NOTE: the terms ‘difficult’ and ‘easy’ that I use in this article are loosely tied to their actual meanings. However, when I say that an action is ‘too difficult’, I don’t mean that you don’t posses the skills to accomplish it, but rather that you don’t have enough drive to force yourself to do it.
The term ‘drive’ has been used to mean many different things, but in this article I will use it to refer to your willingness to do a given action at a certain point in time. But before we dive into what affects this, it is first important to establish a conceptual model that I’ll use throughout this article.
Let’s represent a day with a scatter plot where points represent various actions. The difficulty of a given action is defined by the ratio of the amount of work you put into an action and how much pleasure you get out of it. Something like a math project has a high ratio because you put in a lot of work and get almost no pleasure. A Youtube video, on the other hand, involves almost no work and generates a lot of pleasure.
As you can see, as we move through our day we have to face various difficulties. Now, let’s imagine drive as a line that goes through that plot.
It is very easy for us to do any action that is below or on the line but very difficult to do actions that are above. In this way, the drive line ‘divides’ what we can and have difficulty doing.
There are two things that determine how high the line will be at a given point in time: our mental energy and what actions we completed in the past.
The first factor refers to how tired our brain is. This energy goes down throughout the day, especially after doing something very mentally strenuous. The way to restore it is to complete an activity that relaxes the brain. Perhaps the best example of this is sleep, which is why people often feel more productive in the morning. But other activities such as sports, yoga, or meditation also work.
The second factor is essentially how you’ve ‘trained’ your brain in the past. The best way to explain this is with an example: imagine a scenario where you do an easy activity before a hard one. When you, for example, watch a Youtube video, you are telling your brain that it can get a lot of pleasure from almost no work. So, when you try to do a math project your brain will rebel because it has no reason to put in a lot of work for no pleasure when you just proved that you can get pleasure in a much easier way. We can extract an important lesson from this: always do your work in descending difficulty. This will make it more easy and pleasurable because with each step you will be getting more pleasure for less work, and your brain will be happy.
An interesting effect is that many brain-relaxing activities also have an effect of resetting this past history. Sleep is very good at this, causing you to wake up each morning with relatively no past history.
The final piece of this equation is grit, which affects two parts of drive: how far up you can stretch it and how resilient it is to going down.
This image demonstrates the first property: imagine grit as a margin that stretches a certain distance above your drive line. The longer this distance, the more actions you can complete.
The second property has to do with how your brain responds to actions with a very low difficulty. If you have low grit, then doing something like watching a Youtube video will make your drive plummet. If you have high grit, doing that won’t make a huge difference. In this way, grit is important at both completing harder tasks and preserving drive in the face of pleasurable tasks - in this way it is very similar to the idea of self-control.
It is worth mentioning that you can train your grit and improve it in the long-run by forcing yourself to accomplish hard tasks. When you do this you ‘stretch’ your grit in order to reach the difficulty height of those tasks, and in this way increase it. The higher the grit line - the more difficult tasks you’ll be able to accomplish in the future.
It may seem like there is a large logical flaw in this theory - what happens if you complete an action that you theoretically are unable to reach? For example, what if a teacher forces you to work on a project that you otherwise just wouldn’t have had the willpower to work on? In that situation, what actually happens is that the reward (in that you are avoiding something bad, such as a punishment) of that action goes up and so the action itself falls in difficulty, even though it still requires a lot of work.
In the programming world, a ‘burnout’ is a term used for a condition in which a programmer stops being able to code for a certain period of time and enters an unproductive phase with no drive. The scariest thing about burnouts is how they act like slippery slopes: as your drive decreases, you stop being able to do harder things and start being more susceptible to doing easy things, which further decreases your drive, and the cycle continues. By the end you are so out of drive that even the things that used to cause you pleasure (like Netflix) seem boring.
The best way to tackle these situations is to 1) cut off all sources of easy pleasure and 2) start to incrementally do harder things. Recovering from a burnout is similar to going cold turkey after a drug addiction - you need to stop giving your brain the pleasure caused by easy actions and force it to work. In an ideal world, you should never even need those easy sources because your work should be your pleasure - and recovering from a burnout means making your brain realize that. Remember that during this process completing an easy task is very counter-productive, like resuming an addiction during cold turkey.
There are multiple ways that you can apply this in your life. Use this as an incentive to:
- exercise more, as that not only restores mental energy but gives you another chance to be productive after resetting past mistakes.
- do the hard work first, as this will make the rest of it significantly more enjoyable (no matter what it may seem like in the beginning).
- push yourself to do hard tasks that you otherwise just wouldn’t do as that will improve grit and allow you to do even harder things in the future.
There is one more strategy that I haven’t mentioned. If you are suffering from a long-term lack of motivation a way to start being more productive is to find work and hobbies that you are actually interested in and that naturally cause you pleasure. When you do this you won’t raise your drive but instead you will bring the actions down closer to it, making it significantly easier to achieve them. This is why it is so important to love your work - because it will cause you to be more happy and productive in the long run.