Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Motivation Game

My younger son just finished his freshman year at Drexel. Despite finishing eleventh in a high school class of over 500, there were times I didn't think he'd make it. He never really bought in to college life, choosing instead to come home every weekend and hang out with local buddies. When asked how school was going, he threw the word "hate" around a lot. So when he got home last month and immediately got on the phone to line up interviews for his fall/winter co-op experience, I was compelled to comment.

"I'm impressed with your initiative."

"My only motivation is that I'm going to the shore with my friends and I don't want to have to come home for any interviews," he said. "So I'm trying to line up as many this week as possible, then finish up when I get home."

I didn't care. In my book he was still showing initiative. Going to the shore is as good a motivation as any, as long as it worked for him. It's one variation of a game he'll need to play the rest of his life.

As someone who's self-employed, I know this game all too well. If I write for three hours I can have some tea. If I finish editing this manuscript by Tuesday I can go to lunch with a friend on Wednesday. If I meet my income goal this month I'll allow myself to buy those capri pants I've wanted. The demanding employer and the lazy employee, having it out in my head.

But it's not just work-related. I play this game in every aspect of my life, anteing up exercise hours against a sweet reward (which in my case typically has something to do with dark chocolate), or hours mowing the lawn against a good long soak in the bath while reading a good novel. I have grieved deeply so the pain wouldn't drag me down my whole life long. 

I built such behavior into our early family life as well, through a game I'd play with the boys that would motivate us to clean the house. I'd look at a room and assess how much time it would take us to straighten it up and clean it—at top speed. 

"Your room's a wreck, guys. Fifteen minutes. Think we can do it?" "Yeah!" Then I'd set a kitchen timer and off we'd go. One square foot at a time the wood floor would clear as they tossed toys back into cupboards and re-stacked books, with me following behind to mop up their footprints. If we were finished to my satisfaction before the buzzer went off, we'd each get a reward—a couple of peanut M & M's would do—and then we'd be off to the next room.

So it wasn't a perfect plan. I now need to think of ways to reward myself for NOT eating the M & M's. But at least I understand the methodology for doing so. And so, apparently, does my son.

Motivation doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to work.

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