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Reason 5. Why Your Project Isn't Finished - Motivation

Last week I briefly mentioned the top 5 reasons your project isn’t finished yet. This week we’re going to go over a lack of motivation.

It’s been my experience that it is easy to maintain motivation as long as there is no hard work involved. I have spent many hours of my life starting projects, progressing efficiently for a brief period, and then promptly quitting as soon as the newness of the project wore off. These “projects” included learning to play the harmonica (which is now collecting dust in a drawer), starting a garden (everything eventually wilted), and getting into shape (I am still not Mark Wahlberg). I know that I am not alone.

Every January millions of people flood the gyms to start their goal of finally getting into shape. And you know what? Most of them maintain their resolution-induced motivation for about 10 days and then quit. My friends that are true gym rats hate January with a passion. During those weeks all of the equipment is taken over by amateurs with no etiquette or form.

Research projects are similar. Typically, a researcher spends time crafting an in-depth plan for their project, submits a proposal to various funding sources (government or commercial entities), and prays that they will get enough money to keep their job for the next couple of years. It is exciting to think about the experiments you would like to conduct and the answers you will be able to find. Then your grant gets funded and the work begins. Inevitably, somewhere along the way other opportunities present themselves and you get side-tracked. Or hard decisions need to be made, so you decide to research just a little bit more before to committing down a path that may not succeed. Or you’re asked if you would like to head up a handful of committees at your institution. Suddenly, progress on your project has plummeted like the 2009 stock market.

So how can you maintain the level of motivation needed to finally finish your project?

In general, there are three main philosophies for how to maintain motivation: Team Carrot, Team Stick, and Team Post-it Note.

Team Carrot believes that the mule will walk faster if there is a bright, juicy carrot to be eaten. In other words, rewards are the best way to keep your motivation going strong. To finish your project, they would say you should set up a reward system in which you buy yourself something nice or eat a forbidden dessert for completing a task. The continuous stream of new things will keep you on task they say.

Team Stick believes that the mule will walk faster if it fears being whipped for walking slowly. Punishments or the fear of punishment will prevent you from failing to finish your project. They recommend making bets with coworkers or using a service like to force yourself to achieve your goals.

Team Post-it Note believes that if the mule knew that the farmer needed him to walk fast so that the field got plowed more quickly so they could plant more seed and feed the farmer’s hungry family…he would walk faster. More simply, keeping visible reminders of your goals is the best way to keep your motivation at a functional level. The theory is that if you keep the memory of your goal fresh in your mind, you will be more likely to keep up the work necessary to achieve it.

So which philosophy is the best?

Experts agree that carrots and sticks work transiently and can potentially provide short-term bursts of motivation. The guys at Freakonomics have a hilarious story about how well rewards work for potty training a 2 year old. Tim Ferriss has effective examples of using both carrots and sticks to achieve optimal health in his book, The Four Hour Body. But if you are looking for sustained motivation, internalizing your goals is the best method. In fact, Daniel Pink wrote a whole book, entitled Drive, on what research tells us is the best way to develop and maintain motivation. In his book he goes over various studies that show students, employees, etc. all achieve much better results if they are working toward goals that are intrinsically motivated. In layman’s terms, you’re much more likely to finish your project if you refuse to forget why you started it in the first place.

Here are some tips for how to maintain your motivation and finally finish your project:

  • Keep post-it notes or other visible references of your goal in locations you will frequently see them.

  • Participate in social groups that are made up of people seeking to complete similar projects.

  • Set up daily/weekly reminders to remind yourself of the habits you want to develop.

  • Tell your peers what your goal is and ask for accountability.

  • Treat yo’ self. Feel free to use carrots and/or sticks to give you shorts bursts of motivation.

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