Newsletter No 8: February 25, 2008
Approx 600 words - and if that's not brief enough, you can skip the first seven paras.
Before anyone gets in front of a camera, somebody sits in a room armed only with a computer and their imagination, writing the words that bring those ideas to life. - Harrison Ford at the Oscars ceremony this weekend
Today I want to write about the Premack Principle. What's that? It's a simple statement of...
...but careful now, let's not get mixed up. "Premack Principle" sounds like so many other things.
Such as the Peter Principle, which is a simple statement that's mainly humorous but makes a lot of sense in real organizations: all employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence.
In other words, if you perform well you'll keep getting promoted until you land in a job you can't do. You can remember working in places like that, can't you? - the people supervising you were people who had earned it but who couldn't actually do it?
Or such as the Pareto Principle, a simple statement of an important statistical observation, also known as the 80/20 rule. In a wide range of human activities, 80% of the results come from from 20% of the effort. For example, most of your business's sales come from a minority of your customers.
But so what? Even if you eliminate the less lucrative four-fifths of your customers, the rule will still be true: 80% of your now-reduced income will come from 20% of your remaining prospects, and so on until you have eliminated the last four clients.
Is this principle relevant to the effort you put into different writing projects?
Anyway the Premack Principle is something else again. It's a simple statement of an observation in motivational psychology (which to my mind is a key area we'll have to explore together if we are to understand why people write and why they don't). We all know that you can get an experimental animal to perform a desired action by teaching it that the action is usually followed by a reward. But what is an effective reward when you're dealing with humans, such as high school students or supposedly creative people?
So David Premack says forget about trying to invent "rewards," and simply look at what the animal actually does. You want it to do its homework, but it's more probable that the animal will be playing World of Warcraft. You could address this by removing the game altogether - a popular method that doesn't always work - by applying punishments, or by promising dessert or money. But what actually works with rats and monkeys is this: make the probable behavior (the one the animal seems to prefer) conditional upon the less probable behavior. This, says Premack, is all you need to do to make the less probable behavior become more likely.
If you're supervising a writer (and that definitely includes managing yourself), don't try to invent rewards and punishments, and instead simply do this: find out what behaviors your writer usually does at times when you'd prefer to be seeing writing, and then make those behaviors follow writing. In other words: "you may check your email as much as you like, and you may reorganize your bathroom cabinet alphabetically as much as you like, provided you do today's writing quota first." The key word is "first." Just like when you're on a diet and you allow yourself one cheat day each week - it comes at the end of the week, not at the start, right?
Something you can try today: you are allowed as much displacement activity as you like, as much time wasting as you want, as much laziness and hedonism as you can stomach. And you may tell people, including yourself, that I said it was ok. There is only one condition.
Everything except writing comes after the writing, not before. Simple, huh? And easier than you may think.
David Jung McGarva
+1 (818) 707 1871
Write me: david at todayiwrite dot com
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