Does the type of motivation matter for your performance?

This weekend I’ve got lots of creative work to do, but find it hard to get going. What would be the best way for me to motivate myself?

A. Focus on negative consequences

B. Use a reward

C. Be stoic and just do it

Does it even matter, as long as the work gets done?

Turns out, it does matter which motivation I choose.

In a 2001 study by Friedman and Förster, 2 groups of college students were asked to solve a simple maze with a cartoon mouse in the middle. The first group were directed to help the mouse find its way out to a piece of cheese waiting at the exit. The second group was told to help the mouse escape the talons of the owl hovering overhead (and no cheese). Both groups solved the maze at about the same rate.

All participants were then asked to do a creativity task. The group who’d been helping the mouse find the cheese were twice as creative as the group who had been fleeing the owl. Twice as creative!

Verify this with your own experience:

Think of an “owl” teacher or parent who “motivated” you by using verbal punishment, ready to pounce on your slightest mistake. Yes, you worked hard for them, but think of the quality of the work you did trying to please them. Stress-filled and less pleasurable, yes?

And now bring to mind another teacher or parent who was just as discerning, but focused you on a reward, or even better, on the pure joy of your creative process. Rapid pleasurable progress guaranteed.

But sometimes you must flee the owl without any cheesy reward: the new piece to learn for a difficult conductor, the ridiculously difficult homework assignment, the report due in the morning.

You do the work, get the job done and survive another day.

But doing this day after day quickly leads to misery. I’ve been there—have you? When I was 29, I realized I needed something to motivate me on a much deeper level.

That’s when I found meditation. It saved my life. It brought me in touch with the greatest motivator there is—JOY. It is this inspiration that I turn within to find, for although rewards can work short-term, JOY has an unlimited drive to share itself. It inspires my mind and energy to flow in a positive direction to get the job done.

Try this:

The next dilemma you find yourself in, focus not on the problem, but on the solution. Attune yourself to the flow of inspiration, and to quote the song we are learning in our BRAVO Youth Orchestra:

Keep your eyes on the prize…

and HOLD ON!

I’ll save you some cheese.

The Mouse, the Cheese, and the Owl

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