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Carrots, Sticks, & Blinders – Love Your Work, Episode 293

January 12 2023 – 07:30am

carrots-sticks-blindersYou can’t get through a project on momentum alone. But there are mechanisms you can use to tweak your motivation and make better use of what momentum you have. These motivation mechanisms aren’t one-size-fits-all – you have to choose which ones work for you.

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Motivation requires self-mastery

As I talked about on episode 291, getting through a creative project is like skateboarding through a halfpipe. You have a lot of motivation going into a project, due to your high expectations. Even if your expectations were to be met, it would still be impossible to coast through to the end of a project. There’s too much friction along the way.

Experienced skateboarders know how to soar out of halfpipes, because they know how to tweak their momentum. Experienced creators know how to follow through on creative projects, because they know how to tweak their motivation. But gaining this experience is a catch-22: You can’t finish projects if you don’t know how to tweak your motivation, and you don’t know how to tweak your motivation if you haven’t finished projects.

You have to learn, through trial-and-error, what keeps you motivated. Finish smaller projects and build your shipping skills along the way. But it doesn’t have to be guesswork. If you know what motivation mechanisms are at your disposal – and the strengths and pitfalls of those mechanisms, you can more quickly gain an understanding of your motivation.

Three motivation mechanisms

There are three main motivation mechanisms: carrots, sticks, and blinders. The carrot and the stick are classic motivation mechanisms that have been in the scientific literature on motivation for a long time. If you’re riding a horse, there are two ways to motivate him: dangle a carrot in front of his face, or strike him in the flank with a stick. The carrot represents the promise of potential reward, the stick represents the threat of potential punishment, and what I call blinders block out distractions and keep the horse focused on the road ahead.

We’re attracted to rewards, and we avoid punishments. If we set up our projects so action leads to carrots and inaction leads to sticks, we’ll get motivated and maintain the momentum to finish – in theory.

Carrots: internal and external

One way to work carrots into your projects is to have promising data. If you have market research that suggest you’ll earn a lot of money if you finish the project, you might have an easier time getting motivated. Or, you might merely be so curious about the outcome of the project, that motivates you to follow through.

You can also use external rewards as carrots. For example, you might promise yourself a vacation if you finish a project. On a more granular level, you might promise yourself a piece of chocolate for every 100 words you write.

Sticks: internal and external

One way to work sticks into your projects is to do part of a project that will result in a punishment if you don’t finish the rest of the project. I called this “The Whip,” in my book, The Heart to Start. When I create a new email course, for example, I use the whip. I set up a landing page promising emails on a schedule, then send traffic to the landing page. Once I have sign-ups, I’m highly motivated to finish writing all the emails in the course, as the promised dates approach. This same tactic has worked for other people who have tried my “Explosive Email Course” formula.

You can also use external punishments as sticks. You can promise to pay your friend $100 if you don’t finish your project by a certain date. On a more granular level, you can punish yourself for behavior that doesn’t drive your project forward. Maneesh Sethi, who I interviewed on episodes 13 and 117, created Pavlok, a wristband you can program to shock you when you do things you’d rather quit. I once used it to quit Facebook, and it was shockingly effective.

Blinders: physical and mental

Carrots can reward you for the behavior you want to be motivated to do, and sticks can punish you for what you don’t want to be motivated to do. Blinders can keep you more focused on what you want to be motivated to do, while blocking out what you don’t want to be motivated to do.

Blinders can be physical, or mental. If you have a dedicated office, or space you do your work, that’s a form of physical blinder. By working in that space many times, your mind has been trained to focus on work when in that space. As I talked about in Mind Management, Not Time Management, even if you don’t have much space, you can set up certain cues in your environment to serve as blinders. When I was first starting on my own, in a tiny bedroom in San Francisco, I transformed that space from bedroom to office through strategic use of a room divider, aromatherapy, and lighting.

Physically separating yourself from a potential source of distraction is another type of physical blinder. If you put your phone in another room, or in a lockbox with a timer, that’s a blinder. By using a “grippy” instead of “slippy” tool, you’re also using a blinder. There are many options of distraction-free writing devices, but I write my first drafts on an antique typewriter.

Rules and schedules as mental blinders

Rules and schedules can serve as mental blinders. Simply by deciding that you will or won’t do something within some period of time, you focus your mind on the target behavior, while blocking out distractions. The first-hour rule is an effective blinder: Spend the first hour of your day working on your most important task. You can get a lot done in an hour, and can usually hold off any other activity for that short period of time.

Mental blinders with secondary benefits

You can also use mental blinders not only for the benefits of the behaviors they promote, but also for the secondary effects of those behaviors. The ten-minute hack – or setting a timer for ten minutes to focus on one task – isn’t powerful so much for the work you do in those ten minutes, but for the momentum it creates. Ten minutes is an easy decoy goal that short-circuits your ego’s excuse engine, but once those ten minutes are up, you usually have the momentum to keep going. On the contrary, “cheat days,” whether when dieting or reducing, say, social media intake, can let the superego take a rest, and let the id blow of steam. It can be hard or even detrimental to quit things cold-turkey, but if there’s one day a week you cheat, it can make the rest of the week tolerable.

Pitfalls of motivation mechanisms

As you can see, there is a huge variety of motivation mechanisms you can use to keep yourself going when projects get tough. But the motivation mechanism that works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. And some mechanisms are prone to particular pitfalls that others aren’t.

Rewards lose effectiveness

First, some of the pitfalls of these mechanisms. The biggest problem with carrots is eventually you get your fill of carrots. This tends to be more of a problem when the rewards you’re using are external, and not an integral part of the project. If you’re, say, giving yourself a piece of chocolate for every 100 words you write, there’s a good chance you won’t be as motivated by the tenth piece of chocolate as you were by the first. But even when the rewards are integral to the project, you can tire of those rewards, and need to search for another source – as I talked about in my reflections on fifteen years as a creator on episode 283.

Rewards can backfire

Also, external carrots especially can make doing the work more about the destination – the carrot dangled in front of you – than about the journey. External rewards can actually reduce your motivation. Behavioral scientist Dan Ariely described on episode 51 that Intel lost productivity when an experimental monetary bonus was removed – relative to more integral rewards, such as verbal praise.

Rewards require discipline

When self-administering external carrots, you also need to be disciplined enough to dole out the reward to yourself properly. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how giving yourself chocolate for every 100 words could backfire.

Punishments can lose effectiveness, backfire, and require discipline

Sticks can be prone to many of the same problems as carrots: The punishment may lose its effectiveness, doing the activity while motivated to avoid punishment may cause you enjoy it less, and you have to be disciplined enough to administer the punishment for it to matter.

Blinders entrain behavior

Blinders tend to have fewer problems than carrots or sticks. They don’t use external stimuli, so there’s less chance of your motivation getting misdirected. Instead, the more you use blinders, the easier the target activity tends to get. As the neuroscience saying goes, “Neurons that fire together wire together,” so each time you do the target activity, it’s easier to do it again. Each time you work in your home office, you train yourself to work when in your office. When you spend the first hour of your day working on your most important project, you make it easier to do it again tomorrow.

Blinders are nearly foolproof

Blinders are nearly foolproof because the source of your motivation stays within the project or the activity itself – and that’s the best source of motivation. So if you must use external carrots and sticks, do so sparingly. If you’re relying on external rewards and punishments to motivate yourself, or if you can’t find the self-discipline to administer your own blinders, that’s a bad sign. You clearly don’t enjoy the activities involved in completing the project, and/or completing the project isn’t meaningful enough to you to be a source of motivation.

Be an expert on your personal motivation mechanisms

There’s of course a lot of research on motivation – how effective carrots, sticks, or even blinders are – but none of that matters as much as how each of these motivation mechanisms work for you, personally. A motivation mechanism, such as external rewards, may backfire in the confines of a scientific study, in a context different than your project, and averaged out amongst the study subjects, rather than on an individual basis.

If you want to finish lots of creative projects, you need to become an expert on your own motivation. Be a curious observer of yourself, and how you respond to carrots and sticks, internal and external, and how well you can administer and react to your own blinders. You’ll get through more projects, and each time you do, you’ll learn a little more about how keep and build upon momentum to get through bigger and bigger halfpipes.

Image: Park of Idols, Paul Klee

Thank you for having me on your podcasts!

Thank you for having me on your podcasts. Thank you to Paul Millerd at The Pathless Path.

As always, you can find interviews of me on my interviews page.

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Theme music: Dorena “At Sea”, from the album About Everything And More. By Arrangement with Deep Elm Records. Listen on Spotify »

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