Intrinsic Motivation and Magical Unicorns

The art and science of time management.

Ask Two Questions

Right now, effective time- and self-managers are asking two questions

Many thanks to the folks over at LifeHacker for picking up this post!

Do, Be, and Have

In my work, as in my personal life, I start with the assumption that each of us is here to do and be and have something quite specific.  That you are here to have a set of experiences or manifest some unique quality.  And when we are doing and being exactly that, we find ourselves focused, engaged.  In the middle of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls "Flow."

World Bank data suggest that life expectancy for children born in the US in 2008 is about 78 years.  But if you're reading this I'm guessing that you've got such excellent health habits and are surrounding yourself with such positive people that you've got 85 years in you.  So if you're 30 right now, that means you've got 55 years left to do and be and have those experiences you're uniquely here to manifest. 

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How much of that time do you want to spend watching reality television?  How much of your life will you spend commuting in and out of the city?  Arguing with your sister about what did or did not happen in your family of origin in 1993? 

Two Questions

Effective time- and self-managers are asking themselves two questions, moment by moment.  Those Two Questions are "Am I having fun right now?" and "Is this what I've set out to do"?  If I'm doing what I'm here to do, experiencing what is mine to experience, I'll be motivated and focused and engaged. And everybody around me will benefit from that, too.  Just like I benefit from being around the people I've known who are truly living On Purpose.

Yes/Yes

So the answers to these two yes/no questions yield a 2-by-2 matrix. My favorite part of the matrix is the "yes/yes" quadrant. I love it when I'm able to say yes to both those questions. "Yes," I'm having fun and "yes" I'm doing what I'm here to do. I'm engaged, happy, and aware that I'm doing the very best thing right now.

Yes/No

Then there is the "yes/no" quadrant. Often I'm doing something fun or interesting but it's that second question, "Is this what I'm here to do and be and have?" that gets me. There's an episode of "The Office" followed by another episode. And another episode after that. And it's fun to watch that. But at a deeper level I'm fairly sure that watching a lot of TV is not what I'm on the planet to do.

This quadrant in the Ask Two Questions matrix is one with which your clients or students are going to need particular support.  If you notice that I'm not "on task," that I'm engaging in one of my typical time-wasters, you could support me by guiding me towards the second question - the one that I'm not asking. With an attitude of curiosity you might say something like "Hey David, that looks like fun. Looking through a box of antique baseball cards down here in the basement? Wow who wouldn't love that? And remember, there's something else you wanted. You wanted a clean basement." So, gently, you remind me of the choosing, and the choosing again. What's pleasant? And what's important?

No/Yes

But the toughest quadrant of the Two Questions matrix is the "no/yes" quadrant. Times when I'm honestly not having fun (filling out tax forms, waiting in line at the cleaners) but I'd have to say "yes" to the second question ("Is this what I've set out to do?). Because it's important to me to wear clean clothes, and to avoid tax penalties (and avoid jail, and generally be a good citizen!). 

When I'm not engaging with an important task because it's not fun, I will be doing something else. I can't be doing nothing. I might be changing my sweater, sharpening my pencils, checking email once again. And you might be tempted to describe my behavior as procrastination. I enjoy scandalizing parents by announcing that I don't believe in procrastination. Because using the term "procrastination" is a way to end a conversation. And I'd rather be about the business of starting conversations - curious, collaborative conversations about why it's so hard to get some of the important things done.

There's No Such Thing as Procrastination

So for our purposes, there's no such thing as procrastination. There's only choosing. And choosing again. Moment by moment choosing, and asking two questions. It's hard to do something that's not fun. It's mental work to imagine some future reward that I want, or some future punishment I'd like to avoid.  And it's work to use that imagining to stick with something right now even if I don't like it.

The best thing you might offer me is to increase the saliency of the unpleasant task. Research suggests that stimulant medication increases the saliency of a dull task for children with ADHD (see my previous post at this site). It doesn't increase the pleasure of the task but helps the students access why they are doing it. What's the hoped-for reward? Or the punishment to-be-avoided? And that's exactly what teachers and parents and coaches are doing - increasing the saliency of dull or difficult tasks. So....remind me once again why I'm filling out this boring tax form on April 13 when it's not even due for two more days? Seriously, describe for me in rich detail what reward (refund check) or punishment (fines) depends on my doing this dull task. And describe it in such detail that I can't NOT jump back in there and finish the task.

Asking Just One Question

If you know anyone with executive deficits (maybe someone with ADD/ADHD or a survivor of brain injury), you might have noticed that this is someone who's much more likely to ask only the first of these two questions. "Am I having fun?" is only half the conversation we need to be conducting with ourselves, on an ongoing basis.
So the challenge for teachers or parents or ADHD coaches is to support individuals particularly in the two problematic quadrants: "no/yes" and "yes/no."

Increasing the Saliency

You ever have a waiter blandly ask if you'd like to order a salad? Certainly there is a reward associated with eating salad. It's tasty, it crunches in your mouth, it's healthy, and it kills a bit of time before the entrée arrives. But if you want me to order your salad, you might increase the saliency of that salad. Tell me - in rich detail - what's in it for me. "Would you like to order a hand-picked field green salad with heirloom cherry tomatoes and local organic goat cheese topped with Cajun spiced toasted pecans?"  Now I'm knocking over the table to get to that salad.

I met a mom at one of my workshops who also happens to be an occupational therapist. Her son struggles with academics and sometimes has to do homework on Saturday. Yikes! His mom does not tell him he "should" do his homework. She doesn't try to convince him that he likes it. She increases the saliency of the homework. "When you finish your homework we'll go to a movie." And she doesn't leave it at that. She makes it rich, compelling, mouth-watering. She sits down with him and watches a few movie trailers online. Movie previews can make even a rotten film look like you've just gotta see it. So with his appetite thoroughly whetted for some great cinema, she points out that "this one starts at noon, and that one starts at 2:00 pm, and the other movie starts at 4:30. So again, whenever you finish your homework we're out the door."

So...Ask Two Questions

Moment by moment, or as often as it occurs to you today.  Is there deep down pleasure in this?  Am i en-joying this activity?  The way in which your body responds will be your unique answer to that question. 

And is this what I'm here to do?  Is this part of what I'm here to be and to have?  If I'm in the middle of a protracted obligatory task I'm not enjoying (yes, Virginia, there are some things we have to do), is there any small piece of this that I can outsource?  Or - how soon can I wrap this up so that I can move on to the commitments and tasks that connect to my deepest values?

Hope you're having fun right now. And hope you're living the life - right now - you're here to live!

photo:  question

David D. Nowell, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist interested in motivation, focus, and fully-engaged living.

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