0394 – the problem with the motivation game

I’ve always been fascinated by discussions about motivation and procrastination. I guess it’s because I’ve had problems with them for almost as long as I can remember. And yet it also feels like there was an early childhood phase where it was a non-issue. It seems like it only really started when I went to school. I had 16 years of school and 2 years of mandatory conscription, so I have 18 years of mess to work through. And it’s probably going to be extra hard because of childhood neuroplasticity– it’s easier to learn things when we’re young, and the things we learn when we’re young are likely to stick with us for life. Well, I’m going to figure out how to unlearn and relearn everything everywhere. Challenge accepted. It’s worth trying.

It’s interesting to me how few people seem to truly grasp certain subject matters– at least, well enough to talk about it in a way that makes sense. Allan Carr has a pretty good sense of what it’s like to actually be a smoker, so his books about smoking are incredibly engaging reads for smokers (in my opinion). I’ve found that Hyperbole and a Half and Wait But Why have pretty clear pictures about what it’s like to be a demotivated procrastinator. Having explored this landscape for so long (intellectually, by thinking and talking about it, but more importantly by actually experiencing the funk), I feel like there are some things that they might’ve missed or not quite discerned, and I feel like I have contributions to make in the gaps that they’ve left for me.

In the context of this vomit I want to think and talk about a specific HaaH piece– The Motivation Game. It’s a short comic where the protagonist tries to motivate herself into taking action.


She has two modes– the person giving instructions (let’s call this the Parent) and the person refusing to follow them (the Child). There are all sorts of other names you could use– the Parent is the Authority, the Ego in service of the Superego. The “rational agent”. The Child is the Id, the Instant Gratification Monkey, so on. [1]

There is something very wrong about the way tonnes of people manage this relationship. And at the extreme end it seems to result in depression, suicide, mental health issues, etc. And it doesn’t even need to get extreme for it to be incredibly frustrating and unpleasant– life becomes this constant struggle with a really uncooperative, petulant child that you can’t control. Imagine a parent struggling with a screaming child, and feeling sorry for them. Then realize that a lot of procrastinators are living that life internally, every single day. It really sucks.

What are my personal experiences with this relationship? Well, a part of me has always thought that I didn’t care much for authority, that I’m this sort of happy-go-lucky carefree person who isn’t interested in grand achievements. (Why are you trying so hard? What are you trying to prove? We’re all going to die anyway. Doth protest too much, methinks. Why are you jumping through all these hoops? Which master are you trying to please?)

But that only works in opposition to things that I do not want and do not like, such as school. The problem comes when I’m away from all of that, and no longer forced to play some sort of role in some sort of charade. Now it’s just me against the rest of my life, and I realize that I can do anything I want… but I can’t seem to do it. It becomes revealed that I’m not in control of my life as much as I thought and hoped I was. There I discover that my patterns of rebellion were in fact simply another set of chains. Kind of like getting an abusive badboy boyfriend just to spite your controlling father, and then discovering that your boyfriend is an asshole too. Well, fuck, init?

So it turns out that you have to figure out for yourself what you want. In the context of the Child and the Parent, the Parent needs to listen to the Child and figure out what the Child wants. And this requires a lot of patience and listening. The Parent can’t simply go up to the Child and say “You have to do a thing” and then start talking about rewards and consequences. Rewards and consequences might be useful (and this is debatable) once a person is already commited to something, once they already believe that they ought to do it, once they already care about doing it. It’s kinda like adding kindling to a flame. If you don’t have a little flame going, adding tonnes of kindling is actually going to make it harder for any sort of spark to catch on.

So that’s the mistake that Allie makes– or describes herself making in her comics. “Stop it, stop being sad.” And she describes this– “The self-loathing and shame had ceased to be even slightly productive, but it was too late to go back at that point, so I just kept going. I followed myself around like a bully, narrating my thoughts and actions with a constant stream of abuse.” All of this is very relevant to the “Why I’ll Never Be An Adult” post, where she describes every procrastinator’s fantasy– to be able to Do All The Things in one glorious burst, and the never have to do anything ever again because you’ve done it, well done.

I’d like to figure this stuff out. I’d like to figure out what Allie should’ve done, and to figure out what I should do, and what other people like us should do. And I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we’re framing the problem wrong altogether. I can’t presume too much about Allie, except to say that I relate to what she describes. So here on I’ll talk about myself rather than make assumptions about her situation (which might be totally different for all I know.)


[1] A quick check on the wikipedia page of the Id, Ego and Superego reveals that the original terms Freud used were the It, the I and the Over-I. These are much better terms to use. Es, Ich, Über-Ich.

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