Motivation Hacking

I never do as much work as I’d like to. Regardless of the importance of what needs to be done I often find myself sucked down the endless wormhole of internet distractions flitting from Kylie Jenner’s Snapchat Stories to YouTube videos on such subjects as ‘Why no Aquarium has a Great White Shark’. Even when I do manage to break free from this cycle it’s sometimes just to catch up another instalment of Casey Neistat’s daily vlog which is like the YouTube equivalent of crack cocaine rather than an end to my procrastination.

It’s not even like I never get work done. During exams I was able to muster the motivation to get some productive revision done, and for short periods of time when I’m super psyched about a project I can work with almost no resistance.

The problem is that when I do manage to do work it is inevitably entirely unsustainable. While I might be able to enjoy focused work when I’m excited about an idea that I want to bring to life, eventually my reserves of enthusiasm begin to run dry. So after just a day or sometimes a matter of hours I experience burnout and I’m return to the cycle of mindless digital wandering trying to force myself to regain my focus.

In fairness I’m often tricked. Websites like Quora and content like Ted Talks have the outward appearance of being super educational making me feel like I am actually being productive learning about everything from Robotics to Quantum Physics, but ultimately I’m just passively accumulating knowledge that feels useful as its packaged in an intentionally addictive format rather than actively learning which is exponentially more effective. For me when I’m not engaging with material I’m really just floating in a pseudo-productive zone as a way of delaying doing the important work that I need to finish.

While it’s true that psychology has shown us that procrastination can have value in giving our subconscious mind the space to process problems and think creatively, in order to get any significant benefits from this effect you still actually have to do some work. Besides, unless you are encountering useful problems that need solving there won’t be anything meaningful for your subconscious creative mind to be working away on in the first place. I’m painfully aware of the fact that time refuses to wait for anyone to ‘feel like working’ so to stop myself wasting the precious moments I have on earth I know that I should be taking drastic measures.

For this reason I have decided to focus on learning how to hack my motivation. Over the years I have read about virtually every productivity trick out there having got tremendous value from reading books such as the Productivity Project and the Power of Habit, but when it comes to actually implementing what they suggest for a sustained period of time I fall short. Furthermore I’m always having to change between needing to work on studying, personal projects or work for other people so trying to build habits is nearly impossible when the very nature of what I’m doing is never the same.

Travel is also my worst nightmare when it comes to productivity. While it’s probably possible to build habits that allow me to continue working as I travel, which as an aspiring digital nomad is something I eventually hope to do, at this point where I’m only spending a couple of weeks a year abroad I want to make the most out of travel time as much as I possibly can.

In general I think it’s important to disconnect from work and everyday life while travelling on a short term basis in order to help reduce the problems of endlessly accumulating stress but also to properly experience and immerse yourself in your destination. While this might help maximise the value of travel from an educational and enjoyment perspective this means that I effectively have to start from square one in terms of motivating myself to sit-down and actually get stuff done.

I came across an excellent post on Zen Habits (ironically whilst I was procrastinating) about running motivation hacking experiments and this idea really appealed to me. I’m currently building a site where I learn something new every thirty days and share my experiences as I progress. As a result the idea of spending a fixed period of time testing something ensuring that I can’t simply quit when the going gets tough is something that I believe can be tremendously helpful.

Over the next few weeks I will be trying to build a motivation system that will allow me to maintain sustained productivity even after periods away from work. In order to do this I will be testing out a variety of different strategies and techniques before tweaking them to optimise them for how I like to work.

As I run these experiments I’ll be sharing my thoughts on what worked and didn’t for me on this blog, which will also give me an extra layer of accountability to improve my focus and get more done.

In an age where our attention is being hijacked by notifications, social media and easily accessible content I believe that the value of focused work is becoming increasingly important. For the kind of knowledge work that will form the backbone of the digital economy one of the most important skills that a person can have is the ability to focus and develop an immunity to the distractions vying for attention.

If anything I’ve written about in this most resonates with the problems you find yourself having I would strongly suggest trying your own motivation experiments or try out what I’ll be testing over the next few weeks to improve the quality and quantity of the work that you do.