Motivation is one of the most ephemeral concepts of self-improvement. It is inconsistent, illogic, you cannot count on it, and it comes and goes at its will.
In other words, a pop star eager for attention.
On a good day, motivation can give us incredible boosts of performance, so everybody seeks it. For this reason, everybody tries techniques over techniques to make it stay. But the only way of keeping a rude pop star where she stands is by tricking her.
Therefore, to boost your motivation and your productivity at its peak, use these two simple tricks. First, lock your shallow activities, and then improve your rewarding system.
But first, let’s analyze how motivation works.
The Neuroscience of Motivation
So what is motivation?
According to psychology, motivation is the process that initiates, guides, and maintains goal-oriented behaviors. This is why people behave in a certain way, based on their life vision and goals.
But since our life vision depends on many parameters, motivation splits into two types: intrinsic or extrinsic.
Intrinsic motivation is usually the most powerful type of motivation because it arises from within. It includes behaviors like finishing a personal project, a challenge, or maintaining a strike of habits.
Extrinsic motivation, instead, is weaker because it comes from the surroundings of the individual. Usually, it includes concepts like social recognition, money, power, and projects that others expect from us, like finishing school.
Intrinsic motivation is easier to manage because it comes from your personal needs and can reach spikes easier. But if you use the right system, you can improve and boost both. So what type of motivation drives you doesn’t matter because even an extrinsic goal can become a personal challenge if you treat it right.
But how does motivation work?
How Does Motivation Work?
Motivation is not that complicated as it may seem. In fact, its life splits into three stages: activation, persistence, and intensity.
The first stage is the effort you put into starting any goal-oriented action. This is usually the easiest part and also corresponds to the honeymoon period.
Then, there’s persistence and intensity. The first is the repetition of activities necessary for the goal. The second is the depth of the sessions spent on those activities.
Depending on your motivation levels, persistence indicates your long-term commitment to the goal. Intensity, instead, can vary widely and represents your daily commitment. If one of those two parameters drops, it means that your motivation is below the average level, and you need to do something to boost it.
Two Tricks to Boost Your Motivation and Productivity at Peak
Our everyday life is made up of a chain of actions chosen by our brain between infinite possibilities. Each activity has a cost and a reward, and motivation reigns over those actions related to intrinsic or extrinsic goals.
But the problem with motivation is that sometimes it drops, maybe because of a bad day or a temporary switch of focus and interest towards something else. In those moments, you need to have a system to enhance your motivation.
Rewarding systems have become quite popular in the self-improvement environment, but they never worked for me. Every time I tried one, I noticed how they rewarded long-term actions but never disincentivized the short-term ones. So I decided to use rewards (unlocks), punishments (locks), enhancers, and barriers. Because when motivation drops, the cost of the action grows, while the reward shrinks or delays in time. For this reason, the only way of doing the work is by locking all the other activities until we finish our productive session.
The Equation of Motivation
To make it easier, let’s transform the entire choosing process into a simple equation.
Any activity has a cost, which is positive, and a reward, which can also be negative (punishment).
When our brain chooses which action to perform, it subtracts the cost from the reward of each activity and selects one of the higher results.
Ranking = Reward — Cost
So if you want to modify that equation, you can act in two different ways.
1 — Lock/Unlock the Competition
To improve the ranking of one activity, you need to increase the reward value for that activity to make it stand out.
To do that, you can take some rewards from the shallows activities like watching television and give them to your goal activities. This way, you increase the ranking for valuable activities and decrease it for bad ones. Also, you can set punishments for effortless actions until the reward becomes negative.
By rewarding and punishing, you will lock some of your activities (their ranking becomes negative). And the only way of unlocking them will be to do your productive session.
For example, if you watch more than two hours of videos before 8 p.m, you should give up all the socials for the rest of the day (punishment/lock). And to maintain the equation balanced, you can continue using socials for the rest of the day only if you work two hours on your long-term project (reward/unlock).
The lock/unlock system boosts your persistence because it forces you to keep working on your projects if you want to open the pleasurable activities. But if you exaggerate with shallow activities, the system locks them again.
2 — Build Barriers and Enhancers
In addition, you can add enhancers and barriers to your system to ease some of the activities and complicate others. Enhancers (positive) and barriers (negative) are units you add to your equation to manipulate the ranking.
Here are some barriers:
- Disable notifications on your phone/PC from all social networks.
- Log out from your entertainment accounts.
- Close all unused background applications (including your mail).
- Leave your phone in another room.
By doing that, you add up a couple of clicks to access instant gratification, which most of the time will make you resist the urgency of having it.
Here are some enhancers:
- Keep your desk clean.
- Have everything you need already set or easily reachable.
- Keep your work accounts already logged.
If you build enhancers and barriers correctly, you can boost the second parameter of motivation, which is intensity. The firsts will improve your ability to reach deep work, while the seconds remove any distractions from your environment.
When I started using this simple system, I soon found its main flaw: daily-oriented rewards and punishments. So to solve it, I decided to reset rewards or punishments only on a weekly or monthly basis.
I’ve seen this error in many rewarding systems where the punishment is limited to the daily time frame. So people respect their system the entire day, and then, in the evening, they can break every rule because it doesn’t matter anymore.
However, this behavior is dangerous because breaking the rules softens your system. So if you trick the punishments once, you will do it again and again until the entire system doesn’t work anymore.
In the beginning, I was doing the same. Then, I decided to keep the consequences until the end of the month or the end of the week.
From that moment, the strength of my system improved while its flaws diminished.
So if you want to trick motivation to stay, you can try to work on its persistence and intensity. With the lock/unlock method, you can freeze some actions to increase the first parameter. With the enhancers and barriers instead, you can facilitate or complicate an activity to improve the second.
Still, whatever you choose to do, stay true to yourself. Don’t cheat, don’t reduce punishments, or magnify rewards without any reason. Keep the equation correct — whatever you remove, you must add somewhere else.
These are the two simple tricks you can use to boost motivation and productivity at a peak.
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Article first published with The Ascent, a Medium Publication.