The Productivity Lie That Won’t Die

Synthetic versus Organic Motivation

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

People who seek out motivation never seem to get enough of it. The feeling intoxicates us like a sugar high, but we crash just as hard. And so we search for more of it to sustain the rush. Affirmations, success seminars, pep-talks and self-help books are examples of this type of catalyst.

Here’s the truth about motivation.

If you rely on motivating yourself to be productive, you likely aren’t productive.

Have you ever attended a “life-changing” seminar only to find your life remains the same? I know the routine. It feels like you’re on the cusp of a breakthrough, and then you lose it. You bash yourself for squandering another opportunity.

Don’t beat yourself up. You never had a chance. The last one I attended some years ago, opened with this question to the audience.

“If a statue was erected in your name, what would it say?”

I raised my hand and asked the most profound question of my life.

“How big is the statue and where is it located?”

The seminar leader lashed out at me for not taking the exercise seriously. Despite the rough opening, I bought into his bullshit.

My mood shifted after four hours of high-fives, hugs, cheers, cookies, cappuccinos, and muffins. I left the building, intoxicated with the belief that my life was about to start anew.

And then I got home.

The drunken feeling dissipated. My life had already returned to normal. Instead of taking action, I put on a movie and poured a glass of wine. I had succumbed to the artificially induced highs and lows of synthetic motivation.

Synthetic motivation — Short-term motivation fueled by an external force.

The promise of synthetic motivation is a lie. It’s a gimmick. You always need more external input to sustain it. You develop a tolerance to these inputs and eventually withdraw.

There’s a more effective catalyst for productivity

When I first began my writing practice, I would reward myself with a square of 85% dark chocolate after completing five-hundred-words. I no longer do that, but the reward helped solidify the habit.

I had read Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power Of Habit, and tried to create my own habit loop: cue, routine and reward.

My cue was a mug of coffee in my home office. Writing was the routine and chocolate my reward.

I now derive pleasure from the act of writing; it serves as my reward. When the action rewards you, the motivation becomes self-sustaining.

Organic motivation — Self-sustaining motivation fueled by the pleasure derived from doing something you find enjoyable and which you possess proficiency.

The better you get at a skill, the more you enjoy doing it. The more you enjoy it, the more you desire to do it. At some point, desire turns into a craving.

That’s the key to productivity.

Identify the work you need to do. Train yourself to crave doing the work.

The process is simple but time-consuming

Select an activity you enjoy. Improve your proficiency so that it becomes more enjoyable, addictive and then self-sustaining. That’s organic motivation. You feel motivated because you’re itching to work on something you love. It doesn’t happen in a day, a week or even a month. It takes time. But so what? It works.

Compare that to traditional motivational techniques, whether it be seminars, webinars, or affirmations. They only work as long as you prime the pump. If you’re too busy priming the pump, you’re not doing anything else.

The activity becomes a craving

Duhigg writes in his book.

“… A cue and a reward, on their own, aren’t enough for a new habit to last. … The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come. “

What if the mere act of performing the activity were the reward? Instead of writing to later satisfy my chocolate craving, what if writing were the craving? I don’t need a cue to desire chocolate. I always crave it.

What if your passion were your craving?

Create organic motivation

Your chosen activity must satisfy two conditions.

  1. You must enjoy doing it for the sake of doing it. I wrote for a long time before I ever made a dime. If you’re a marketer, would you write campaigns just for the hell of it?
  2. You must possess a minimum level of proficiency. You don’t have to be an expert, but you do need to experience growth. A leap in your skill produces a high. Unlike a drug, you don’t build a tolerance to growth.

Two years ago, I started sketching in the evenings. I thought it would be a fun way to wind down and express my creativity without going through the mental exertion of writing. The habit died after six months despite the cue and reward system. I failed to improve enough to see meaningful results. I never developed a base level of proficiency to sustain my interest.

Could I have signed up for classes or hired an instructor? Sure. But I lacked the passion. My interest did not satisfy the first condition.

The five steps of organic motivation

  1. Enjoyable and Critical
    Pick something you want to do every day. Identify the activities critical to your success and happiness. If you’re unsure, try doing a SPUNC log.
  2. Create a reward feedback loop
    Reward yourself for completing your activity. The reward doesn’t need to be extravagant. Pick something simple and easy that reinforces the behavior.
  3. Learn, Do, Measure
    Discover new skills and new ways of improving your craft. Try them out in the real world and measure the results. Read a book. Pick one thing you want to try. Incorporate it into your toolbox and then try something else. Don’t overload yourself with new techniques. The process of mastery is critical. You must always feel like you are growing.
  4. Experience a taste of success
    Success is an abstract term, so define it as you see fit. I define any form of recognition or even an epiphany as a success. It does not have to be external, but if you’re consistent enough, and you put your work into the world, you’ll enjoy occasional accolades. You don’t need to publicize your accomplishments. It’s not my style either. But you should make a big deal out of it in your mind. It builds momentum towards organic motivation.
  5. Eliminate the reward
    At some point, you’ll feel so pumped about doing your thing you will no longer do it for the prize at the bottom of a Crackerjack box. Eliminate it and see if your motivation sustains. Are you pumped to do your work even without the reward? If so, you’ve achieved organic motivation. Don’t fret if you’re not there yet. Go back to your reward and try again after another success.

Experimenter in life, productivity, and creativity. Work in Forge | Elemental | Business Insider | GMP | Contact: barry@barry-davret dot com.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store