Motivation is important. Motivating people is an important topic in management and leadership. When individual people are motivated magic will happen, when teams are motivated, nothing is impossible. Loads and loads of books have been written about motivating people, entire management schools are founded on different theories of how people are motivated.
Suddenly people started talking about the issues with leaning on motivation alone. Two of these voices, that were most prominent, were Jocko Willink and David Goggins, both ex-Navy Seals.
Their message: if you only do things when you are motivated, then most of the time you will not act. To them its all about “discipline”. Discipline is doing the things you have to do whether you are motivated or not. Its not about motivation, it is about understanding what must be done and doing that regardless of how you feel. The idea is that motivation comes and goes and is not a stable factor, discipline (once mastered) introduces stability in the equation of “planning + action = outcome”.
Next to “management theories” about how to “motivate people”, there is the science of neurology that has interesting “facts” on the matter. Dr Prof Andrew Huberman has the following to say about dopamine, a hormone that is closely related with motivation:
Dr Andrew Huberman, hubermanlab.com: Dopamine is a molecule in the brain and body that is closely linked to our sense of motivation. It can also enhance our depth of focus and lower our threshold for taking action toward specific goals. The simplest way to think about dopamine is that when our dopamine levels are elevated, we tend to focus our attention on outward goals — the things we want — and we feel motivated to pursue them.
There is thus a chemical basis for motivation and action within our body (in relation to external conditions), and understanding how dopamine functions, what is needed to trigger dopamine, and what the effects are of dopamine spikes (both positive and negative) are thus crucial for optimizing the conditions for healthy and productive outcomes.
Wins create dopamine spikes, and dopamine spikes lead to wanting more dopamine hits. The problem is that frequent dopamine spikes lead to a sort of insensitivity as more dopamine is needed to achieve the same rush; we develop a higher threshold for the pleasant feeling and not being able to achieve them leads to feelings of depression and demotivation. There goes the theory of continuous highs and motivation, right out the window.
Managing the peaks is what holds one of the keys to managing motivation to prevent insensitivity and increasing the threshold:
• Manage wins selectively; don’t celebrate every win, sometimes just continue with winning (Randomly Intermittent Reward Timing or RIRT).
• Visualize progress by making wins visual with physical things to focus on.
• Don’t layer sources of dopamine to create a mega blast which is hard to follow-up with a similar high.
There is another subtle twist. Instead of linking highs to wins, we can deliberately focus on the process of reaching the goals, rather than the goal. What this means is that the executing a process (the effort of doing things) itself leads to dopamine spikes and discipline becomes rewarding instead of a burden that is carried to make up for the variation in the presence of motivation. A dopamine blast to support discipline…powerful stuff!