The Goldilocks Rule: How to Stay Motivated in Life and Work

In 1955, Disneyland in Anaheim, California, had just opened when a ten-year-old boy came in and asked for a job. Labor laws were still very lax back then, so the boy managed to get a job selling guidebooks for $0.50 each.

Within a year, he transferred to Disney’s magic store, where he learned tricks from the older employees. He experimented with jokes and tried simple routines on patrons. He soon discovered that it wasn’t magic he enjoyed but performing in general. He set his sights on becoming a comedian.

As a teenager, he began performing in small clubs in Los Angeles. The audiences were small and his performances were short. He was rarely on stage for more than five minutes. Most audience members were too busy drinking or talking with friends to pay attention to him. One night, he literally performed for an empty club.

It wasn’t glamorous work, but there was no doubt he was getting better. His first performances lasted only a minute or two. By high school, his material had expanded to a five-minute act and a few years later to a ten-minute show. By the time he was nineteen, he was performing weekly for twenty minutes. He had to read three poems during the show just to make the number long enough, but his skills continued to develop.

He spent another decade experimenting, adapting, and practicing. He took a job as a television writer and gradually landed his own appearances on talk shows. By the mid-1970s he was a regular guest on The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live.

After almost fifteen years of work, the young man finally became famous. He toured sixty cities in sixty-three days. Then seventy-two cities in eighty days. Then eighty-five cities in ninety-five days. One show in Ohio was attended by 18,695 people. Another 45,000 tickets were sold for his three-day show in New York. He catapulted to the top of his genre and became one of the most successful comedians of his time.

His name is Steve Martin.

Steve Martin on 7/22/78 in Chicago, Il. (Photo by Paul Natkin/WireImage)

How to stay motivated

I recently read Steve Martin’s wonderful autobiography Born Standing Up.

Martin’s story offers a fascinating perspective on what it takes to maintain habits over time. Comedy is not for the faint-hearted. It’s hard to imagine a situation that would terrify more people than standing alone on stage and not getting a single laugh. And yet Steve Martin faced that fear every week for eighteen years. In his words, “10 years to learn, 4 years to refine, and 4 years as a wild success.”

Why is it that some people, like Martin, stick to their habits-whether practicing jokes, drawing cartoons, or playing guitar-while most of us struggle to stay motivated? How do we manage to develop habits that captivate us, rather than ones that disappear? This is a question scientists have been grappling with for many years. While there is still much to learn, one of the most consistent findings is that motivation can be maintained and maximum pleasure achieved by working on tasks with “just manageable difficulty.”

The Goldilocks Rule

The human brain loves challenges, but only if they are within an optimal level of difficulty. If you love tennis and try to play a serious match against a four-year-old, you’ll quickly get bored. It’s too easy. They will win every point. On the other hand, if you play against a professional tennis player like Roger Federer or Serena Williams, you will quickly lose motivation because the game is too difficult.

Now imagine you are playing tennis against someone who is your equal. In the course of the match, you win a few points, and you lose a few. You have a good chance of winning, but only if you really try hard. Your focus narrows, distractions disappear, and you concentrate fully on the task at hand. This is a challenge of just manageable difficulty and a prime example of the Goldilocks Rule.

The Goldilocks Rule states that people experience their highest motivation when working on tasks that are right at the limit of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right.

Martin’s comedy career is an excellent example of the Goldilocks Rule in action. Each year he expanded his comedy routine – but only by a minute or two. He kept adding new material, but also kept a few jokes that were guaranteed to get laughs. There were just enough wins to keep him motivated, and just enough mistakes to keep him working hard.

Measure your progress

If you want to learn how to stay motivated to achieve your goals, there’s a second piece of the motivation puzzle that you really need to understand. It’s about finding the perfect mix of hard work and happiness.

It turns out that working on challenges with an optimal level of difficulty is not only motivating but also an important source of happiness. As psychologist Gilbert Brim puts it, “One of the most important sources of human happiness is working on tasks with an appropriate level of difficulty that is neither too hard nor too easy.”

This blend of happiness and excellence is sometimes referred to as flow, which is what athletes and artists experience when they are “in the zone.” Flow is the mental state experienced when one is so focused on the task at hand that the rest of the world fades away.

To achieve this state of peak performance, however, you need to not only work on challenges with the right level of difficulty but also measure your immediate progress. As psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains, one of the keys to achieving a flow state is “getting immediate feedback on how you’re doing every step of the way.

It’s incredibly motivating to see that you’re making progress at that moment. Steve Martin told a joke and immediately knew if it was working based on the audience’s laughter. Imagine how addictive it would be to elicit uproarious laughter. The rush of positive feedback Martin experienced from a great joke would likely be enough to overcome his fears and inspire him to work for weeks.

In other areas of life, the measurement looks different but is just as important in achieving a mix of motivation and happiness. In tennis, you get immediate feedback on whether or not you won the point. Regardless of how it is measured, the human brain needs a way to visualize our progress to maintain motivation. We need to be able to see our successes.

Two steps to motivation

If we want to take the mystery out of how to stay motivated in the long run, we could simply say:

Stick to the Goldilocks rule and work only on tasks with a manageable level of difficulty. Get help with ICEHRM.COM to manage your HR activities easily. Measure your progress and get immediate feedback whenever possible. The desire to improve your life is easy. Sticking with it is another story. If you want to stay motivated over the long term, start with a task that is just manageable, measure your progress, and repeat the process.

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