We are more likely to repeat a behaviour when the experience is satisfying.
A team of researchers were struggling to fight deadly diarrhoea that was affecting children in Karachi. They realized that the simple habit of handwashing could make a real difference to the residents' health in a poor sanitation environment. To their surprise, they discovered that most people were already aware that handwashing was important. But they were struggling to a habit out of it.
To solve this problem, the researchers partnered with Procter & Gamble to distribute a new soap brand. The new soap was softer, foamed better underwater, and had a distinct pleasing scent. In short, they made the experience of handwashing more pleasurable.
Within a few months, the researchers saw a rapid shift in the health of children. The rate of diarrhoea fell by more than half.
When handwashing became more enjoyable, people practised it daily and never lost the motivation to do it.
For thousands of years, humans had to think about where to find food, how to avoid predators, and where to sleep. In modern society, however, most of our daily actions are not for immediate rewards. Saving money, exercising, learning a foreign language are things we do to get results in the far future.
Delayed gratification goes against our nature as a species. To sustain motivation, you need instant pleasure. Because if an experience is not immediately satisfying, you will have little reason to repeat it.
Here are four steps to sustain motivation.
1 — Make the Activity More Enjoyable
According to James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, the fundamental rule to behaviour change is the following.
“What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided” — James Clear
If you start a new activity such as writing a book, physical fitness or building an exciting product, you won’t see the results right away, only after a few months of consistent hard work that you will start to notice real progress.
Even though, deep down, you know that this work will benefit your future, without evident progress, you need a reason to stay on track. That’s why immediate gratification is essential. It keeps you excited while the real rewards accumulate in the background.
We all tend to remember experiences by their endings. The secret then is to attach immediate gratification to the end of your activity.
For example, you can schedule a nice walk or go to the mall with your best friend right after finishing a three-hour session of intense work. Do you have a favourite show? Watch an episode right after you finish exercising.
That’s how the residents of Karachi learned to practice handwashing. The new soap made them experience immediate gratification right after the activity (i.e. beautiful scent, soft and clean hands). Simultaneously, the long term benefits (i.e. killing bacteria, avoiding diseases and staying healthy) accumulate.
The key to overcoming immediate gratification is not to overcome it in the first place! Do not resist the true nature of your brain—practice hooking immediate rewards at the end of your important activities. Your mind will remember the experience as more enjoyable.
2 — Make Progress Visible by Tracking Daily and Hourly Work
What’s the common personality trait between Jerry Seinfeld, Benjamin Franklin, and Charlie Munger? They all make their daily progress visible.
“The most effective form of motivation is seeing progress.”
When working toward your goals, nothing is more satisfying than noticing the progress you make. Progress makes you feel successful, even in a small way. The most effective form of motivation sees progress.
To make progress noticeable, track your daily work as a whole and the hourly work on specific tasks.
Use a visible calendar for daily work. Put a cross sign every day of the week you did work and leave the days you didn’t work blank.
For hourly tasks, use a checklist with a progress bar (a feature available in most productivity apps such as Trello). Tick a task right after you finish working on it. Watch the progress bar moving forward.
Tracking habits and making progress visible is a powerful technique to sustain motivation. It makes you fall in love with the process rather than the outcome. It feels good to see your streak of Xs on the calendar. You are prompted to keep it going. You feel joy and satisfaction each time you cross an item from your checklist while watching the progress bar getting closer to 100%.
But there is another major benefit to tracking your work habits. It allows you to visualise how you actually spend your time daily. This makes you more honest with yourself about the amount of work you are putting toward your goals.
Also, it helps you reflect on ways to optimise your work for better performance, including setting more realistic deadlines.
“If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it” — Peter Drucker
3 — Don’t Fall into the All-Or-Nothing Mentality
Let us be honest. We often fall into an all-or-nothing mentality. We think that if we can’t do something perfectly, then we shouldn’t do it at all. The all-or-nothing mentality is a dangerous pitfall that can derail your productive routine.
Everyone has days where they miss to rise to their expectations. We have a bad performance, a bad workout, or a bad day at work. But the difference between high achievers and the rest is their ability to rebound quickly. Breaking the work chain once in a while doesn’t matter as long as they reclaim their progress fast.
The most important rule is not to break the chain more than twice. You might want to spend a day resting or enjoying leisure time with your loved ones. Just make sure never to miss twice. Observe step 2 by leaving the day blank or adding a distinctive note.
“Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit.” — James Clear
Even if you do less than you hoped for, doing the minimum will reaffirms your desired identity.
It becomes evident that you are the type of person that always shows up after a setback.
Remember never to be a harsh judge of yourself. As long as you have the will to go back on track, you will keep pushing.
4 — Establish an Accountability Contract
This is by far the most pragmatic step to sustain endless motivation.
It stems from the following rule. “If the cost of procrastination is greater than the cost of action, then we tend to be more productive”. To make it clear, you must add a punishment for not doing the work you are supposed to do.
The best way to create this punishment is through an accountability contract. Enforce this contract between yourself and your accountability partner (if it’s a human) or specific software.
To ensure this technique's success, you must make the punishment happen right after avoiding doing the work. There can’t be a gap between the action and the consequences.
“Make the costs of violating your promises public and painful.”
Example of an accountability contract with a human partner
Imagine you decide to become fit by hitting the gym for half an hour every day at 8:30 AM. You write down an accountability contract between you and a partner. For example, your best friend or a family member. You state that you will give 200$ to the partner. The partner cannot spend the sum unless there is a breach of terms.
The terms state the following. “You must share your location with your partner. Either through your phone or other means. The sharing happens during the training duration (i.e. every morning between 8:30 AM until 9:00 AM). Each time you miss one day of training, the partner will have proof of it. As a punishment, they have to spend 10% of the sum on that day as they please”.
Example of an accountability contract with a software tool
You can automate the accountability contract using a piece of software. For example, if you want to wake up by 6:55 AM every weekday, then schedule an automated email. The email goes at 7:00 AM to your manager or a person you admire, saying, “I am a lazy person who doesn’t like to do serious work”.
The only way to abort the sending of the email to recipients is to wake up in time.
Accountability contracts add a social cost to any behaviour. They make the costs of violating your promises public and painful.
High achievers seem to have endless reserves of motivation. The truth is, it all comes to the right techniques. Use the 4 steps described in this article to stay very productive.
- Make your activities more enjoyable. You will want to come back to them.
- Make progress visible. Track your work habits.
- Bounce from setbacks quickly. Never miss twice.
- Have an accountability system. Experience the cost for your inaction.