisure time can help lessen any guilt you might feel for abandoning work.
- Set limits. Are you the type to stay up until 3 am trying to finish something you thought you could finish earlier? Being exhausted is a surefire way to make a lot of mistakes, overlook issues, rush a task, and on top of that, spend your next day being less productive because you’re falling asleep. Setting a limit means that you know there’s a safe, stress-free space waiting for you, even if you’re struggling to achieve something. Being willing and ready to take a step back and give a project space to preserve your physical and mental health is paramount.
And of course, if you can make any given task more fun to complete, you should do it! Some things are more fun to do with friends, or you can come up with clever ways to make something not so daunting (for instance, when I don’t feel like cleaning, I set a 5- or 10-minute timer and race the clock. It makes the task itself more exciting, and it gets done and off my plate faster).
The most important thing is to be aware. You can lose years of your life into casual unhappiness by always assuming that anxiety over achievement is normal or temporary — I know this from personal experience. It’s possible to load up your plate with things you want to do, and still not live every day in a state of high stress!
How do you motivate yourself with positive reinforcement? Let us in on your secrets in the comments!