Over 400,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to learn how to make better decisions, create new ideas, and avoid stupid errors. With more than 100,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub. To learn more about we what do, start here.

Two Forms of Human Motivation: Gain And Prevent Pain

Prevent Pain Task Examples

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” — Mark Twain

Popular psychology leads us to believe that we can unpack motivation in two broad categories: to gain something or to prevent the loss of something. Each time we do something, from washing the dishes to spending money, it is for one of those reasons.

Steve McClatchy argues in his fascinating book Decide: Work Smarter, Reduce Your Stress, and Lead by Example that this applies to business as well.

Ask yourself: Is the purpose of your weekly meeting to identify new target clients or figure out how to improve the process of taking new orders? Or do you use it to go over meeting protocols and talk about employee lateness or inventory status? Is it a Gain meeting that will move your business forward, or is it a Prevent Pain meeting that will simply keep you from falling behind?

These two factors push us to make decisions. While sometimes they act together there is always one in the lead role.

“Tasks that you are driven toward by Gain produce more significant positive results in your life and your business than tasks that you are driven toward by Prevent Pain.”

When we are doing something to gain, we are focusing on something we want – we are not worried about losing something. We are trying to make things better. On the other hand, when you do something to prevent pain, you’re doing something you have to do, like laundry. This is unfulfilling. We do it because we want clean clothes not because we intrinsically enjoy it.

Preventing pain tasks never go away. There is always something to do that doesn’t advance our life forward but only maintains where we are. While we cross these things off a list, they come back tomorrow and the next day. The more our days are filled with this checkboxing the more we feel run down. And if we don’t do it, someone will bring it to our attention — even if that someone is ourselves. McClatchy argues that these preventing pain tasks are “have to” tasks.

[L]et’s say someone is waiting for you to complete a task. If you don’t do it, the person waiting will eventually catch you at the elevator, call you on the phone, send you an e-mail, stop you in the hall, send a reminder in the mail, or come knocking on your door and say, “Hey, did you ever get a chance to…?” Whether it’s a manager, colleague, client, family member, neighbor, roommate, bill collector, or someone else, that person will want to know if you did what you were supposed to do. That is the nature of a “have to,” or Prevent Pain, task. The pain that you should have prevented will visit you eventually if you don’t complete it.

One of the best ways to distinguish under which category something falls is to ask yourself if you have to do it.

“There is no “have to” with a Gain task, because there are no consequences if you choose not to pursue Gain in your life.”

Paradoxically, the very things we don’t have to do are the very things that lead to positive results in life.

If you continue to do solely what is necessary to survive every day, all you will accomplish is preventing pain from coming your way. To move your life or your business forward from where it is today and to see an improvement, you must do something extraordinary— something that you didn’t have to do at all. You must pursue Gain.

There are three attributes to a gain task:
1. A gain task is never urgent;
2. You don’t have to complete a gain; and
3. You can’t delegate it to anyone else.

Burnout, McClatchy writes, is caused “when people feel that they have been working too hard for too long and have nothing to show for it.” That is, they are doing too much preventing pain and not enough gain.

Not understanding how this moves us to be out of balance, companies often resort to perks to promote efficiency. Rarely, however, is this new time used towards Gain-oriented tasks. Instead, we often find ourselves with more time to prevent pain.

Although many companies do their best by offering perks such as a flexible work schedule, child care, or financial services, these things can only help you manage life more efficiently. They can’t give your life direction, momentum, or balance.

The very efficiency of these perks only adds to the office culture, which has “become a race to complete our to-do list and meet expectations.” McClatchy argues that what’s lost in all of this is balance.

The idea of work-life balance is inherently combative. It suggests a discord between two vital parts of life: work being what we have to do, and life being what we want to do . It suggests that these are two opposing forces between which we must constantly make choices— and that when we choose to give time or thought to one, the other loses. This constant battle between work and personal pursuits puts one in a perpetual state of conflict; furthermore, it suggests that personal and professional goals are out of alignment or mutually exclusive and that achieving both is therefore unattainable.

The Japanese word for death by overwork is karoshi.

In response to the balance crisis McClatchy proposes gain.

Goals are the ticket out of any sense of depression. They improve and offset the losses or decay in our lives so we don’t end up in a rut. They alleviate that feeling that you have worked hard and accomplished nothing. When you are working toward Gain, you end the day feeling like you have made progress and are moving forward. And the momentum you’ve created makes you feel balanced and energized— like today is better than yesterday, like you are better than you were yesterday. It gives hope for the future. It lets us sleep at night knowing that because we are working hard, things are getting better all the time. That sounds like balance. That sounds like satisfaction and happiness to me.

“You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices. And hopefully your choices can come from a deep sense of who you are.” — Fred Rogers

Modern prioritizing models fall into the urgency trap.

… [T]he letters A, B, and C have traditionally represented the urgency or the deadline that a task has. A task that’s due immediately or today is assigned an A. Tasks that are due soon get a B, and a C is due next week or maybe next month, something you eventually have to complete. So really, all you need to do to turn a C into an A using this approach is to procrastinate long enough. Don’t do it now; just wait.

[…]

This method of prioritizing makes a task’s life cycle look something like this:

That’s due in a month? Oh, that is so a C. I’ve got 30 days. I won’t forget; it’s important, but I have a whole month, so I’m not looking at that now …

That’s due next week, isn’t it? Okay, let’s make that a B. I’ll put that on my radar screen. I can’t let that fall through the cracks; it’s coming up next week. That’s huge. Okay, that’s a B, but I have other things, I have As to work on today, so that will have to wait …

That’s due today ?! What happened? Okay, that is my biggest A today! I need to drop everything else to get it done— this is a four-alarm fire! I need to finish this right now!

Every possible task, no matter how trivial could become an A in this approach. And when everything can be the top priority, we have trouble distinguishing between what is truly important and what isn’t.

Explaining why “prioritizing in relation to urgency doesn’t work,” McClatchy tells the following story:

Let’s say you have a Monday morning trash pickup in your neighborhood. On Sunday night, when you are very comfortable, relaxing at home with your family, is getting up to take out the trash an A, B, or C? For most people it’s a C. If you forget to do it before you go to bed, then it becomes a B on Monday morning. You still have a few hours before they come! What about when you hear the trash truck coming down the street? It’s A time now, baby! Urgency has forced you to run to the street, yelling after the truck with the trash collectors cheering you on to throw your bag into the back before the truck turns the corner. You made it! Woo-hoo! What an accomplishment. Didn’t it feel great? Congratulations, you have just taken out the trash. And according to that task’s deadline, you have just checked off an A on your list for today. You should feel good all day about that one. However, what did you really accomplish ? Not much; you really only took out the trash. And guess what? The bag inside is already filling up for next week.

“The things that will bring you the greatest results in your life don’t have a deadline.”

Another way to prioritize is to ask what results will this task produce in my life? Flip it around.

A, B, and C should represent the results that a task produces for you personally after you’ve completed it. So an A represents your Gain tasks, the most significant result-producing tasks that you will ever accomplish or experience in your life. They are based on results, not deadlines. When you look back on your life on your 100th birthday, you will remember your A tasks.

Both B and C are “have to,” or Prevent Pain, tasks that someone— or something—will bring to your attention if you don’t do them. Both can have urgency attached to them, but here’s the difference: someone, somewhere is keeping track of if and when you complete a B task. In other words, you not only have to complete a B, but you have to do it well or on time because it is being documented. For example, handing in your monthly report at work is a B; people will notice whether or not you did it on time. … In contrast, no one is keeping track of how well you complete a C task. Anyone who would keep track of how well you take out the trash or check your e-mail has too much time on his hands.

The old maxim that “whatever gets measured, gets done” has been attributed to many different authors and thinkers over the years. It essentially means that if you are in a management position and you want your employees to complete something, then you need to measure it, track it, require that it be done by a certain time, and then record performance surrounding it. In other words, if you communicate standards clearly, then they will be reached. This is true as long as what’s measured makes sense. But another maxim, which has been attributed to Albert Einstein, goes like this: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” This should speak to organizations as they determine what they need to measure and record and as they set metrics accordingly. However, as far as prioritizing is concerned, once the metric has been set, the task becomes a B for everyone who needs to follow it, because it is recorded and it affects performance ratings.

Balanced to do list

Decide: Work Smarter, Reduce Your Stress, and Lead by Example goes on to break gain into creation versus consumption and offer insights into how we can reshape our decisions around how we manage our time.