Friday, October 1, 2010

Carrot on a Stick

As every manager or parent knows, if you want to motivate someone to be more productive, you dangle a prize, a reward, a bonus or something else which you think will make them salivate in front of them. That is what bonuses and allowances are for, right?! Hold on! Not so fast.

In their book, The Winner’s Brain, Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske tell of studies done at Harvard that actually show that productivity and external rewards are inversely related after a certain threshold. Yes, inversely!

External rewards, such as money and other material things, encourage people to focus narrowly on a task, to do it as quickly as possible, and to take fewer risks. The focus becomes the prize, not the process, and, people begin to feel as if they are being controlled by the reward. This causes them to become less invested and less determined which, in turn, causes the creative juices to dry up. Focus on extrinsic rewards erodes intrinsic interest and motivation.

Motivation is the second strategy outlined in their book that anybody’s brain can develop and use to achieve success in life. They define motivation as the ability to translate potential and intention into action.

The research shows that, while external incentives do work to get people moving and give them an extra push to get them over the initial, short term hump, they do not motivate long term. For someone to stay motivated over the long haul, personal meaning and intrinsic value have to kick in.

Surprisingly, staying motivated and achieving long term goals boil down to the kinda new age-ish concept of staying in the present moment and celebrating the small victories. Framing everyday, ordinary tasks positively towards an outcome and finding inspiration in them causes the amygdala in your brain to stay active and gives your brain a dopamine bath as a reward which helps keep you going in the right direction. Achieving in the here and now allows you to succeed later.

I remember in the first winter of my recovery from a brain injury, I went to a “jump and pump” aerobics class where you work out with jump ropes. I could not jump rope to save my life. It was sad. I ended up just having to hold the rope and jump up and down in place. I could do that. I bought myself a jump rope soon thereafter and vowed that I would jump rope again like a third grader, dammit! – minus the pigtails. What a goal. I remember how happy and proud I was when I could jump 20 times without getting all tangled up. Imagine that!? A grown woman feeling good about being able to jump rope. Now, I still can’t do the double dutch bus, mind you, but I wouldn’t get laughed off the playground either.

You can develop motivation and reinforce this trait in your brain by celebrating the minor accomplishments and by practicing finding the positive in the mundane situations. There really is some scientific basis for this “feely good” stuff. Plus, when you approach the small, every day events with optimism and appreciation, it makes the journey so much more enjoyable along the way.


  1. Debbie, I just discovered your blog today. It's excellent! Thank you for sharing your remarkable story in such an open, honest way, and for providing good info on neuroplasticity, etc. For valid reasons, many people with brain injury work to keep it secret (and some can do it successfully). Yet blogs like yours help increase understanding of brain injury and lift it from the darkness or the sidelines where it was hidden before.

  2. Thank you for your oh so kind words! I think to not talk about it only increases the secrecy and shame and prevents healing. I know, for me, it has been the only way to go.