Using behavioural economics to motivate yourself when working on risky projects

We’re scrambling to respond to a request for a proposal (RFP). We’re not sure if the RFP is a formality and the client is already planning to choose a different vendor, or if it’s a real request, but the powers that be say it’s worth exploring. My manager thinks it’s a good opportunity to develop architecture skills. I like working above my pay grade, so I’m doing this even if it means stretching quite a bit.

It’s interesting to see the applications of the behavioural economics principles I’ve been reading about in “The Upside of Irrationality.” For example, there’s a chapter on finding meaning in work. The perceived meaning of work greatly influences our motivation to do it. If you know there’s a chance your work will come to nothing (cancelled projects and so on), you might be less motivated to work on it, and more drawn to projects where you think you’ll make a difference. Makes sense, right? (Ah, that’s why school projects bored me…)

Recognizing this bias means that I can understand my motivations and tweak them. It’s natural for me to want to spend more time on my other project. I experience flow on it – meaningful engagement. Although this proposal is riskier and I more often run into the limits of my understanding, it needs to be worked on.   Here are some possible approaches for motivating yourself when working on risky, uncertain projects: 

Break it down into small wins and celebrate those. Don’t wait for that all-or-nothing decision. You might not even reach it. Instead, work in stages so that you can successfully complete and celebrate each step. Share as much as you can during the process, too, while you’re excited about what you’re accomplishing. It’s much harder to harvest assets when you feel like a failure. 

Exaggerate the odds of winning. Irrational optimism can be useful. Imagine that you’ve got a great chance of succeeding, and you just might. You’ll still want to have a backup plan in case you lose, of course.  

Focus on additional benefits. For example, whether or not you succeed on a stretch assignment, you’ll still learn a lot. Can you find meaning in the skills and relationships you’re building and the experiences you’re collecting? 

Balance speculative or uncertain work with solid contributions. Spend some time working on things that make you feel happy and fulfilled. You’ll have the energy and confidence to tackle new challenges. 

How do you keep yourself motivated and focused when you’re not sure of results?

  • http://Rajkotecha.blogspot.com Raj

    Great post Sacha. I think along similar lines., at least I’m trying to ;-) Having a set of values or perhaps goals can be useful when you’re trying to define small wins.

    E.g. I was recently involved in a fashion photoshoot, the results were pretty good so the team and I decided to submit the photos to magazines in the hope they’d get published. Getting chosen by any given magazine is a long shot so I looked for motivation in how the submission process aligns with some of my core values like: Shipping It, Make a Contribution, Great Communication(in the submission package itself, etc). The work got done and I’m glad I did it!

    Raj

  • mhh

    Well done and nice post Sacha. It is really important to have other projects or plans open. So, if the current one failed or was not exciting anymore, you can go for another one you already have and so you won’t feel stressed or depressed if the outcomes was not as expected.