In morning math classes, motivation is essential and, usually, scarce.

Have you ever thought about what motivates you to do whatever it is you do every day? About why you go to school or work and spend so much time working? Chances are you have, and you certainly wouldn’t be alone. If you scan the self help section of any bookstore, you’re likely to find that a huge number of the books are about how to motivate yourself to do things that you really don’t want to do: how to stick to a diet, how to stop procrastinating, etc. Motivation and lack of motivation are such popular topics in our culture, but why is that? From our self help literature, western society seems like a pretty unmotivated group of people. I’m not sure how to fix the problem, and if I find out I’ll let you know when the launch date for the book is, but I’ve got a few ideas about the cause.

Cause 1: Our Motivators Suck

A large part of the problem, in my opinion, is the fact that the things that motivate us are horrible motivators. Back in the day (the day of the caveman,) motivators were fairly immediate and straight forward: eat or die; run or die; mate because your brain tells you to; beat the alpha male of the group to gain power. But since then we’ve learned that we can manipulate cause and effect to make the future better, so by waiting until you’re bigger and stronger to challenge the alpha male, and maybe even working out during that time, you can increase your chances of beating him up and making him look stupid, thereby securing your place as the leader of the pack. Unfortunately our physiology hasn’t quite caught up to our psychology, because “now” is still a very strong motivator, and that’s where we have problems.

Most of our motivators are in the future. Study now to get a better job later; work now to get a promotion later; eat less now so you can be a sexy beast later. These motivators are all very abstract, not guaranteed, and quite far in the future. For example, eating less might still not make you a sexy beast (depending on what you eat, your metabolism, what you consider to be a “sexy beast,” etc,) and even if it does it’s probably going to happen one to two years from now. So you have to gamble with your future, trying to maximize your odds of getting what you want later, while also trying to figure out what you should do now so that 1) you get whatever future it is you’re “gambling” for, and 2) you stay motivated to pursue the same goal later. It’s a lot to deal with, and it’s hard to force yourself to do it.

Cause 2: Our Motivators Are Expensive

So our motivators aren’t guaranteed to pay up when we reach the deadline, and they take a long time to do so, but here’s the real kicker: they cost! Maybe it’s work, maybe it’s money, maybe it’s not eating cake (which is a very high price indeed,) but most of them cost something. Think about school: assuming that you’re attending or have attended university, you’ve spent the vast majority of your conscious childhood in some form of educational institution, and all for the privilege of working even more and getting paid for it. How’s that for motivation: work so you can keep working. It’s obviously more complicated than that, but when you’re frustrated with school or your job, that’s how it seems, and you’ll have a hard time convincing yourself otherwise. As I said, now is a very good motivator, especially when later is expensive.

Our motivators today have a relatively high cost associated with them, and the cost is not usually proportional to the gain. For example, I’m in Engineering at McGill, a competitive university, which means that I’m going to be working my butt off until I get my degree, and probably after as well. Some person, we’ll call him Mervin (because Mervin is an awesome name,) is attending a lesser university and studying some ridiculous subject for the sole purpose of being around other people his age with whom he can get hammered. Twenty years from now, I’m leading the design team for a robot that does something really exciting, and I’m getting an average to higher-than-average salary. Mervin, however, decided to take a management class, barely passed, went into business, impressed a few bosses with witty banter and a “go-get-’em” attitude (i.e. he’s doesn’t mind stepping on people or sucking up to the boss,) and is now CEO of the company that employs me and my design team. Because Mervin is a “profit now and who cares what happens to the company later” type of CEO, he’s making a cool 10 million a year by doing nothing while I work all day to make him tons of money. Even though I have done and am doing more work than Mervin, I don’t get as big a pay off, simply because of the path I chose, and because I’m not willing to cut people down in order to rise above them. How’s that for motivation?

So… What To Do About It?

The purpose of this post is not to say, “Life sucks! Enjoy now! Forget tomorrow!” The purpose is to point out why our motivators are so frustrating, and to try and explain what is so unrewarding about these motivators so that we can improve or supplement them to make them better and easier to follow. My post on Studying with Games is an example of this idea. You could reward yourself when they do something difficult that doesn’t pay off immediately, but as I discuss in the aforementioned post, loss is a better motivator than gain. Now if everything you do has a loss motivator attached to it, you’re not going to enjoy life very much, so I suggest saving that tactic for things that are really important, or prolonging the deadlines a bit (e.g. instead of saying, “I lose $20 if I don’t do this assignment,” say, “I lose $70 if I don’t study 10 hours a week for the next two months.” Also, don’t attach your rewards or losses to grades, because you don’t have as much control of your grades as you might expect, especially in university.) Perhaps rewards are a good motivator for you; maybe you should try them. Or maybe you could try creating some sort of game driven by tasks that you want to complete. You could even create a game board based on the events of your every day life; it might sound silly, but if it got you a 3.8 GPA or a promotion would you do it?

The main point is this: if whatever is motivating you to do what you do isn’t enough, sweeten the deal or sour the consequences. That is, if you don’t have enough motivation now to keep working for something you want later, add another incentive to keep doing it. You can add a “game layer” to the activity (the board game idea,) add a reward or loss motivator (the Studying with Games strategy,) or do something completely different; the point is to do something that will make your effort worth while now. Work doesn’t have to be boring to be effective, and I would argue that work done in a boring manner or setting is actually less effective than the same work done in an enjoyable manner or setting.

I’m hoping to implement some such short-term motivators in my life some time soon, so I’ll try to post my results on this blog from time to time. If you try this suggestion or use a particular strategy to motivate yourself, I’d love to hear about it!


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