Throw Away the Carrot, Burn the Stick: Rethinking Procrastination, Part Two

For the most part, we as a society are learning that to abjure the stick. If you know anything about dog training, you know that punishment training – negative reinforcement – is not used any more. Not because it’s cruel, although it is, but because it rarely works, and if it does, it works far less efficiently. And it’s true of all animals: we respond better to rewards than we do to punishment, of an order magnitude more.

But we still use the carrot, and getting rid of it is a lot harder. Partly because it does have it uses. It’s very important for young children, for example, and for animals, because simple minds have trouble with cause and effect. This is why babies love peek-a-boo: they have no idea, when you go away, that you’re going to come back. Learning that kind of cause and effect is part of growing up. That to get the drink to your mouth you have to concentrate on holding the cup. That to be able to find your coat you need to put it on the right coat-hook. That thinking and working in advance leads to good things in the future.  We’re a primitive species and we like experiencing pleasure. When we eat the spoils of the hunt we get a lot of dopamine released so our body knows this is good for us. When we have to go out and hunt, our bodies are under attack and working hard, and so we don’t get the dopamine release, otherwise we’d get addicted to hunting and either work ourselves to death or get eaten by the lions. So we learn: hunt first, eat later.

The problem comes when we apply the carrot idea to everything we do. Beyond the simple and beyond the child. As we grow older, and our work and our play and our minds become more complex, the model ceases to apply, and breaks down. Think about it: when did you really first notice you were procrastinating? For most of us, it was high school. Not because of high school (although that plays a part) but because we were going through puberty and becoming fully rounded people, and the old ways stopped working. And for a lot of us, what happened next depended a lot on how we handled that problem, or avoided it.

There is a lot of emphasis on the carrot, so you may not believe me it’s so bad. Here then are some reasons why it’s so bad at what it does, and destructive to good habits.

1. It turns the “work” into a bad thing.

Go back to the metaphor itself: the carrot is there to make the donkey walk forward, pulling the wagon or the cog-wheel. The donkey does not want to do that. It is a terrible chore. Importantly, it is not what the donkey would naturally be doing. That’s important because of some of what the donkey would naturally be doing would still not be “dopamine stuff”. The donkey would naturally work, it would go around finding the best grass it could and use its muscles to tear it out, and so on. What the donkey is doing is WORSE than working. Every time you use this metaphor, even if you don’t voice it, subconciously you’ve decided that the work that needs to be done is pulling a terrible heavy load, in a way that is unnatural, that is outside what you consider good for you. Even if it was already an unpleasant task, it becomes worse, and happy tasks become drudges. We’ll come back to this mischaracterisation of the process later.

2. It makes the work suffer by comparison.

To get the carrot, we must do the work. Therefore, the carrot has to be better than the work. Now we’ve put two things in front of us, two ideas. If you’ve ever seen a cop show, you know about good cop bad cop. This is fundamental human psychology: if you present a person with a bad thing X and a less bad thing Y, they feel drawn to Y, even if Y is not necessarily in their interest. We are built on comparison. So if you put up two ideas – write my RPG or play Civ 2, say – you can’t help compare them. And since you were clever enough to think of an excellent fun reward, because you really want to motivate yourself, your carrot will be a wonderful thing. Once again, the result is you make the work task look worse than it actually is. You’ve mischaracterised it as a burden, a chore, and as something you don’t want. You ache now for your carrot more than you ever would if you could choose it freely. And that sense of constrained desired is yet another emotion that drains your strength, and makes you weaker, and less able to do anything at all.

3. It is dangerous to our self-esteem.

We are creatures of hope. The way we deal with pain and suffering it to rely on a great and fundamental truth: pain and suffering do not last forever. We are suffering now, we will be happy later. But somewhere along the way, our pattern-loving minds turned this into a cause and effect. We think I will be happy later BECAUSE I am suffering now. Or worse, in order to be happy later, I MUST SUFFER FIRST. I’m using poetic language, but the carrot teaches us this same thing: in order for me to have happiness, leisure, entertainment, relaxation, dopamine releases, time to myself, etc, I must first do this thing which is drudgery, unimportant, unvalued, unshiny, this thing I have cast as a terrible chore, that makes my time belong to something else, some higher code that I have somehow set outside what I actually want, or require lots of reminders as to why it is important (constantly waving that carrot in my face). We start using words like DESERVE and EARN and SHOULD and ALLOWED. I am not ALLOWED to play Civilization until I have EARNED it.

We are human beings. We are born with the right and the need to be happy, to relax and have leisure time. We deserve these things unconditionally. We need them to survive and be our true selves. We need them to be strong. We need them to make the world better. And anything that tells us differently is bad for us, for our mental health, and our sense of self and for the goals and outcomes we want to reach.

There are standards in life, both external and internal, and they are useful and worthy. But the moment we use them to punish ourselves or diminish ourselves, they become dangerous, twisted and hurtful, and they can make us achieve less, not more.  We’ll come back to this, too.

4. It fetishizes the outcome over the process.

We’re outcome-oriented, as a culture. Part of that is capitalism: a process is hard to sell, a product is easy to sell. A finished product is easier to move around, to conceptualise, to admire. Artists in particular are at the mercy of the outcome. It is laudable for a nurse, say, to spend her life doing nursing, but if you spent your life playing music but never recorded a song, people will label you a failure who could never finish anything. Completed projects go on the resume, time served does not.

To some extent, this is fair: what makes art art is that it can be shared, and a process is hard to share. And what can cripple art is not sharing it and getting so involved in a process that we never allow our ideas to be given to others. Finishing IS important, is more important for artists. But if we forget the process, or worse, demonize it (via the mischaracterisations mentioned in 1 and 2), we kill our art, and we kill ourselves.

Studies have shown that there are five basic returns people get from jobs, five values. They are: financial return, being important (either social status or having a large effect), being the boss and making decisions, working in an enjoyable environment for you socially, and doing something where the work itself is engaging and fun. The important thing is not everyone cares about these things equally. And the carrot theory is basically all about the first two: that the work you do will lead to a return later. But if we’re creative types, we don’t usually care much about money or status, but we really care about being engaged and having fun. So our motivation theory is ass-backwards.

Think about it: we’re encouraged to write novels, publish games, to make art. Even if you remove commercial success, critical acclaim or the audience applause – which we almost never do – we are told that the point of being an artist is to create an outcome. And everything becomes about that. That’s the carrot. To finish the novel. To publish the game. And everything before it is the cog-wheel. We do the cogwheel to get the carrot.

But what does that do? That demonizes the process and champions the outcome. It tells us that finishing something – ie not writing – is fundamentally better than working on something – ie writing. So every single day when you get up and think “well, I still don’t have a novel done, so I better do some writing”, you’ve sent yourself that message, loud and clear. That writing is bad, and not writing is good. That writing is suffering, and only if you suffer enough, you get your reward – because you certainly don’t deserve one now. You’re not worthy of that.

Is it any wonder, then, that you don’t want to write?

To paraphrase an old saying, a lot of people want to have written a novel, rather than want to write a novel. Because then they get to say, hey, that’s my novel, that’s proof of my success. Part of that is human nature (and healthy). Part of that is the nature of art. And a lot of it is because we fetishize the outcome, and demonize the process. And every time we do that, we make it harder and harder to do the process. We make the process into a chore and we turn ourselves into failures. And the only way to escape those horrible feelings is to feed the procrastination monster instead.

And he’s a nasty thing, but it’s our own behavior – our constant focus on the carrot – that made him strong to begin with.

In Part 3, we’ll actually talk about how to solve some of these problems. There are other options.

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