Let’s diss incentives: why potential rewards are killing your creativity

Yesterday I got a good start on the day. I was working by about 8:20am, getting right into that early-morning productivity groove.

And then, at pretty much 11:20am on the nose, I fell out of it. Like, gone — and you know it’s not coming back.

Cut to the other day at work. Big meeting. Big meeting. One of those once-a-year, this-is-where-life-changing-decisions-get-made specials. We were discussing productivity, because as a school — as an institution — we need to publish more research. The bottom line is that research funding, not student numbers, is increasingly going to be where we get our money from. And, you know, most of us only have about 15-20% of our time allocated for research (not 50% or higher, as is the case at some other institutions). That’s tricky when we compete against colleagues at those institutions to get our work published; level playing field, it ain’t.

But we are where we are, and we have to make the best of that. So: productivity.

At this übermeeting, the excellent suggestion was made that staff try to ring-fence, for doing research, those times when they are at their most productive. Having tried that myself this year, I now know that my best times are between about 7 and 11am, and then again between 4 and 7pm. Oh, and also between about 10:30pm and midnight. (Not exactly compatible with the traditional working day, is it? You see why it took me so long to figure out how to get anything done.)

So, great: time freed up. Let’s do stuff, already.

Except that it’s 11:20am, and I’ve lost all focus. This is a very vulnerable time of day for me, productivity-wise; I need an incentive. Okay, so focus. Potential rewards of writing this paper include fame and adulation … No, seriously — it beefs up my CV and potentially buys me more research hours next year. Who wouldn’t want to sit down and get that paper published?

But … (you just knew there was a ‘but’)

Matthew Taylor writes about why cash makes you stupid sometimes. In sum, research suggests that giving people a financial incentive to solve complex problems actually makes them perform worse. [Edit: and more evidence just popped up in my inbox. ]When there’s something at stake, even if it’s as simple as losing a thing you didn’t even have in the first place, creativity goes to hell in a handbasket. The sheer potential of what could be is enough to make many of us lose our nerve.

Of course, the reward doesn’t have to be financial — just attractive. So, that paper I’m supposed to be writing? Not so much. Instead, hand-wringing. Fear of failure. Olympic-quality procrastination.

I’ve written before about how constraints allow creativity to flourish. And what is a conditional reward if not a constraint, right? Albeit a time- or outcome-specific one.

That may be true when you’re in flow, but when you’re at a low point in your productivity cycle, incentives are the enemy of creativity. They just sit there looming over you, putting you off. “You must know the answer, surely? Oh, come on!” It’s like having your very own Jeremy Paxman.

In the end, after several hours spent doing everything except the one thing I really needed to, I solved my productivity problem by going back (again) to 43 Folders, and finding what I needed: the dash. Half an hour of ten-minute timers later, my analysis was done. I love 43 Folders*.

Conclusion: when you know you’re not at your best, don’t focus on the reward; just knowing it’s there will eat you alive. Focus on putting one foot in front of the other. Repeatedly.

(The more driven and confident among you are probably wondering what the big deal is, here: “If you need to do something, just get on with it, right?” Sorry, maybe I should have said at the start: this post isn’t for you — though I think I want to be you when I grow up. But thanks for reading anyway :o)

* Seriously, go there if you get stuck, and Merlin Mann will kick your ass. For free!

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