Motivation and Overhead Cost

When I was a wee kiddo our family had a system where we took turns doing the dishes or cleaning up. I thoroughly hated those chores - just like I still do. In fact, I’m starting to consider hiring some poor student to do that for me. When I was a kid I didn’t have those options, however, and whining and begging didn’t work with my mother; so all that was left was trying to reason logically with her. I think my best defense was where I realized that there was a lot of overhead involved in – for example – doing the dishes. The water has to be tapped, dishes sorted and so on. So I reasoned that by waiting with the dishes we would actually save time in the long run: less time would be spent on the extraneous tasks.

“You lazy bastard! Go do the dishes right now,” was her reply to that, of course.

This little anecdote may or may not shed some light over my reasoning, as follows.

I seem to be linking to quite a bit, but I can’t help it; there’s just something about the blog that tends to make me want to respond. Today it’s because of a post called Game Production and the Art of Making Sit-ups. Quite thoroughly summarized, the message is that you need to get started with whatever it is you want to do; don’t think that your little effort isn’t worth anything, because it all adds up. Sit-ups is used as an example. Even one sit-up improves your fitness, if it’s followed by more; the thought “what will happen if I keep doing this for 5 years” is mentioned as an inspirational motivational idea. (Yes, I deliberately used that silly sentence structure: I’m experimenting with repetition.)

Personally, I think that I care too much about overhead to think like that. To use the example with sit-ups: if I were to make a single sit-up I wouldn’t be motivated. The long-term gain is nothing that motivates me since I want instant gratification and (short-time) effective use of my time. Sure, no amount of sit-ups will have effect immediately, but I want to know that I’ve made a significant leap forward. Starting with less than 20 sit-ups is equal to a waste of time in my view; it barely makes a difference in the short run and the overhead of actually doing them is too great, per cent wise, compared to the actual effort. Starting with 50 is probably decent for out-of-shape ol’ me.

I reasoned the same way with schoolwork: I wouldn’t go to the university if there weren’t enough lectures that day, and I piled up work toward the end of the semester where I could focus exclusively on it. At one time I thought that this behaviour would change with time, but if anything I’m becoming more and more annoyed at unnecessary overhead and long-term planning without visible results. I want thought-out plans as much as the next person, but they should move briskly forward; progress should be visible.

This led me to consider what motivates different people. I think that some thrive on knowing that they have a firm foundation. They want their spot in the garden where they know that they’ll get water and nourishment so that they can grow and bloom safely. Others strive toward bettering themselves through long-term goals and a sure idea of what they want to reach. These people might be compared to tall trees arching upward; they aim for the sky and grow there. It will take time, but they’re working their way up there.

Myself, I’m a tumbleweed. A cactus tumbleweed. With vines and some weird flowers and a branch here or there. But mostly a tumbleweed.

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