Why should we do the dishes? There’s something important to be learned about human motivation in asking this question. Here are a few possible answers:

  1. We need clean dishes on which to serve an upcoming meal.
  2. We want to avoid the clutter and smell of dirty dishes piling up in the sink.
  3. We want to feel good about ourselves for having done the dishes.
  4. We want to avoid feeling bad about ourselves for having ignored the dishes.

While this list is not exhaustive, it already reveals an important distinction in the landscape of motivation: there are result-based motivations and there are ego-based motivations.

The first two motivations are result-based. “Clean, ready-to-use dishes” is a positive result we’re seeking. “Dirty dishes piling up in the sink” is a negative result we’re avoiding.

The second two motivations are ego-based. “Feeling proud about completing a chore” — that’s an ego reward we’re seeking. “Feeling guilty for procrastinating” — that’s an ego penalty we’re avoiding.

These four types of motivation are real for me as I try to finish writing this essay. Why do I keep trying? First, I want to learn the lesson the essay is going to crystallize for me. Second, I want to avoid forgetting — I want to avoid losing access to a set of ideas that could be valuable to me later. Those are my result-based motivations, positive and negative. But third, I want to feel effective — I want to feel like I’m the kind of guy who gets stuff done and finishes what he starts. And fourth, I’d rather not face the prospect that I wasted my time on this essay, that I’m too lazy and unproductive to make something of my investment. Those are my ego-based motivations, again, positive and negative.

What is the benefit of drawing these distinctions? In short, when we have motivation problems — when we find ourselves stuck in our work, struggling to find the drive to keep going — it often turns out that we’re too wrapped up in the complexities of ego-based motivation, and we could benefit by returning to the simplicity of result-based motivation. To do that, of course, we need to be able to distinguish one kind of motivation from the other.

What are the pitfalls of ego-based motivation? To be clear, ego-based motivation is important and useful. The message here is not that it should be avoided entirely, only that it causes problems when we depend on it too heavily, as a primary rather than a secondary driver.

One pitfall of ego-based motivation is that it’s fickle. If I’m doing the dishes primarily because I want to feel good about myself for having completed a chore, there are other ways I could get that same good feeling. If the dishes are taking too long, I could abandon them and go vacuum the carpet in the guest room, perhaps. Likewise, if I’m doing the dishes mainly to avoid feeling guilty, I can find other ways to avoid that guilt — either by convincing myself that the dishes aren’t very important, or by finding a distraction to help me forget about the dishes altogether. In contrast, if my motivation is result-based — that’s to say, if I really am focused on getting clean dishes so I can use them — the situation is simpler and clearer. I can only obtain that result in one way.

A second pitfall of ego-based motivation is how it interacts with mood. Mood plays a big role in our ability to sustain work on a difficult task, and if we get into a bad mood precisely when our work is going slowly, we’re only making it harder to regain momentum. But when we depend on ego-based motivation, we can often end up in a bad mood. The bad mood comes when we don’t get the ego reward we’re seeking.

When I think of the things that are sure to make feel lousy, the concern that I’m “wasting time” or “accomplishing nothing” is a biggie. Some tasks like doing the dishes are sufficiently straightforward that they don’t confront me with this problem — I can plow through and finish without an idle period. But writing an essay can drag on endlessly. When I’m feeling unproductive — especially when my unproductiveness has been going on for “too long” — I might get crabby. What should I make of that reaction? Is it helpful or harmful?

I used to think it was helpful. I didn’t want to grow too comfortable with getting nothing done. So it seemed to me that ineffectiveness, laziness, poor concentration, indecision, and sloth should have costs. These vices should make me feel lousy so I would avoid them.

But I see the matter differently now. What’s clear is that a bad mood universally makes everything harder. In particular, when you feel lousy about slow progress, you find it harder — not easier — to change gears and start getting something done. A foul mood makes it harder to get unstuck. A foul mood makes it harder to regain momentum. A foul mood makes it harder to recognize opportunities to inch forward.

So we’re hurting ourselves when we let our perceived unproductiveness or poor concentration make us miserable. At those times when our efforts seem to be lagging, stalled, or directionless, that’s when we need all the help we can get, right? So that’s the most important time to avoid a foul mood. That’s when a foul mood stands to hinder us the most and when positivity stands to help us the most. If we could take temporary ineffectiveness in better stride, we’d be more effective in the long run, because we’d recover more quickly. If we could be more accepting of ourselves when we’re accomplishing nothing, we’d accomplish more.

But how can we bring about this change? How can we stop temporary unproductiveness from spoiling our mood? How can we maintain a good attitude when nothing’s getting done? How can we maintain a sense of inner peace when we’re afraid we’ve been wasting time and making too many mistakes and getting distracted too often and not progressing and not finding a pathway to make things better?

The answer hinges on why we want to be productive in the first place. And this comes back to the distinction between result-based and ego-based motivation.

We might want to be productive because we care about the specific thing we’re trying to produce — maybe we care about writing an essay or creating a piece of music or planning a trip or cooking a meal — we care about the result and we’re eager to obtain it. We’re motivated to do the dishes because we need those clean dishes to eat from.

But sometimes a result-based motivation forms a wrapper around a second, more fraught motivation: we’re chasing a fix. We’re craving the rush of accomplishment, the high of success. We’re aching for a thrill of finishing something and feeling competent. We’re looking for something to be proud of. We’re searching for an ego reward, whether it’s the good feeling of knowing we completed a household chore or that we created a piece of art or that we ran a marathon — we just want to feel that we’re worthy, we’re effective, we’re valuable.

The bad mood that comes from “wasting time” or “accomplishing nothing” is actually the frustration of not getting the ego reward that we’re grasping for. It’s the experience of craving a high and being denied. It’s the feeling of desiring validation — something to be proud of — and not getting it.

When we’re stuck and feeling lousy about being stuck, we can benefit from a closer observation of our situation. What is our true need? What are we actually looking for?

We might assume we’re looking for a specific result and we’re frustrated that it hasn’t arrived. And the first part might be true: we might really be seeking a specific, tangible outcome. But the second part might be inaccurate. Our frustration isn’t coming from the lack of the result, per se. It’s coming from our own inability to prove our effectiveness. It’s coming from the denial of an ego reward.

I might be working on an essay and feeling upset that it’s taking too long and not getting done. But if I look closer at my motivations, I realize that the absence of the finished essay isn’t what’s causing me pain. My happiness in life doesn’t actually depend on this essay being written. But my happiness is caught up in my pride, which is being challenged by my failure to complete the essay even after a huge investment of time and effort. The solution, in short, is to let go of that pride.

Some questions are helpful in this situation and others like it:

  • To what extent am I working on this task to feel good about myself and/or to avoid feeling bad about myself?
  • In what ways am I engaging in a thrill-seeking behavior by working on this task — seeking the thrill of accomplishment? In what ways am I engaging in a pain-avoidance behavior by working on this task — avoiding the pain of guilt, failure, ineffectiveness?
  • In working on this task, to what extent am I looking for boost or a jolt of pleasure associated with my self-concept, my “I”, my name, my identity?
  • Is there a reason to work on this task that doesn’t involve me at all? Is there a reason that doesn’t involve the way I feel about myself? Can I refocus on that selfless reason?
  • Can I find a reason why I would still want to persist with this task even if it didn’t support my self-image or reward my ego in any way — even if it didn’t give me the thrill of accomplishment, even if it didn’t offer me the joy of feeling competent and effective, even if it didn’t buttress my identity?
  • Can I find a reason why I would still want to persist in this effort even if there were no ego penalty for quitting, even if I wouldn’t feel guilty or ineffective or wasteful for giving up?

The more we ask these questions, the more we might notice an underlying challenge that propels us to focus on ego-based motivation over result-based motivation, again and again in our lives. The challenge is that we don’t know how to be still. We haven’t developed the ability to feel good in absolute idleness. We haven’t learned to be comfortable doing nothing whatsoever. We haven’t learned to embrace emptiness. We haven’t learned what meditation has to teach.

When we try to be still, truly still, which means that we wouldn’t be receiving the ego rewards of productivity or accomplishment, we’re flooded by impatience, restlessness, and self-doubt. If we’re idle for “too long,” whether that’s by choice or because we’re blocked in our efforts, we worry that we’re failing. We’re not doing justice to the opportunities we’ve been given. We’re not making the most of the resources we possess. We’re not proving our worth. We’re not bringing our dreams closer to reality. We’re not helping ourselves. We’re not helping others. We’re not earning our keep. We’re not advancing.

We’re desperate to avoid idleness because we’re not OK with how we are right now, just like this. We don’t accept ourselves fully and unconditionally, in the absence of continued boosts to our pride. We’re continually seeking those boosts to fend off a wave of doubt that would otherwise overwhelm us.

The thrill of accomplishment promises to cancel our worries. The rush of achievement promises to make us feel OK for a while. But needing that thrill makes us susceptible to getting into a bad mood if the thrill doesn’t arrive in time. In turn, that bad mood interferes with the work we’re telling ourselves we should do. All this sets us up to abandon a flagging effort and seek our thrill elsewhere.

But when we’re able to take a deep breath and feel OK with the way things are right now, when we focus less on our own need for the rush of productivity, when we focus more on a tangible outcome that’s independent from our self-image, our mood stays calmer, so it’s easier to stay focused, and in the end, it’s easier to get stuff done.

Wanting to feel proud is a good secondary reason for doing something; it doesn’t make the best primary reason. If we want to practice releasing our pride, we can treat any unproductive or fallow period as an opportunity to do that. Being stuck is a chance to get comfortable with stillness. Being in a rut is a chance to “meet” ourselves without the armor of accomplishment or progress — to get to know who we are in the absence of the boosts to our ego that we’d rather receive all the time. It’s a chance to learn to exist without needing validation, without needing to prop ourselves up or demonstrate anything. Acceptance is the best thing we can learn, paradoxically, if we really care about achieving results. ■

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