I've noticed something about my motivation structure. This might be contingent on my level of stimulation, not universal. But, positive reinforcement doesn't function well for me as a reward. Negative reinforcement is awesome. I don't like it when some system does "nice" things that attract my attention for doing the thing, except on fairly short focused timespans. I love it if I can make something annoying go away by doing the thing.

I've tried habit-building apps like Epic Win and Fitocracy (HabitRPG seems to be the new popular one), which give you points each time you log progress, let you "level up" after a certain number of points, and sometimes have cute sounds or animations to make it feel more like a reward. But I hate logging things, and the apps make me hate it even more because they cost time and attention. Fitocracy made me hate taking the stairs for a while. Trying to reward myself for doing to-dos, checking email, and so on, has the same problem - so far, I've ended up more annoyed by the attentional cost of any reward system than pleased by the reward.

By contrast, I find Inbox 0 to be intrinsically motivating. I took a few hours to slog through my email. It was easy to stay motivated once I got into the mindset of, "Email, you shall trouble me no longer. I will end you. AVADA KEDAVRA!" Now it's easy to get motivated to bring my inbox back to zero. I’m a little worried that many of my high-motivation moments feel like casting the Killing Curse on tedious things, but the worry relies on fictional evidence.

Beeminder occupies kind of a weird middle ground. It has some of the things I hate about positive reinforcement, like having to log things. But it also has punishments, which I don't hate quite as much. They are net energy drains for me, but this is okay in the few instances where they force me to do something that's energy-positive. (It's also less offensive to be punished by a punishment when I fail than to be punished by a "reward" when I succeed or punished every time I log data.). Because of this, right now I'm only Beeminding one thing: my weekly strategic review. If I don't do that, my life actually gets materially worse, so it's worth the energy to force myself to do it.

Removing impediments is also generally nice and effective. I got myself to work out, not by pumping myself up for it or rewarding myself for doing it, but by removing all the barriers - adjusting my schedule in advance so I'd have available time for it, ordering Kettlebells so I wouldn't have to go the gym, even planning out which exercises to do in which order so that I don't have to make decisions in the moment. Removing energy leeches is net energy-positive for me, not energy-negative. I should probably structure my to-do list around this. One way to do this would be to have a "today" list that gets the items I genuinely expect I can actually do today if I am good.

I do have positive motivations, but reinforcement isn't much of a problem for them as far as I can tell - mood is. I do better trying to boost my mood as a whole than trying to drum up motivation for one specific action. More importantly, I should learn to ignore most motivational advice that relies on positive reinforcement. Now that I know that I'm unusual in this way - or at least, that I fall into a motivational category that's not universal - I can use this information to better predict in advance which techniques will work for me and which ones won't.

One exception is social validation. While initiating an interaction to thank me for a minor thing isn't very helpful, if you're already talking with me, the extra attentional cost to me of receiving positive reinforcement is minimal. It's also helpful because information about what behavior is wanted is often a limiting factor to me in social situations, in a way that it isn't in, for example, workouts.

If I've done something unusually helpful, I like to hear about it even if that involves starting a new interaction, but that's not because it reinforces my behavior - that's just because it feels really good.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *