When you want to form a new habit, how do you go about it? Do you purchase equipment in the hope that spending money will “force” you to stay consistent? Perhaps you try to stay accountable by enlisting the help of a friend. Maybe you announce a project publicly, to show that you’re serious, or sign up for a class on a subject you’re interested in. This can apply to many situations, from getting better at writing, running every day, drawing, learning mathematics or science, playing a sport, or any other activity that’s important to you. Each one requires consistency, and a habit is the best way to build that consistency.
What you might notice from the above is that the ways we go about incentivizing ourselves usually have to do with some kind of reward. If we want to get better at running, we sign up for a race. If we want to learn some advanced mathematics, we sign up for a class that has assignments and tests to complete. If we want to write more, we set a word count and join a writing group. Each of these is what I would I call a “carrot”. It’s a way to prod us forward in a way that we want. The methods reward us for doing a good job, so we don’t have to rely on our own willpower every day.
I have no doubt that this is a good way to get started. In fact, like I mentioned above, this is how school works. Classes might not be the most exciting thing in the world, but you’re supposed to work hard so that at the end you get a good grade (the reward). Many of the systems in our lives have these rewards baked in. Put in some effort now, and get rewarded later.
I have nothing against these systems, and I’ve used them many times myself in order to move the needle of my habits in the right direction. However, now that I’m past the point of the beginner and into the realm of someone who does a specific activity consistently, I realize that chasing the carrot may not be the best way to go about this.
What is the ultimate goal with any activity? This is a question you need to consider and ponder, because it informs what you will do in the long term. I’ll illustrate my answer with the activities of writing, drawing, and doing science and mathematics. Every day, I write and I draw. I’ve gotten to the point where it’s not even really a question of whether I want to draw. I now always want to make more work. Each day, I do more to explore my thoughts about science and mathematics through these media. The result is that my writing and drawing are things I love to do even without an external reward. Sure, I do post my work on my blog and my webcomic Handwaving, but I don’t have analytics and frankly I don’t know how many people see my work. It’s just not on my mind. I’m just focused on doing my best work every day, and producing something of value to publish here.
In essence, I’ve removed the need for an external carrot. I don’t crave a huge audience for my work, because I’ve never had it in the first place! In that way, it’s freeing. I don’t have to think about how my work will be received by everyone. I can just focus on what I’m doing, and making it the best it can be.
In my educational journey, I’ve made a similar transformation. The external carrot for school is grades. They are the currency that determine what kind of opportunities you can have later on. They can finance your education, and give you a chance to go to certain prestigious schools. As such, there’s a huge incentive to watch your grades with religious zeal.
When I started my undergraduate degree, I was just like this. I obsessed over my grades, making sure I got the best marks I could possible eek out of any class. However, I realized that all this obsessing was stressing me out. No matter how well I did in class, I was only “satisfied” if I got 100 on a given assignment or test, and otherwise I became steadily more disappointed. This is a bit ridiculous. As such, I decided to make a dramatic shift: I would no longer look at my grades. I decided this several years ago, and now I could not tell you what my average is, or how well I did in a given class. I simply don’t know.
I decided to stop chasing the carrot. Of course, I still work as hard as always in the work I do at school, but I don’t worry about the grades. They will take care of themselves. It’s my effort that matters. I know that this isn’t a luxury everyone can take (as far as I know, my grades are still very good), but it has helped me stress out about tests and grades much less. They don’t inhabit any mental space of mine, leaving me to focus on other things.
The question I’ve been pondering for a long time is, “What makes me show up every day to do the work that I do?”
For me, I write, draw, read, journal, run, and do school work every day. These are the steady rhythms in my life. Each day will include these six activities, and I don’t do them for external carrots. (Yes, I do have external rewards for doing my school work, but I also do it because I’m interested in the subject.) I do them because they are important to me, whether or not the rest of the world knows what I’m doing or if they care. Each day, I get to work on my creativity and ability to discuss science and mathematics. This is a reward in and of itself.
My challenge to you is to think about what you do in your life, and what the split is between chasing external carrots and building habits that are important to you. There’s nothing wrong with chasing carrots, but my argument is that it isn’t what you want to do in the long term. It’s so much better to do things every day because you want to do them, rather than because you feel like you have to do them. Accountability and consistency are important, but I’ve found that these come from dedicating oneself to some specific activities and learning to love the process of doing them without any external carrot.
This is particularly relevant for those that are in school. Sure, sometimes we have to simply get an assignment done, no matter how boring it is. But think about how great it would be if you could get up every day and be excited about the work you need to do for school? That’s what you should be shooting for on average, and that means you need to align yourself with a subject that interests you. If you can find that, you will be well set up for studying because of internal motivation.
At the end of the day, this isn’t any different than the usual discussion of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. The slight difference is that I’m tell you to start with the latter (because it’s good at keeping you accountable), but work to transition to the former. The former is what will keep you working on whatever you love for years. Like I mentioned above, I run every day. What’s more surprising is that I haven’t run a race since 2015. That’s nearly four years ago, and I don’t really feel a desire to do one. I just love to run, and isn’t that enough?
That’s my advice to you. Find something you enjoy doing, and make it be enough. Don’t worry about being the best, or having the most views or being the most prestigious. Just focus on doing the work you enjoy, and have that be enough. No carrot needed.