What I learned about motivation so far

So I’ve been reading various articles on the web on how to get myself motivated to do just about anything. In this post, I try to compile what I’ve learned so far.

Associate tasks with rewards

Basically make a personal connection and promise that ‘if I manage to do task A, I can allow myself to get reward B’.

This sounds simple and effective but in some cases there seems to be various drawbacks. First of all, this is I guess what they call ‘extrinsic motivation’, i.e., it makes you focus on the reward rather than the task. For simple rudimentary tasks it seems okay. But if the task is difficult, you might suffer greatly during the process of completing the task.

Over time, your want for the reward might lessen as well. For example, if you find the task too difficult, you might rethink that you do not want the reward as much, after all.

The rewards also generally come in the form of foods (extra calories) or items (require money, plus your belongings grow over time). You might also need to discover new rewards, since there seems to be a problem if you just take away something you’re used to every day as the reward (you might undergo withdrawal etc which might hamper your cognitive abilities).

So overall, this method works in some cases but not in others.

After this method, there are two big methods with strong camp in each: break into small tasks and time boxing. Both these methods basically trick you into getting started in a slightly different way.

Break into small tasks

Basically break the task into (very) small tasks, each task so small and easy that you can’t just say no.

Then you do one small task each day until you complete the whole thing.

For example, to write a novel, you write one (yep, just one) sentence a day.

You might be wondering, ‘but it would take too long before the novel is done!’

The idea is that is the minimum requirement. You’re actually free to do more. It relies on a probability that once you get started, you might want to keep going (law of conservation of momentum etc).

So even though it’s supposedly just to write a sentence each day, you might end up writing 100 sentences or more on a particular day.

And even if you end up burning yourself out, you just need to write a sentence the next day. The task is so easy that it’s hard to break the daily chain.

Time boxing

In time boxing, you set up a specific duration to do a particular task. For example, 30 minutes to do homework.

When you begin the timer, during those 30 minutes, you would focus solely on the homework, trying not to be distracted by anything else as much as possible.

(p.s., you should start counting only when you start to do the main task, i.e., not including the set-up and preparations etc)

When those 30 minutes are up, regardless of whether you finished the homework or not, you stop.

You can look back and say, ‘wow, I actually spent 30 minutes on homework’. 30 minutes may not be much, but it amounts to something, too.

The difference with break into small tasks is that the former makes the task so small and easy, while time boxing gives you a promise that what you do would eventually stop (instead of indefinite), so that you can rest, recover and do other stuffs.

Both methods can apparently make people feel easier to get started. One of the worries and fears of doing a task is that it might end up taking much longer than expected. Time boxing removes that fear by putting a time limit, and even though you might not complete the task, you still feel like you did a significant part of it.

(If you’re racing to get the task done within the time limit, you might be doing it wrong. It’s a plus if you can finish the task within the time limit, but I think you should feel okay about not finishing it and then setting up another time box in the future)

Without time boxing, when you’re doing something, you might also have these depressing thoughts that you should be doing something else (the problem of having too many choices). With time boxing, you can overcome these thoughts by thinking that the decision is already made and there’s no way to change it until the timer ends.

There are various other psychological reasons why time boxing is a good idea, though including many of them here might be too much ^^;

Time boxing has an evolved form, which is scheduling.


Scheduling is basically time boxing plus you set it at specific times each day, i.e., recurring time boxing, and you stick to the schedules.

Apparently, that’s what some great writers do; they make schedules, e.g., write from 9am to noon everyday, and stick to it.

Over time it becomes a routine, and since they know that they have to write from 9am to noon, they become less confused about how to spend their day on daily basis (problem of having too much choices), freeing their minds to focus on the task (and other more important things).

With normal time boxing, some time is spent to decide what to do and how long. With scheduling, you basically decide once, so you don’t have to think about it again on the next days.

Which method is better?

Associate tasks with rewards has some limitations outlined above.

Break into small tasks might sound like a good idea but sometimes I can’t help but think that I’m tricking myself; since for example even though I say ‘write a sentence a day’, I know that I should do more (since one sentence a day is indeed too slow to write a novel).

Time boxing on the other hand doesn’t feel like a trick. It’s basically me making a former decision on how to spend the next 30 minutes or so of my time and not regretting it.

I have other inklings about the differences between break into small tasks and time boxing, but I think in the end both can work reasonably well.

Not every task fits scheduling I think (some tasks are done and that’s it, right?), but I guess the kind of activities that is beneficial for lifelong self improvement can use this.

All these methods can work in suitable cases. Roughly:

rudimentary -> associate tasks and rewards
not as worried about completing it soon -> break into small tasks
the rest -> time boxing
professional -> scheduling

Not the whole thing

I left out that if you can somehow come into conclusion that your task is very important, or beneficial to other people besides yourself, you might get a boost of motivation, etc.

And just like scheduling is kinda like time boxing + daily aspect of break into small tasks, you can mix and match the 3 methods (though not always for the better). For example, ‘minimum time boxing’, i.e., you can actually do more after the time ends.


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