On Motivation: How To Get Yourself To Do Things

Hello, hello, hello! I skipped a week, but fear not, it was for a good cause! It is half term, after all, and after having written here and here about how I struggle to rest, I actually… you know… rested.

Not that the week has been work- and stress-free. But I managed to go out dancing, hang out with friends and watch some stuff, as well as catching up on tasks. So, aside from my suddenly developed habit of going to sleep at 2 am, I would cautiously call this week a win.

One thing that I have achieved that has been brewing for a while is the beautiful token board that you’ll have seen featured in this post. “What is a token board, Rita”, you will ask, “and why are you arts and crafts skills so awesome?”. As for second, natural talent. But about the first.

As some of you know, I work with autistic children. It’s been about a year since I started in this line of work, and challenging though it may be, I also love it. I’ve been learning a lot about attention and motivation, because, quite frankly, to help my students I often have to strive to be the most interesting person around! I have to be fun to hang out with, as well as implement correct methodology while motivating my primary-school-age students to focus and do small bits of work. So it got me to think about the nature of motivation quite a bit.

When I’m motivating a student to do work, I will frequently use tokens – such as stickers, lines on the paper, stars, what-have-you. Anything will do, as long as the pupil and I share an understanding that after a finite amount of tokens – say, five – we can go Do Something Else That Is Not Work. Pupils will complete their work and then choose their own reward, whether it’s playground time, spending time with their favourite toys or playing a computer game. Getting tokens means practicing patience; it helps associate the feeling of achievement and reward with doing work-related things; it allows to track how much work we have done. In fact, when I was in training on the topic, one of the token systems we frequently mentioned was money: a thing that we perform a lot of work for, a reward that most of us are chasing to exchange it for other things. And even though we want the things that money can buy, money itself generates a satisfied feeling… because at some point the token gives you the same feeling as the real thing that it stands for. I digress.

As part of my homework I had to write down an idea of my own token board. Nobody asked me to actually implement it: the goal was to understand the things I was asking my students to do, to engender empathy. But I was intrigued: collecting points and measuring achievements is such a human thing to do – could I leverage this to do tasks that I struggle with? As I have recently done a test that was meant to measure how I form habits, based on my personality type, I knew I was what they call an Obliger: a person mostly reinforced by other people’s company. I tend to do well with outside-the-house employment, accountability, things like that: if I want to exercise, I will sign up to a class rather than try to do it on my own. Every time I try doing things when alone, it takes much more psychic energy and I fail much quicker.

Long story short: I combined the idea of reinforcing good habits, the token board and a bit of pomodorro technique/Unf*ck Your Habitat time management. I perform difficult tasks (often the lonely kind, of “this is so boring, but future Rita will thank me” kind) in chunks of twenty minutes, with roughly ten minute breaks. I reward each twenty minute chunk with a token (or more, if it’s particularly difficult) and every token is worth £1. I am rewarding myself with buying things that I really want to buy – the kind of shopping that I can’t really justify on a budget. I literally earn my own money back from myself at well under a minimum wage and you know what, you can laugh if you like. I don’t care.

It works.

I’ve been trialling this system for a while, but this week I actually created the board and started tracking what I do. I am well over twenty tokens at present. I have done writing (a solitary activity that I love, but struggle to get going), cleaning (something I struggle with, but also a thing that helps my mental health a lot), meditation, exercise (yes, there was a solo trip to the swimming pool for good forty five minutes!). I am trying to be cautious and not do everything at once, but I also can’t deny it. I. AM. SO. EXCITED!!!

This might not always work. I am relatively well, psychologically, and I need to be pretty organised to keep this going. But quite frankly, I’m a bit relieved. I have spent literal years conversing with my brain – trying to convince it to Do Things and being met with a blanket “I DON’T WANNA”. Add to it that often the things you most want to do are the things that terrify and paralyse you the most – also known as the concept of resistance (hugely recommend “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield on the topic) and you have one confused Rita, who really wants to Make Things, but is wondering why she can’t get anything going. Apparently the answers are either “call a friend (and set up some accountability)” or “hack your brain (and set up some sweet, sweet rewards)”. Anyway, I dearly hope this will continue to help me out in keeping my Creative Cave clean and my Creative Brain well exercised.

If you need me, I’ll just be here, associating putting a pin in a cork board with feeling of satisfaction and a fresh Amazon purchase….

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