How to Succeed With Long-Term Projects

How can we succeed at long-term projects when we’ve grown up in a society that places a premium on short-term rewards?

From a very early age, we are taught that if we do x, we will be rewarded with y.

As children, we were determined to eat all our vegetables during dinner to be rewarded with a sweetie for dessert.

We studied for our tests so that we could get a better grade.

And, as Scott Belsky notes in his book Making Ideas Happen, this ‘x for y’ approach extends into later life as well:

“As we entered the workforce, the good grade became the pay-check, the recognition, and the potential for a raise or bonus.”

It is therefore not surprising we have a desire to somehow be validated with rewards in the short-term, whether they are tangible or otherwise.

This ‘carrot-and-stick’ type of motivation is all fundamentally rooted in Skinnerian psychology.

If a behaviour is rewarded, the frequency of this behaviour is increased.

And since this short-term rewarding of behaviours has permeated our lives since we were little, it’s difficult to ween ourselves of it when pursuing long-term goals and projects.

You may be thinking – why is it important to unplug from this short-term reward system? Here’s Scott to address that question:

“When a project is handed to us with a clear objective and a clear payoff, it is easy to economize our energy.The rewards system of the traditional workplace keeps us on track, in line with deadlines from the higher-ups (…)

However, these tendencies become destructive as soon as we begin to pursue long-term goals or attempt something extraordinary.

Mustering the stamina to pursue bold ideas against all odds – and building a system of incremental rewards to make this possible – is an exceedingly challenging task.”

So what can we do to make sure we succeed with our long-term projects?

Develop a Tolerance for Uncertainty and Ambiguity

I feel this point deserved its own post which you can read here.

Set Up a System of Incremental Rewards

For us to stick with our long-term projects and get through the periods of uncertainty, we need to fundamentally change what is motivating us.

We need to shift our focus to what intrinsically motivates us rather than place a premium on external rewards such as money, praise, or recognition (i.e. extrinsic motivation).

Intangible qualities like wanting to prove something to yourself, doing it for the journey, seeing if you can do it.

“While it can be psychologically [and financially] difficult to depart from the race toward conventional rewards after a lifetime working with one mindset, doing so is imperative to succeeding in the long term. Otherwise, you will struggle to sustain your long-term projects amidst the desire to be validated in the near term.”

We simply love progress and it’s funny how our desire for progress can manifest itself in the most unassuming life situations.

I talk about some of the ways this happens in a previous post but to take one example, consider “Door Close” buttons in elevators. In Making Ideas Happen, Scott explains the purpose of these buttons:

“It is the same sensation as the one you get pushing the “Door Close” button in an elevator: even though doing so may, in fact, do nothing (many of these buttons are disabled), it is satisfying to feel you are making progress.”

It is simply in our nature to want to keep progressing, to keep things moving forward.

So we need something to show us we are on track. For this reason, we need incremental rewards.

I’ve discussed the important role these incremental rewards play in life in a previous post.

But the gist of the post is this:

You may need to break-up a long-term projects into a series of smaller steps to get to where you want to be.

Become Intrinsically Motivated (Do It For Yourself)

To get to where you want to be you have to, as Scott says, “find ways to re-engineer you reliance on traditional rewards systems. Rather than fight your natural inclinations, you must short-circuit your focus on the short term.”

 Fundamentally, you have to do it for yourself.

That’s the only thing that will sustain you through the short-term pain of failure or rejection in reaching that grand vision, your end goal.

In The Dip, Seth Godin puts it this way:

Short-term pain has more impact on most people than long-term benefits do, which is why it’s so important for you to amplify the long-term benefits of not quitting.

You need to remind yourself of life at the other end of the Dip because it’s easier to overcome the pain of yet another unsuccessful cold call if the reality of a success sales career is more concrete.

It’s easier to stick out a lousy class in college if you can picture graduation day.

Picture the end goal.

In fact, visualize it.

What’s the vision?

Detail it, even use different sensory modalities to describe what attaining that end goal will feel, taste, smell like.

In a nutshell:

The drive to pursue long term creative goals goes against the grain of the comfortable trickling stream of short term rewards that are meant to sustain and maintain the status quo. To push our ideas to fruition – time and time again – we must find ways to overpower our basic tendencies and nearsighted motivations.

We can do this by becoming intrinsically motivated, developing a tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity, and setting up a system of incremental rewards.

 P.S. Hope this helped. Keep in touch by signing up to the community’s email list.

2 thoughts on “How to Succeed With Long-Term Projects

    1. Definitely, any leader who has a vision or a goal will have to figure out a way to self-reward in order to achieve it because in all likelihood, external rewards like motivation from others, recognition etc will be scarce. We as humans are really motivated by reward and being able to self-manage yourself by self-rewarding for your efforts is vital. I think knowing this is half the battle – thanks for the comment!


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