The Carrot-Free Diet

We often think of motivation in terms of a task followed by a reward: do something well and you'll get something in return. Do something poorly and you either get nothing, or worse, you get punished. It’s a predictable pattern.

And it’s bad for you.

We learn about carrots and sticks early on. Rewards come in the form of praise or a special treat and punishment is some sort of time out, a privilege taken away or some other consistent consequence. Children can explain this phenomenon at a young age and start to game the system as soon as they understand it exists.

[R]ewards can often produce less of the very things we’re trying to encourage.
— p. 49, Drive by Daniel H. Pink

If you want to test this theory, give a child a favourite candy for doing a task they have so far happily performed without any reward other than praise—like putting toys away. The first few times around this new task/reward cycle nothing changes. Then, one or more of the following variations starts to happen:

  • The task gets done more often than necessary in order to get more of the reward. 
  • The task doesn’t get done if no candy is desired.
  • Negotiations take place for a greater or different reward for completing the task.
  • The task gets done poorly in order to get the reward faster.
  • The task appears less desirable and there are repeated attempts to get the reward without completing the task.
  • The task gets abandoned entirely when the child tires of the reward.
[W]hat science is revealing is that carrots and sticks can promote bad behaviour, create addiction, and encourage short-term thinking at the expense of the long view.
— p. 49, Drive by Daniel H. Pink

The original shared understanding regarding the task, which was mostly completed thanks to the child’s internal motivation to do something good, has now been forever changed by introducing an external reward. And that reward has devalued a task from the level of "want to" to "have to". That’s usually when a punishment is introduced. What was a good situation has turned into a battle of wits between child and parent.

We’re no different as adults.

The problem with making and extrinsic reward the only destination that matters is that some people will choose the quickest route there, even if it means taking the low road.
— p. 51, Drive by Daniel H. Pink

We don’t like carrots and sticks because they just don't work most of the time and, when they do, they only work in the short term. Despite viewing ourselves as inherently good people, eventually we bore of what’s required to get external rewards. We’ll game any system we don’t find satisfactory by:

  • Slowing down.
  • Showing up late. 
  • Taking more breaks. 
  • Taking medical leave.
  • Taking more sick time.
  • Mentally tuning out.
  • Doing the bare minimum.
  • Pushing work onto others.
  • Only completing the easy work*.
  • Taking shortcuts that affect quality.
  • Performing personal tasks while at work.
  • Pushing back on additional responsibility.
  • Wasting time by obsessing over fairness.
  • Taking less care in maintaining a professional appearance.
  • Demanding more or different carrots for the same work.
  • Pretending we don’t have the skills to take on an extra task.
  • Working for another employer, or on a side business, during work hours.
  • Working less by inserting more non-work activities into the day.
  • Becoming difficult to work with so that others won't ask for our help.
  • Fighting any change that will cause more work or the need to learn something we’re not interested in.

The list above is long, but this is only a partial list. Despite this fact, I’m sure all of us have done at least one of the above even though we may have absolutely loved our assigned responsibilities at the beginning.

What’s the trigger for all these poor behaviours?

The moment we start doing something because we have to, not because we want to, we’re at risk of performing poorly. There are many potential triggers that will cause us to feel that work is an obligation we need to trudge through:

  • We have a longer commute.
  • We don’t like our coworkers. 
  • We work in a field we regret choosing.
  • We don’t feel appreciated anymore.
  • We’re worried about our finances security. 
  • We don’t like our new leadership or manager.
  • The company’s values no longer match our own.
  • We feel we’re expected to do more than others.
  • We don’t feel our work serves much purpose.
  • We’ve been reassigned and didn’t have a say.
  • We’re no longer getting interesting work assignments.

Essentially, one or more things have caused us to lose whatever intrinsic motivation that made completing the work asked of us rewarding. 

So how do we take “have to” out of the equation?

Introducing The Carrot-free Diet

We can’t completely have-to-proof ourselves, but we can stack the deck in our favour by avoiding some of the potential triggers that can turn any interesting occupation or endeavour into drudgery. We can do better than game the system. We can change the system itself, or at least our perception of its influence on our lives.

Here are 5 things we can do to reduce our dependence on carrots:

  1. Be independent.
  2. Initiate change.
  3. Set goals.
  4. Keep growing.
  5. Be grateful.

1. Be independent.

The science shows that the secret to high performance isn’t our biological drive or our reward-and-punishment drive, but our third drive—our deep-seated desire to direct our own lives, to extend and expand our abilities, and to live a life of purpose.
— p. 145, Drive by Daniel H. Pink

This point is key. By maintaining a standard of living that’s far lower than what our pay cheque could sustain, we can easily build a level of independence that allows us to have more flexibility in our employment. Having significant savings makes us feel we have choice in what we’re doing for a living, even when we have dependents. We feel more confident, ask for what we need to be successful and speak up when we think something at work isn’t right. We're also less likely to be preoccupied with money, which makes us better performers…and that usually leads to even more money—a virtuous circle of sorts. For more on moving toward independence, see the Burger Flippin' Rule.

2. Initiate Change.

Initiating change offers many benefits. Here are the top three:

  • First, dealing with self-imposed change is much easier to deal with.
  • Second, it’s usually easy to find something we can change to make work better. Here are some examples from smallest to largest: change one or more daily habits, change the way your work gets done, change your work hours, change work tools, change your responsibilities, change your commute (method and/or travel time), change jobs, change employers, change careers.
  • Third, initiating positive change makes us feel we’re improving our life. We feel more in control of ourselves and our environment. Changing that locus of control from "out there" to within us is powerful.

3. Set Goals.

Goals that people set for themselves and that are devoted to attaining mastery are usually healthy. But goals imposed by others—sales targets, quarterly returns, standardized test scores, and so on—can sometimes have dangerous side effects.
— p. 50, Drive by Daniel H. Pink

Regardless of the goals imposed by an employer, setting our own personal goals when it comes to our paid work makes our job feel more personal. This is especially effective when we feel the corporate goals aren’t particularly meaningful or effective for us to do our best work. Whatever goals we set for ourselves, they need to be goals we choose because we want to achieve them, not because others think we should. They don’t have to be numerous or fancy, but they do have to be our own. Here are some examples:

  • Going to lunch with one new person a month. (networking/relating)
  • Coming in 30 minutes earlier to feel more prepared to start the day. (stress/organization)
  • Helping a co-worker weekly with something they need. (teaching/learning/giving)
  • Coming up with and sharing 20 new business ideas this year. (learning/creativity/leadership)

4. Keep Growing.

[A]utonomous motivation promotes greater conceptual understanding, better grades, enhanced persistence at school, in sporting activities, higher productivity, less burnout, and greater levels of psychological well-being.
— p. 90-91, Drive by Daniel H. Pink

When we feel good about ourselves, we start to see the world with rose-coloured glasses. A significant source of personal satisfaction is to try and/or learn new things. Personal growth comes in many forms: learning a new skill, reading up on a topic of interest, doing something hard, doing something scary, learning about ourselves, seeking out new experiences, seeking out people who will inspire us to be a better version of ourselves, etc. What’s important is to always keep growing in some way because it keeps life from feeling stale and makes us less likely to experience envy, a useless and destructive emotion.  

5. Be Grateful.

Context is everything when it comes to how we perceive our situation. We often feel that grass is greener on the other side. We crave change but we don’t always want to jump the fence. In some cases we should jump the fence, but sometimes we just aren’t looking at the grass under our feet in a useful way

It’s human nature to focus on the negative, to focus on what we don’t have as opposed to what we do have. Being grateful for what’s good about our situation enables us to keep our negativity in check. Gratitude can be as simple as being thankful for our health & the time we have on this earth, our home, our friends and family, our pet, the weather, our morning coffee, even our favourite pair of fuzzy socks (yes, the pair I’m wearing right now in fact).  

What Carrot?

We can’t avoid all the carrots and the sticks the world presents us daily. What we can do is see them for what they are and reduce their influence on how we choose to live our lives. When we fuel ourselves with more of what we want to do, our appetite for the world’s carrots all but disappears. Even better, we might even stop noticing they’re there.

*My definition of work is any pursuit that produces something of value that is not considered leisure. Work can be a traditional job, studies, entrepreneurship, volunteering, etc. I don’t adhere to the belief that everyone needs a have a J.O.B. in the traditional sense but I understand that this is the reality for the majority of us. 

Image credit/copyright: Bruce Thomson/Flickr