Using behavioural economics to motivate yourself when working on risky projects

| analysis, career, work

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?

You can comment with Disqus or you can e-mail me at