Intrinsic Motivation is a Horrible Prerequisite
October 11, 2022
Kids are funny. For numerous reasons, but for this muse, we focus on their ability to live in the moment. When they want to play, they play. They do just that when they want to fall asleep at the table with their face in the cereal. Now is never a wrong time to do what they want. And while this ability allows them to appreciate their present, much to the jealousy of stressed-out adults, it comes with its own issues. The future is often a casualty when there is only a focus on the present. Disregarding homework or chores for play has consequences, and their future selves must deal with what their past selves decided to do.
We don’t expect children to operate as machines, conducting themselves optimally in all conditions (nor should we expect adults to do this). However, we observe that simple systems can allow them to complete what is needed effectively. Letting them choose their clothes but requiring them to pick from the “for school” variety, for example. This allows them to direct their actions and feel like they have some control in the now while still keeping them moving in a growing direction. We can’t expect them to know what to do or how such decisions will affect them in the future without helping guide them in that process. Their perception of consequences and control over their environments is still being developed. If knowing what we should do and simply doing it was easy, we wouldn’t see so many functional adults struggling with the same thing.
Willing our way into success often leads to frustrating results. The need to rely on strict motivation leaves us very much at the mercy of environmental stimuli, subconscious mental models, and chemical conditions of our current state. Sometimes, we just don’t wanna. Don’t let your success depend on how you feel in the moment.
Building Systems Bypasses Motivation
While we might not always be able to control what happens to us, we can determine what we do about it. However, waiting until that moment to decide how we will react isn’t the best way. That would be like waiting until after everyone is lost to determine the meet-up. You might all wander to the same spot but not without some unnecessary stress or, at the very least extra steps. Setting up your processes, conditions, and systems beforehand allows you to predetermine the plan so that you are ready to roll when it comes time to perform. Just like we expect professional athletes and physicians to know what they are doing, planning out how things get done can help improve the health of your organization. Functional leadership requires that you show up ready to address the needs of your clients and team members. Doing otherwise puts you at the mercy of everyone’s contextually framed discernment. If emotions take over and motivation is down, you probably won’t see the desired results.
Systems are Built for your Purpose
Building systems and processes around the success you want to see in your life, business, family, etc., can help overcome dependence on the contextual state, including motivation. While some folks might have the internal fire to get up in the wee hours of the morning to run a half marathon, most of us just don’t have the motivation to do that. Willing yourself out of bed is an easy strategy to make but also an easy strategy to discard. As your willingness changes, so do the effectiveness of a willingness-based design.
So, what do we do? To make sure the system is working for you, make sure to do two things: clarify the purpose of it all (why are we building this system?) and contextualize the pieces (what is going to work for me?). We develop systems and processes in our context to improve the chance our goals get accomplished. If you know you have a better chance of making the run in the afternoon, build out that plan. If you know you will hit the snooze button, move your alarm far away. If you know your buddy will keep you accountable, get them involved. Build out conditions that move you in the direction you want to go.
Processes Help Discernment
If you build your processes well, you don’t need to reassess every decision because you have created the triaging rules to help make the right call. Making up every day and then deciding if you will get up and run is a risky strategy at that moment. Attaching your alarm to a drone that flies around until you jump up and catch it is much more likely to get you up. The former requires a will to action, and the latter pressures you into action. Ideal systems and processes provide good pressure toward the action you want to take toward goals you want to accomplish. You do the work beforehand to frame decisions well so that you aren’t stuck deciding at the moment what to do.
Functional leaders can benefit their teams when they do the work to make discernment easier for their folks. Assuming everyone will know the right or team-aligned call is a recipe for disappointment and frustration right in the heat of the moment. Many team sports provide an analogy for these action-oriented, context-dependent, in-the-moment decision-making. But that doesn’t mean we don’t prepare for those realities. A coach would not be preparing their team to win if their only piece of decision-making advice for their team was “it depends.” If a coach showed up to practice every day and didn’t help frame the decision-making for their players for game day, we might be looking for a new coach. Teams know what to do in the game when they practice discerning what to do in various contexts. Mistakes will be made, sure, but building discernment in the heat of the moment requires building suitable systems beforehand to ensure the results you want to see.
Motivation to use the System
There will be times when motivation still comes into play, for sure. Sometimes you just don’t want to get at it. And that is okay. Building systems ideal for people means people won’t always use the system consistently or as intended. People systems are messy and ideally built around flexibility and adaptability. Sure, we want to create motivation and accountability for folks in our building processes. However, functional leadership benefits their team then they realize people still bring their conditions with them wherever they go. People aren’t machines – they have bad days.
In the end, though, whether you are dealing with kiddos, employees, or yourself, building people-centric systems can help limit the impact of conditions or motivation on the desired results. People can be messy and inconsistent, and illogical. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t fantastic. We might not always make the best decisions, but we can help ensure we do the work before those decisions are made. So, leader, build the processes now that let your people be incredible later.