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If someone were to suggest watching a 6 hour movie, what would your response be? Does the idea of taking 6 hours to get through what is probably a complex and drawn out movie sound like a good idea? How many people do you know who would watch a 6 hour movie? A long movie is hard to commit to and sometimes harder to stay with. Even The Irishman, starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, and directed by the legendary Martin Scorcese, running for “only” 3½ hours, only had 18% of viewers watch it through to the end on its first day of release on Netflix!
But what about a mini-series of 6 x 1 hour episodes? How many people do you know who have binge-watched an entire series of 6 or more episodes from start to finish? So what’s the difference? Yep, there is some useful neuroscience behind this that guides effective management of task motivation, engagement and reward.
From a neuroscience perspective, the choice to do something – and stick with it – engages all 3 neural motivation systems:
- Reward anticipation draws on experiences, perceptions, emotions and guesses (among other things) to tell us how big an intrinsic reward or penalty is likely to be. That builds an appetite to do, or not do, or not care. Importantly for this conversation, the feeling of completion of an activity is inherently rewarding, releasing a tiny dopamine hit – you feel that every time you reflect on a job you did well.
- Valuation compares the reward or avoided loss to the effort or risk required for any action or inaction choice, prioritising immediacy over delayed gratification (or avoided loss), big rewards (or lots of rewards) ahead of small (or few) rewards, internal engagement and control over imposed rules and consequences, intrinsic (internal) controls and consequences over those imposed by others, and the avoidance of loss over gain.
- Self-regulation keeps us focused on a selected task. It is hardest where there are investments of effort and risk without felt rewards, losses, delays and more appealing alternatives (often felt as impulses and distractions).
The 6-hour movie struggles because it guarantees only 1 reward (completion), with the potential for some other stimulation and enjoyment along the way. But you might also get bored through it or disappointed at the ending – not always a great reward for your investment of time and attention. Obviously, rave reviews from friends and critics help to increase perceptions of the reward vs loss balance, but 6 hours would be a huge investment to make, at the expense of any other, potentially more rewarding (interesting, fun, purposeful etc) activity.
On the other hand, the mini-series immediately feels like it is rewarding sooner and more often, with less investment/risk/effort/opportunity cost. It only starts with a commitment to a single episode (almost a “free trial”). By being broken down into episodes it has predictable milestones that are likely to be inherently rewarding to reach. It also ends episodes on surprises or cliff-hangers so that neural circuits are stimulated (inherently enjoyable) while also increasing reward anticipation for the next episode (playing with your dopamine and stress/fear triggers). You also have more control, as a mini-series has natural breaks, and it is your free choice to watch for hours on end – it is not a condition that is imposed on you. On top of that, the chance to think or chat about what just happened or might be about to happen between episodes is also often enjoyable, acting as reinforcement and internalisation.
WHAT’S THAT GOT TO DO WITH WORK?
Whether about being entertained or working, this is all about motivation and commitment. Things that translate directly include:
- If an initial commitment feels limited in uncertainty, scope, effort, risk and/or duration, most people are more likely to take a positive view to getting started.
- If tasks and projects are broken down into manageable milestones, anticipated reward for achievement and completion is more often and more immediate, increasing comparative value, in turn increasing motivation.
- If people have control over how they perform a task, they are inherently likely to be more intrinsically motivated to start, rewarded throughout, and fulfilled upon completion. This experience will also see them wanting to do similar things in the future in anticipation of similar rewards.
- Talking about and visualising task and project outcomes, before, during and after, increases reward anticipation, internalises to increase intrinsic connection and reward, also adding purpose, meaning and significance, all of which are inherently motivating and fulfilling.
THE BIG TAKEAWAY (or HOME DELIVERY if you subscribe!)
Perhaps the most significant message is the idea of building milestones into tasks and workdays so that, like a mini-series, work can be more motivating, engaging and rewarding, and then motivating, engaging and rewarding, and then…. It’s a healthy, productive and fulfilling way to “binge”.
There is almost no chance that the person tasked with simply walking on a treadmill will feel any sense of completion or anticipation. To be engaging work must have a purpose, a start, a finish and a consequential reward, which increases future reward anticipation and can be as simple as talking about or reflecting on a job well done for a few moments. But what do managers often say to subordinates performing routine tasks? I often hear things like (sic):
- “When you’ve done that, I need you to do this.”
- “Have you got enough work to keep you busy today?”
- “There’s a lot to do so you better get stuck in.”
And what is the most common reward, far ahead of anything else I hear?
- “Thanks for today.”
Instead, these versions of those statements are more likely to motivate, reward and re-motivate:
- “Thank you for doing that. How did it go for you? (listen, engage, recognise the achievement and its value) Now I’ve got something else for you.” (Adding significance to milestones, increasing reward size and frequency)
- “What have you got on today? What’s first on your list?” (Creating milestones, granting control)
- “There’s a lot to do so let’s break this down, prioritise and deal with each task one by one.” (creating milestones, reducing risk and uncertainty, adding regular rewards)
And for the most common reward?
- Thank you for… (describe a specific achievement to add meaning and increase rewards)
None of that way of thinking and talking is expensive, disingenuous or hard to do. It just good management for engaging binge-scale effort, achievement and fulfilment. The only downside is having to think and care about the team and their work. Not such a big imposition, one would have thought…?
Read other articles about motivation here and neurobiologically-informed leadership and management training here
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