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The Future Of Motivation: Why We Need to Beware ‘Slacking in the Middle’


As tips abound on how to become a ‘new you’ in the New Year, David Stevens, strategist and writer at Wolff Olins, looks at the topic of motivation and why we all like new beginnings and endings, but hate long boring middles

The Future Of Motivation: Why We Need to Beware ‘Slacking in the Middle’

It’s a new year and ‘tis the season for tips, tips, tips! Whether you’re looking for little nudges, life hacks, or full-on personal transformation, the media is awash with ways to better yourself. Indeed, The Guardian has already published a mere 100 ways to improve your life without really trying. (Number 30, ‘Be polite to rude strangers – it’s oddly thrilling’ is a favourite).

But… what if you can’t be bothered? The days are short, the sun hangs low and so does your post-Christmas belly. Motivation to just go for a jog can be elusive, so how are we to be expected to search our souls and find renewed purpose and vigour?

Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioural science and author of Get It Done: Surprising Lessons from the Science of Motivation, points out that it’s not actually that hard to get going on new ventures; instead, what’s really holding us back is the ‘middle problem’ - the temptation to slack off in the middle of a task.

Swerve the middle

Fishbach’s studies show that ‘people are more likely to cut corners while performing tasks in the middle of a series and less likely to cut corners on their first and final tasks. People feel freer to slack in the middle because they believe their beginning and ending achievements are better indicators of their true characters.’ Part of the explanation for this ‘slacking in the middle’ is that it’s less eventful and harder to remember. Whereas beginnings are full of planning and promise, and endings provide reflection and satisfaction, middles drag on. So the middle is when our standards drop.

Many of us take a ‘no pain, no gain’ attitude to boring middles. We get through by telling ourselves that hard work isn’t supposed to be fun and we open up what Ayelet Fishbach calls an ‘empathy gap’ - a lack of empathy for our own plight. Instead, we should - and this might come as a shock to the hair-shirted among us - actually plan to have some fun. “You need to find a way to pursue your resolution that is enjoyable, that is intrinsically motivating. People who do that can stick with their resolutions longer,” says Fishbach.

Get chunky

This is why ‘chunking’ strategies are so effective. Chunking is about taking dauntingly long or complex tasks and breaking them down into small pieces. A working ‘sprint’ is a good example of chunking, as is magician David Blaine’s approach to ultra-endurance. For one stunt he spent over 63 hours encased in a block of ice, repeatedly telling himself “he just has to make it through the next hour”. Fartlek is another good example of chunking. Fartlek, which means "speed play" in Swedish, is about mixing up your training routine (often mixing jogging and sprinting intervals). It’s a way of making things unpredictable for yourself, constantly introducing yourself to new beginnings and ensuring your work feels like it has no middle. 

List it

This is another reason why list-making can be so satisfying. Lists are effectively self-contained ‘chunks’ of things to do, rather than a long and depressing read reminding you of all your shortcomings. Lists are also not too organised. That is, they are ordered, but they are still random enough to provide novelty and surprise. Look at any to-do list on your phone, and you’ll no doubt find a surreal pleasure in the fact that you need to both go to the dentist, as well as buy a photo frame. Lists promise variety and encourage your attention to jump around instead of luring you into a samey marathon with a lengthy middle.

Don’t do, be

Joan Duda is professor of sport and exercise psychology at the University of Birmingham. And she advises that too many of us see training and hard work as something we have to work up the motivation to ‘do’, rather than thinking of ourselves as athletes - the kind of people who just ‘are’ physically active. This ‘doing’ vs. ‘being’ distinction might sound a bit Buddhist, but it speaks to a need to absorb the idea of certain tasks into your identity. Are you someone who has to do some exercise, or are you a runner? Are you someone who wants to do a more creative job, or are you a creative? 

So, as you approach new tasks with fears about flagging, remember: chunk it up, list it out, be the kind of person who does things (rather than just trying to ‘do’) and never ever let yourself get stuck in a boring middle. 

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Wolff Olins UK, Fri, 14 Jan 2022 14:00:00 GMT