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The Lucilius Parables, Volume I


March 12th, 2021

Motivation is an equation far more easily solved when people are counting on you.  There’s clearly something hardwired into our social nature that binds the expectation of others to the gas pedal.  Much of the economic and business world functions on this simple fact.  However, when something needs to get done and there’s no one else waiting, it can be extremely difficult to abide by a self-imposed deadline.  We negotiate with ourselves constantly, knowing both that we want to push that deadline back and exactly how to argue to justify it.  Resisting this self-sabotage seems to be at the core of much discipline, but there’s an easier way to cut out the negotiation altogether and force the function in favor of our sincere hope.


The sense that other people are counting on you works because there are some very good incentives at play,  Reputation, which exists solely within the perspectives of people other than yourself hinges on this kind of cooperative performance.  And a good reputation naturally means that people will be likely to cooperate with our own designs when the time comes.  Such incentives are far weaker when we are left alone.  Our reputation with our own self is a far more squishy and debatable concept, and further, it can change and our idea of that reputation doesn’t necessarily have a consistent effect though time.  The incentives to even maintain the scoreboard on this internal game are simply just not very strong.  This asymmetry between external reputation and internal reputation means that a different set of incentives are needed when trying to self-motivate.


Instead of trying to incentivize motivation through reputation, another way of tackling the problem is through the idea of windows of opportunity.  We can, with a full awareness that we are likely to be lazy and less motivated in the future decide to set a kind of trap for ourselves and design a window of opportunity that has a hard and unalterable expiration date.  This is simply a way of taking the infinitely negotiable deadline we give ourselves and somehow giving it external form.


For example, imagine someone has the goal to write a book, but just can’t seem to get the ball rolling.  So, they devise a new kind of word processor, and this one requires 100,000 words to be written within a week or anything that has been written during that week gets deleted automatically at the end of day 7.  This sort of magical program would create an increasing pressure to work as the work proceeds, to ensure that any good content isn’t lost.  This is, of course, presuming that nothing can be copied and pasted out of the timed document.


Naturally we don’t all have such a fantastical tool, and our goals are infinitely varied.  The design of such windows of opportunity just requires a sensitive and curious understanding of incentives, and which kinds are most likely to drive the behavior we hope we take.  The difficulty isn’t so much dreaming up such designs as it is just having too much faith in the weak possibility that when the time comes we’ll get it done, because the fact is, that time almost never comes unless someone else has set that time or we can virtuously trick ourselves.

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