November 4, 2022

Motive Force

So it’s November 4, 2022, about 6:30 at night. And of course I’ve been dragging ass all day instead of writing anything. Four days in and I’m already seriously considering the notion of bailing out on this “post 1000 words a day for 30 days” goal. Last year…or maybe it was the year before, I don’t even remember anymore, I tried a “creative goal a day” for a whole quarter. I got about a week in because the fucking pressure I put on myself to actually get the damned thing done was so great that I was getting to the point where I was up at 3:30 and 4 in the morning just trying to get out the most pithy little piece of work.

I ended up torturing myself into absolute oblivion before just bailing on it. You’d think (well, I’d have thought) that giving myself an out after that kind of self-abuse would have been a relief. But here I am, a year or two later (seriously, I really don’t remember, which is a different kind of frightening) still torturing myself about it, even if it’s just a little bit.

The interplay between positive and negative emotional motivation as tools just eludes me completely.

To be perfectly frank, I’m not a all sure that my inability to resolve this kind of thing is not indicative of a pathology of some kind, a fault in the wiring I can’t quite turn around quickly enough to catch myself at.

I’ve written before, and at some length, about rewards systems and this strange Achilles’ heel I’ve got with regards to putting them in place and sticking to them. Hell it’s not even really a matter of sticking to it; it’s more that they have no emotional pull for me. It’s like setting yourself an arbitrary deadline. It’s utterly meaningless as a motivator because you’re never able to forget that it’s literally an arbitrary deadline.

I really don’t know how the hell people do it.

Presumably I ought to be able to say something like “Okay, when I get my thousand words for the day published I can…<reward token>” where <reward token> is to be replaced with something that would motivate me to perform said task, perhaps even with some alacrity, so I can get the reward.

But there isn’t really anything I can come up with that I want badly enough but would otherwise deny myself. I’ve long held that “the reward for being good can never be permission to be bad.” So assertions of the form “if you finish <task> you can go play video games” have a tremendous amount working against them even as the most basic value proposition. If I want to play video games I’ll go ahead and play fucking video games.

What’s funny is that about the only thing that seems to work to get me to do things is: Because I said I would.

Now, that might beg the question “do I always do what I say I’ll do?” to my not inconsiderable shame, no. But I’m getting better about it.

It really is the only thing I know that will consistently, if not unfailingly motivate me to get something done. Take tonight, it’s the perfect example. I nuked 600 words and started from scratch because of the rambling cringe worthy horseshit I’d come up with. (Seriously. You think this is bad…)

To think of it from a SLIGHTLY different angle I suppose it may very well be a problem of expectation, as though it’s not the mechanics of a positive-reinforcement reward structure itself that’s the problem, but my expectations of what such a mechanic would, even if it worked “as advertised” do for me.

I’ve got it in my head that if I were to do that, it should go something like this:

“Hey, once you hit publish on something more than a thousand words you can go…eat a pint of ice cream guilt free.”


*happily types away for an hour and a half, thinking about ice cream*

Then I’d eat a pint of haagen dazs dark chocolate ice cream without any bits of anything in it, because I can’t tolerate shit in my stuff. Keep your damned chunky whatever the fuck. And I’d eat it without any guilt, patting myself on the back between spoonfuls.

But maybe that’s not how that works. When I lay it out like that it doesn’t make any damned sense. Writing, even this kind of rambling, is more often than not an absolutely torturous affair. I can’t envision a situation where any kind of reward would reduce the effort involved (even if only subjectively) or make it a joyous process.

Even. Well, yeah. I just did the thought experiment. What do I want the most? Relax, it’s not nearly as twisted as you might think. Even that wouldn’t do the trick. Oh sure, I’d be excited about the prospect of getting through it. “keep thinking about the reward, keep thinking about the reward” I’d likely chant to myself someplace. But I don’t see that actually greasing the wheels of creativity in any meaningful sense.

So what I’m strangely coming to is that…at least in the cases in which I would be inclined to deploy them, a simple reward system just doesn’t make any damned sense. It seems a little…I don’t know, maybe “low brow” is giving myself a bit much credit.

It seems…well…childish. And maybe that’s correct and reasonable. So many of these motivational circuits we have in place were established AWFULLY early in our lives, so insofar as that’s true, appealing to them at that level not only makes perfect sense, but would seem to be the correct way to go about it.

So…sidebar here, as I proofread this: Is it true that the simple “contrived positive reward” tactic for external motivation is really just a tool for helping people develop executive function in the first place? I don’t know. I suppose I could read a lot of Skinner for starters. But it seems a long way to go for an answer. I’m gonna have to drink that over. Anyway, back to the madness…

It doesn’t feel to me that I can be motivated at that level of abstraction, or well…abstraction isn’t the right word, “with that mechanic” is better. “I’ll give you a cookie if you do your homework” makes me react with “fuck out of here with your fucking cookie.”

And, I’ve ignored negative reinforcement entirely as a consideration. Negative reinforcement is far from healthy even when it’s functional. Negative self-reinforcement, on top of that, is something I know all too much about and isn’t a path to consider for a healthy mind.

Through all of this likely tedious pondering I’m led to the conclusion that it really comes down to a matter of principle.

I can think of no more strongly motivating force than “because I fucking said I would” and that’s a part of the goals of principle to which I aspire.

Every little thing that I do “because I fucking said I would, even if it fucking sucks” puts me deeper in the “he does what he fucking says he’s going to do even if it fucking sucks” column.

And THAT is the real goal of doing these goofy ass “do one thing every day for a month” exercises I put myself through.

“Why do you torture yourself?”

“Because it makes me a better person. Why don’t you?”