My Anecdotal Though Vaguely Scientific Criteria for Reward Systems
I was recently having a discussion at Getting Things Done NYC Productivity Meetup and we were discussing motivation, something I’d like to further discuss in both Meetup groups (DC and NYC). I realize that there’s not much out there regarding reward systems in personal productivity. So, my goal here is to apply related methods currently in societal practice that work (namely gambling and games) and science to lean on regarding rewards to enable motivation.
REWARDS AS MOTIVATION
I won’t delve too much into this topic presently, but my understanding is that motivation is not an emotion and it’s a factor for acting toward an intended outcome (in highly simplified terms). The main premise to understand is there are several ways to motivate (intrinsically (for the love of doing X) and extrinsically (to get Y for doing X)). Extrinsic reward systems, along with a mission/purpose, accountability and the right resources, are definitely keys to personal productivity success. Sometimes we don’t see extrinsic rewards, though they’re there. When you graduate (handing you that piece of parchment paper), get a new job (delivering brand-new business cards with your name on them), or score that coveted 100-point center shot in Skeeball on the boardwalk (producing countless tickets from the machine), there are extrinsic reward systems all around us. Each plays a motivating and demotivating role in our productive lives.
GAMBLERS, DRUG ADDICTS AND KINDERGARTNERS
While we may not think so plainly about it, humans do two core activities in life: to please (joy-based) or to avoid (fear-based). As we learn from science, this has much to do with chemicals that release in our bodies and brains to engage us to act. And, most people who seek to increase motivation are really seeking to decrease instances of procrastination. Therefore, if we can increase the chemical releases that trigger us to act, voilà! We have more opportunities to be productive. This leads me to gamblers, drug addicts and kindergartners; they all are in a state where they have lots of chemicals pushing them to act and we can learn a thing or two about rewards thanks to them. Gamblers get their fix at casinos or even playing the Mega Millions Lottery when they buy their ticket as well as when they learn about the outcomes (and especially when they win). Those addicted to chemical substances, on the other hand, find pleasure when they reach the state of “high,” as well as when they remember back to moments when they were feeling good under the influence. Kindergartners are a hotbed of neurological activity as their young brains are poised to soak in education just for the sake of learning. Did you know that the more gold stars you give a child in Kindergarten the less likely they’ll be intrinsically motivated to engage in that activity going forward? Our DNA (at that age) tells us learning is interesting; in our prepubescent minds learning for the sake of it is the reward and it’s culture (read, nurture) that tells youth otherwise.
GAMES WITH REWARDS ARE NO GAME OF CHANCE
Although, Mancala and Backgammon are frequently disputed over as being the oldest games in the world, my understanding is that Senet (the ancient Egyptian board game) is the eldest of them all. Notwithstanding who is the oldest of all games on Earth, today games are providing us with a plethora of data about human motivation. Pay attention to your motivations when it comes to games and you’ll learn how to get yourself into action. Whether they’re old-fashioned board and card games, social games like Farmville or Mafia Wars, or platform games (from your DS to Wii to XBox), you enjoy gaming because it provides you with a variety of challenges. Ignoring the social approach to motivation for purposes of this discussion, we are all motivated by phases, stages, levels and the points associated with the complexity or difficulty of the challenge and subsequent achievement. If these didn’t exist, games just wouldn’t be fun. I could go further by saying that things don’t become fun until the challenge is presented and associated with an opportunity to conquer the challenge.
TIME OFF FOR GOOD BEHAVIOR
No, I’m not talking about getting paroled. And, I have my theory about time off (for employee sabbaticals and children’s summer breaks) and their effect on productivity, but that’s for another day. However, you must remember that time off from any system while you’re trying to develop it as a habit is no bueno, as a friend of mine often says. Motivation is a seven-day habit, so it doesn’t take nights or weekends off, vacations and certainly doesn’t make excuses for not showing up. American culture has bred into our psyches that non-activity is rest, relaxation and rejuvenation. It’s anything but…! Activity breeds all those things. I’m not talking about sleep here, people. I’m saying that passively sitting in front of the television as a way to “unwind” is not relaxing (it’s mind-deadening for many!), can increase stress levels and is certainly not rewarding. The mind must be engaged to get into the habit of acting (in essence, motivation) and lapses in activity, barring sleep and sickness, is what ruins the learning process of motivation. It teaches you falsely that procrastination and not doing is a means to pleasure when it’s just a means to avoidance.
WHAT’S ALL THIS GOT TO DO WITH ME?
Well, if you’re building a reward system for yourself as another option for motivation, you should try to incorporate as many of these factors into or out of your reward system for optimal success. Using the above as sounding board for guiding principles, here’s my checklist for an efficient and effective reward system.
- It should be easy to understand the rules and the outcomes (since your goal is to be productive, don’t make the management of the reward system more difficult than just doing the tasks needed to complete a goal/project);
- be genuinely interested in the rewards that are in the challenge you’ve set forth, and if you cannot, find or create better rewards;
- make your rewards system support you through a daily habit not just one-off projects;
- have as few rewards as necessary, but no fewer, to make a corollary of Einstein’s witticism. Remember, mission/vision/purpose is the highest motivator and rewards are lower-level triggers to overcome inertia;
- make sure that rewards are tiered and commensurate with the magnitude of the task/project/goal, meaning bigger rewards for higher goals;
- counter to some people’s beliefs, rewards are best when based on activity not on passivity or non-response; therefore, make rewards for doing things not for keeping yourself from doing things (e.g., don’t do this: I get to eat a brownie for not having any brownies this past week.); and,
- there’s an old adage about sowing your seeds in the morning and the evening as you don’t know which seeds will be the successful crops. I think that’s true about your motivation. Reward yourself for work and personal goals; effort is more important than outcomes. Progress is the mission.
I welcome your thoughts on your own reward system. With that, I’ll give you 10 points if you memorize all seven factors on my checklist! ;-) Go!