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Setting Expectations - The Motive Center
September 13th, 2004
09:52 pm


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Setting Expectations
Time for a bit more on setting expectations for yourself and the mysterious workings of the Yerkes-Dodson Law!

Many people, including, sadly, a lot of managers and coaches, presume that the higher the goal, the higher the motivation. They set ludicrously high goals (for other people), anticipating that people will raise their expectations for themselves.

Alas, it doesn't work this way. The relationship between motivation and productivity is not a straight line. If it were, this approach would work. In practice, if people think they're going to fail no matter how hard they work, they stop working. Why work like a maniac and fail when you can fail right now and get it over with? People are not stupid, particularly the Achievement motivated, who are always looking for the challenging-but-achieveable goal, the moderately challenging target.

Similarly, if your goal is too low, it isn't energizing either. The trick is to find something that is just challenging enough. This principle is known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law, after two researchers who published it in 1908. (The Yerkes Primate Lab is named after this Yerkes.) What they found is that the relationship is an inverted U--low emotional/motivational arousal or high emotional/motivational arousal lead to poor performance; moderate arousal leads to the best performance. To see a picture, use this link I found:


To make things even more difficult, that "sweet spot" can change over time. I know writers who started out writing 600 words a day, four days a week, then 800, then 1000, then 1200. This writer got better at it!

Even Isaac Asimov got faster over time. Stellan Ohlsson (Psychological Science, 1992) tracked the length of time it took for Asimov to write each 100 books, and found it was getting shorter and shorter, along a neat asymptotic curve. Even very complex tasks (like writing books) get easier if you practice them enough.

So the expectations you set yourself are critical. The appearance of impossibility is enough. If I say "you have one year to write 72,000 words worth of novel" that sounds like a lot to most people (not most bloggers!). But if I say "write 200 words a day for 360 days," that doesn't sound as intimidating to most people--but it's the same number of words. Other people perceive the idea of writing almost every day as more anxiety-provoking--they'd rather try to blast through 6,000 words once a month or something like that. It's all about what works for you.

A lot of the posts lately are about setting conscious expectations for yourself, which generally is a good thing--as long as you are not placing roadblocks in front of yourself, of course...

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[User Picture]
Date:September 17th, 2004 06:03 pm (UTC)
I came here via someone else's journal (they'd made a link to the Sept. 11th post) and have greatly enjoyed reading what you've written!

I wanted to comment on this post in particular, as it concerns something I've found myself having to deal with. As both a writer of fan-fiction and a writer of original fiction, I go through periods of self-set deadlines and expecting to have produced such-and-such an amount. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it completely knocks me over.

I'm not sure why, but if I set a deadline for myself, say, 1,000 words a day of original fiction, I can do it. Fan-fiction? No such luck. I've tried, in the past, to say, "Oh, I can finish this chapter by Thursday, then the next by two weeks today," etc, and it never works. I just get hyped up about it, too wired to write, and the words refuse to come. I've learned that I just need to take my time with the fanfiction, to just say, "I'll write it when it comes, and no pressure to do so before." Granted, I once took a three month break from my WIP, but when I went back to it, I was refreshed and ready to write again.

I could be completely motivated to work on the fanfic, but not productive at all. But, when it comes to the original stuff, I can be unmotivated or highly motivated, it doesn't matter, and be productive. You've posted before about the process of setting fanfiction in already drawn-out universes, but that original stuff is your own, from the ground up, as it were. Any ideas on why my mind can behave so differently in two categories of the same creative outlet?
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