The second part of our feature on ideas from leading scientists and therapists to help you with the long haul of rebuilding your life.
The limitations of cash and carrots
Conventional theories of motivation have been based on the idea of the carrot and stick. To get anyone, including yourself, to do something you have to either offer a reward for doing or a punishment for not doing that thing. In Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink, the author shows how numerous studies have found this to be true only up to a point. It works for simple tasks but when you want someone to do something more interesting, more cash is not the answer.
To be clear, Pink urges employers to pay people enough so that their workers are not distracted by money worries. So when trying this out on yourself it’s best to accept that until you fix your finances, you can’t expect yourself to concentrate fully on anything else.
However, once your bills are covered and you feel reasonably financially secure, the way to make headway is to choose tasks that allow yourself autonomy, mastery and purpose. Or turn that around the other way: if you’re not motivated to do something, consider whether it allows you to make the choices you want to make? Does it allow you to gain more skills or experience in something you enjoy becoming better at? Does the task contribute something worthwhile to the world, your community or your friends and family?
As Pink says in his RSA talk: “treat people like people, not slower, smaller, better smelling horses.” Apply that advice to yourself.
Ease yourself out of procrastination
In The Now Habit, Neil Fiore advises on getting past procrastination.
Unlike the books that suggest simply getting up earlier to get more done or no end of ‘just do this’ solutions, the author says sagely that if you could do those things you’d be doing in them already. Instead Fiore looks at the role played by fear, criticism and self-criticism in procrastination. Instead of saying there’s something wrong with you that’s holding you back, he suggests that it’s precisely our myriad forms of being too harsh with ourselves that can be the problem.
Fiore urges the reader to not let our performance determine our sense of self-worth. His strategies are about taking pressure off yourself, building up your confidence and making life more enjoyable, to get you motivated.
One of his exercises is to write a weekly timetable where you schedule everything except work. It asks you to allocate at least half an hour of play each day. It wants you to book time for socialising, health activities and appointments. It also requires you to book one full day off each week. It aims to force you to make a better life for yourself rather than focusing on only tasks to do and those you’re not doing. A side-effect is that once you’ve filled up a more balanced, healthy week, you realise how little time there is left to do what you need to do and this helps you get a wiggle on.
Gradually you learn healthy habits of encouraging and supporting yourself rather than trying to browbeat yourself.
It made me realise that my procrastination is part of me being in full on teenage rebellion against the authoritarian part of me that piles myself high with never-ending “must”s and “should”s. The book is like a kindly hug, and that alone might help to get you unstuck or able to see your situation from a fresh angle.
Take play seriously
Many books have been written about the importance of play, from filmmaker Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way about unlocking your creativity, through to Pat Kane’s critique of the British work ethic in The Play Ethic.
Psychiatrist Dr Stuart Brown’s research with murderers revealed an absence of play in childhood. This unexpected finding led him deeper into the subject of play and onto founding the National Institute for Play. He says that the opposite of play is not work, it’s depression and without play we don’t develop healthily.
In his TED talk, Brown describes how play can activate parts of our brain that routine tasks leave undisturbed. This allows us to make new connections, essentially to have new ideas. Like all social animals, our species has traditionally used play as a means of communicating and bonding with each other as well as learning together, so play is very important for our mental health too.
A surprising part of the talk is when he mentions how former vice president Al Gore changed from the somewhat wooden persona he projected while running for president, into a far more engaged and engaging person when he devoted himself to environmental campaigning. Brown speculates that the difference happened because Gore gave up pursuing what he felt was expected of him and allowed himself to focus on what he really enjoyed.
He concludes by saying that we shouldn’t try to bring more elements of play into our lives – more play breaks – but rather we should change what we are doing so that all we do is suffused with play.
To help us get on the path towards that, he suggests that we think back to a time we were most lost in play, having the most enjoyable time. Think what it was that made it so enjoyable, pay attention to the feelings of that time and see what you can learn from it and where it takes you.
I try this on myself and remember sunny afternoons in the 1970s when I was always pretending to be either a headmistress or a platoon leader. Playful me loves rules. Surely that means I’m doing it wrong. I’ll try to dig further back.
Meanwhile, do whatever it takes to do right by you. View each sunrise as your personal welcome into the day. Blast out the Rocky theme tune. Get your best friend to tell you, you can do it. Get them to tell you can’t, if that’s gives your engines more of a boost. And make sure you give yourself regular days off. And holidays. A bit of physio. You know, generally be a good boss to yourself.
Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, as depicted by RSA animate
Stuart Brown’s TED talk: Play is more than just fun
First published in Widows and Widowers magazine Issue 14