11 February 2019

My learning - Part 15 - Motivation

Motivation vs Energy

  • Motivation is the "fuel consumption". High motivation (to do something) means I can even gain energy from performing that particular activity while low motivation means I have to spend energy to force myself to do it.
  • Energy is the fuel but it's not clear to me exactly what that means. It's partly "physical energy" like the kind I get from a healthy lifestyle but it's also willpower and cognitive energy... and possibly something else.
So when I speak about motivation I speak about making things effortless to do and when I speak about energy I speak about my capacity to do these things even when I'm not motivated.

With all that being said, the explanation above is a massive oversimplification but I think it's good enough to understand this post...

Why I learn

I use to learn not because I wanted to be great but because I hated not to be great. It might not sound like much of a difference but it is:
  • If you want to be great you will seek out better competition; situations where you're likely to fail but likely to learn because that's what challenging activities do.
  • But I wanted to avoid not being great meaning I tried to perfect my skills in isolation, where no one would see me fail (judge me) and when I felt like I was ready I would challenge people I naturally assumed would perform worse than me.
This was actually a surprisingly effective way to make me learn because you can be sure I prepared myself for challenges I didn't control (like school) and since I was constantly "practicing learning" I became a pretty good learner... but neither an appealing nor a harmonic one.

I'm not sure exactly when and why but around high school I started challenging my self-image as a greatness seeking individual and quickly learned it was fake. My first reaction was "let's fix it". When fixing it turned out to be a lot harder than I thought I went "screw this, let's just accept this is who I am". I went with this attitude for a few years but something was different. Now I noticed how annoyed some people got and how much faster some people progressed by jumping straight to the expert challenges while I was stuck repeating the challenges I felt sure I would beat.

So I finally started the long journey of changing my "why". The problem was "not avoiding not being great" is not a "why", it's... nothing. So to succeed I had to find a new "why" which also turned out to be a lot harder than I thought. Long story short: If I wanted to change my "why" I had to program a new "why" and attach such strong emotions to it that it simply outperformed my old "why". This is a work in progress since around 2005 and to be fair this is the first time I've actually tried to articulate my new "whys" so they're not as elegantly described as I think they can be:
  1. When I manage to do or understand something new I get a sense of accomplishment. When I manage to make someone else do or understand something new I get an even stronger feeling of accomplishment. This feeling of accomplishment is a strong emotion; it makes me feel proud of myself.
  2. I'm a curios human being who loves exploration. Trying a new path just to see where it leads can captivate me in a way few other things can. Learning for me is a constant exploration making the activity itself, without any need for an end goal, an attractive and motivating activity.
  3. I love feeling energized. The best feeling is when there's so much energy inside me that I'm almost boiling over. Being passionate about something generates this kind of energy as well as when I interact with or listen to passionate people. I've learned that passion itself is something I create by investing myself fully in a particular topic.
  4. I love feeling smart/clever and as I learn a topic I get this feeling more and more frequently until I reach some kind of plateau. When this happens I can move on but old knowledge makes it faster to reach this state of feeling smart in some other topic as most topics relate to each others in one way or the other. I can later go back to the topic to reach an even higher plateau thanks to things I've learned in other related topics. By constantly using the progress in one skill to improve another I get to repeatedly feel smart and feeling smart feels great!
I also try to motivate myself to do "good learning" (e.g. accept tough challenges) by placing myself in social situations where this is expected of me. This way I can substitute my "learning why" with my "social why" (be part of the group, feel appreciated etc.) and my "social why" is more powerful.

I started writing this section thinking that "this will be one of the easiest section to write"... turned out it took a few days and a whole lot more text than I expected. "Why" is an interesting question...

Managing my motivation

I rely heavily on my motivation. In a best case scenario I can learn incredibly fast and actually gain energy from the experience. But when I rely too heavily on this automatic learning process I can also end up binge watching some French documentary series about serial killers. So management is sometimes (...often) required.

The best way to make me act in a certain way, including the action of learning, is simply to remove any other options than the ones I prefer. This includes removing "good options" since I know having too many good options at once means I will start switching between all of them and this makes me lose a sense of progress and direction. One example of this is not having too many new, interesting books at home.

The problem is my brain will get bored if there are too few or too similar paths and when bored it'll make up new paths and these paths surprisingly often include rainbow-colored kittens. Another risk with too few paths is my progress gets slower and sloower and slooower until I finally give up.

To provide an example of how I manage the available paths:
I realized this blog series would take a lot of time to complete. I also realized I would run into mental blocks due to some parts being less interesting to write, very hard to write or that I would wake up some days just not feeling motivated to write at all. To lower the risk of these blocks stopping me from finishing the series I made sure to remove as many unhelpful options as possible. "The options" in this case referred to removing news apps on my phone, I returned all the books I had borrowed from the library and I limited my social media check ins to mornings. I still mixed the writing with some research on learning though since that research would not put me off track but provide enough change to avoid boredom.

Some distractions I don't want to remove because they're important to me, like friends and family, but even though important they can still become "bad distractions" or a way to procrastinate. So my next strategy is to make the thing(s) I want to do more attractive. Let's take this blog series as an example again:

I've spent quite a bit of time describing to myself how useful this series would be both to myself and others as well as how proud I'd feel when it's done. I've also made sure I've spent the right amount of time planning and preparing before I start writing each part so that the writing involves enough uncertainty to become an exciting exploration but still prepared enough to avoid most blocks.

Finally I sometimes want to force myself to do/complete a certain task. One such example can be at work: I've already lost interest in a task but my finished product is important to someone else. This is an area where I've tried many different methods but still see a lot of energy just disappear without much progress happening so today I do my best to instead avoid these situations all together so that I have enough energy left when avoiding is not a feasible option. Some examples:
  • I try to avoid large project at work and when I get dragged into them anyway I try to make myself expandable as soon as possible to allow myself to be moved when my speed starts to decline.
  • I almost never write for e.g. magazines or company blogs simply because I don't like to commit to finishing projects like that.
  • I only tell a small group of close friends about my projects before they're done.
I know this might sound lazy or unprofessional and maybe it is, personally I look at it as self-awareness though. In this case I'm very open about it to e.g. my manager, not that I won't do things I don't like but that if she wants the most out of me I shouldn't be part of e.g. certain projects or do certain tasks. This allows her to get more value out of me and when she truly needs me to do something I'm not motivated to do I still have the necessary energy to do it well.

I also know explicitly telling the world what you're about to do is a tool often suggested by productivity experts and I can't say it's not true; I get things done this way too. But a negative side-effect for me is if completing the task doesn't give me a very strong feeling of accomplishment it can easily lead to me instead losing motivation for the topic all together. Once again I remind you that completing things is usually not very important to me... so do I want to win the fight or win the war...

Things I do to motivate myself

  • Get started
    I know when I get started with something my motivation automatically increase, at least for a while. So I often try to identify the smallest possible thing I can do (in terms of energy cost) to get started; things like skimming a book or speak about the topic with a friend. As soon as I've started I try to grab hold of that initial motivation and go like "just a little more, you'll see this will be fun, don't worry" and suddenly it becomes motivating to continue.
  • Hang out with positive, high energy people
    When I spend time with people who have tons of positive energy some of that energy rubs off on me. This is great, especially when my own energy is kinda low or I need a boost to push myself to do something "expensive".
  • Surround myself with playful learners
    Related to the above I try to make extra time for friends who just have a positive impact on my learning. They're not necessarily those mega-passionate, fully dedicated energy bombs I described above but rather curios and ambitious learners. If the high energy people gives me energy I'd say these people inspire me in a way that improves my motivation (e.g. I want try some technique they use). These people also help me realize that certain learning activities I've considered aren't as crazy as they seem when only compared to what "most people do" (e.g. organize a conference) which also helps my motivation.
  • State a clear direction
    Knowing what I'm trying to achieve makes it easier to get going. A direction also gives even small activities a clear purpose and thus make them more motivating to perform. The direction becomes much more powerful if it's based on a "need" (e.g. I feel a need to perform well when I test a certain applications for a team).
  • Describe the reward of completing the activity
    Often before getting myself to start or continue an activity I spend some time just reminding myself of what this activity will bring or feel like when it's done. For instance I've already run several positive scenarios in my head based on things that could come out of this blog series. A scenario like that could be a conversation between me and one of my heroes where the hero asks me questions about the blog series and thanks me for the inspiration it has given her. These scenarios aren't why I write the blog post, they're more like help to stay on course because they remind me that if I do this well it could lead to interesting opportunities.
  • Help others learn things I've already learned
    Helping others often motivates me to revisit the topic I'm helping with or inspires me to learn some related topic.

Maintain motivation

When I'm already motivated to do something I'm still careful about how I treat this motivation. If I run into unnecessary blocks I can lose interest in an instant which can be devastating if the topic is e.g. a useful life skill.
      • Mix learning with fun activities
        I love people, I love games and I love exploration so if I can incorporate any of those in my learning I know my long term motivation will be higher. The most powerful option is "people"; if I find peers passionate about the topic I'm trying to learn I will have a much easier time sticking with it (it becomes a friendship activity not "just" a learning activity).
      • Feeling of progress
        I try to find ways to show myself how far I've progressed in my learning. This can mean achieving milestones (feeling of accomplishment) or being able to do something I've not done before (feeling of mastery). I try not to plan these milestones since that can easily make me feel boxed in, so it's more about reflection: "What was I unable to do a year ago that I'm able to do now?" or "What had I not experienced a month ago that I've experienced now?"
      • Good learning conditions
        I moved the contents of this to the next blog post but long story short: Having an environment that supports my learning is key to keep up my motivation.
      • Don't learn about my distractions
        My passion for learning goes well beyond "work related topics". For instance if I start to read about game design I'm quickly hooked for hours listening to the Ludology podcast and sketching on various board game designs. My solution here is simply to avoid information that reminds me about distractions I don't want in my life (e.g. block certain YouTube channels) and by doing that my interest in these activities drop.

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