When I was fourteen, I convinced my parents to buy me my first MacBook.
“It’s going to make doing homework so much easier,” I had argued, pointing to the impressive specs on Apple’s website. “I won’t have to charge it constantly; Apple has hundreds of built-in applications.”
On the day my computer arrived, then, I opened it and of course proceeded to take about 50 selfies in Photo Booth. I then Skyped a friend for about two hours, after which I procrastinated by launching myself into a Wiki-hole.
Homework will be so easy, I said. I can be be so efficient, I said.
But such is the trap of seeking extrinsic motivation in shiny new technology. At best, perhaps you’ll feel motivated enough to change your habits for a few days — maybe even a week. At worst, you’ll be so distracted from day one that the supposed new habits simply never form.
These days, I often see the “Close Your Rings” advertisement for the Apple Watch, which is being marketed as a sort of glorified fitness tracker. I wonder if those who purchase the Apple Watch as motivation to exercise will face the same fate as those who buy a gym subscription but work out only once: For a brief, exciting moment, they’ll close all their rings. But then reality will catch up, and they’ll find their Apple Watch lying somewhere upon a cluttered desk, its brilliantly colored rings conspicuously unclosed.
In this, both the Apple Watch and the MacBook are merely examples of a variety of such occurrences: We purchase new textbooks at the beginning of the school year, only to leave them unread after the first few classes; riding on a wave of determination, we purchase a new desk organizer, only to leave it, along with the desk, in two separate states of disarray.
It’s time we learned our lesson: Extrinsic motivation does nothing to change old habits. Rather — and as tautological as this sounds, bear with me — changing habits begins with actively forming new habits. New purchases do only harm if they simply alleviate the sense of personal responsibility required to alter one’s lifestyle.
In other words, if purchasing that gym subscription makes you think, “Hey! I tried something! I did my part to change my lifestyle,” the purchase has only made you worse off.
Instead, remain unsatisfied. Remain in the state that makes you work toward something — fuel the intrinsic motivation that drives concrete changes.
This is not to say that you should fail to purchase actual necessities (I’m not suggesting, as the “You can’t if you don’t” meme goes, that “you can’t procrastinate on a computer if you don’t have a computer at all!”). Rather, I’m saying that when you’re on the brink of purchasing something, do not lose sight of the actual goal. Don’t confuse your ends with your means — or, in less philosophical terms, if you hope to work out more, don’t let the Apple Watch be your end goal.
And then, perhaps, your rings will close themselves.
Contact Xinlan Emily Hu at xehu ‘at’ stanford.edu.