Luca no background

Hi! I’m Luca. How can I help?

Email me I reply within 24h.

Luca no background

Hi! I’m Luca. How can I help?
Email me. I reply within 24h.

skip to Main Content

I can pinpoint very clearly the moment in which you lost motivation: the moment you stopped receiving clues that you were improving.

We use to say that motivation drives improvement, but it’s the other way around. We are wired for continuing at whatever venture we receive frequent clues we are improving at – including inconsequential activities, such as videogames.

For many, videogames represent both the peak intellectual effort of their days and the peak inconsequentiality of their actions. As irrational and wasteful as it looks, it is coherent with the way our brain works: unless survival is at stake, we do not allocate effort based on material rewards but on emotional ones – and one of the strongest emotional reward is a sense of progress, largely delivered in dopamine packets.

Game designers know this, and they hook us to their games with frequent clues of improvement – level-ups, for example. Everyone else seems to forget this effective tactic, with the result of a widespread lack of motivation to do anything, unless for the most internally motivated of us.

(Monthly salaries seem to be the prominent case in which a constant drip is used to keep us from drifting away, but the rewards are too spaced in time and too uncorrelated to our actions to generate motivation. The result? Often, nothing more than a zombie-like addiction to payrolls.)

What does this mean for yourself?

If there is something you want to get better at, optimize for bite-sized improvement. Simply saying, “optimize for improvement” without the “bite-sized part” would both be banal and misleading. It assumes that internal motivation is an already-solved problem, and this is seldom the case.

The improvement you look for must be bite-sized enough that each action of yours causes a visible improvement. Duolingo – a popular language learning app – applies this principle. Every 2-3 minutes you use it, you learn a couple of sentences with a practical use. You cannot miss your progress, and the progress keeps you studying. This is what you want to do for yourself: practice in a way that you cannot miss your improvement during each single session (not after).

Seeing improvement during the practice session will make you want to practice more. Seeing improvement after the practice, or seeing no improvement at all, will make you lose all motivation or – worse – suggest that improvement is attainable in ways that do not involve practice.

Everyone is frustrated if they cannot lose weight, but only fit people are frustrated if they cannot go to the gym. The difference between the two groups is that the latter built an association between the result and the action that causes it. This matters because we can only build such kind of links through bite-sized improvements: the only type of reward which comes consistently enough and quickly enough after the practice to be intuitively associated to it.

“Optimize for bite-sized improvement” means that before each practice session, you pick a bite-sized improvement you want to achieve in that session and optimize for it. For example, if you are playing basketball, you might focus simply on jumping slightly higher during rebounds. If you manage to produce immediately visible evidence that during the session you improved at something, you’ll keep practicing.

Be your own game-designer and optimize for your own engagement.

P.S.: over the next few weeks, I’ll write a few more articles on learning. Subscribe to my free newsletter to receive them.

The Control Heuristic, 2nd edition

  • The Nature of Human Behavior
  • Overcoming Resistance to Change
  • Explaining Irrational Behavior

Click on the image below to order it.

Cover for The Control Heuristic, 2nd edition
Cover for The Control Heuristic, 2nd edition


Secured By miniOrange