Personal Motivation

March 2, 2009

The first project I took on after college was a 3D painting program. I predicted that it would take me three months to write it, and it did. Later my manager told me that I was good at making such estimates. I tried really hard after that to get my estimates right and to hit them.

Common sense tells us that criticizing someone will motivate them to try harder, and praising them will let them slack off. Here the praise motivated me. Why? I felt that I had built a good reputation, and keeping a good reputation is easier than building it. I was therefore motivated to never disappoint my manager. I knew that a single missed estimate would require many more good ones to regain his trust.

I use this technique on my son all the time. I’ll say things like, “You’re really good at sharing, Milo,” after he shared a toy. Even if he’s not all that good at sharing, this will (I hope) motivate him to maintain that good reputation.

I hate to floss. I suppose we all do, but I have found it particularly hard to be motivated. This is because, without exception, at every cleaning the dental hygienist tells me that I should floss more. There’s never any praise. This is even after the periods when I did a pretty good job flossing. I think if she said, “You’re good at flossing, I can see that,” I would floss a lot more. It wouldn’t even need to be true, though it shouldn’t be completely false or I’ll see through it.

Twice at dental cleanings she told me that I’m good at keeping the far ends of my teeth clean (the sides of the very back teeth). Guess which part I’m most excited about brushing?

It’s counter-intuitive, but someone who’s doing a 75% job at something can probably be motivated to improve by pretending that you think he’s doing even better than that. It’s difficult, as a manager, to do this. You feel like a 75% achiever doesn’t deserve the praise, and they don’t. But it may be the best way to get the results you want.