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I had good intentions for the lockdown... but sometimes getting out of bed is a big achievement

Writer Christine Manby was determined to improve herself during this isolation period but, as she confesses here, she should have known better


Learning a language

Learning a language

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Motivation search: consulting a star chart

Motivation search: consulting a star chart

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Exercise bike

Exercise bike

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Doing the housework

Doing the housework



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Learning a language

I've long been a fan of charts. Whenever I begin a new book, I make myself a spreadsheet, plotting my likely daily word count against a calendar, factoring in the weekends and holidays to ensure that I'll be able to hit my deadline. It's a system that's worked well for me. I haven't missed a book deadline yet.

So, when we entered this lockdown, I decided that I would apply the same approach to my life outside work, to make sure that I wouldn't waste all the empty days that suddenly lay ahead.

To that end, I made an enormous star chart, of the kind parents use to motivate pre-schoolers to use the potty and not bite the cat.

On a sheet of A3 paper, I drew columns for work, for three different kinds of exercise - yoga, walking and time on the exercise bike - and a column for Italian practice. Yes, I was determined to be one of those people who comes out of lockdown 'improved'. Fitter, faster and able to ask "Which way to the cathedral?" in three more languages. Of course, I have no children.

The first couple of weeks went well enough. I managed to put a star in all five columns every day, including weekends. Thanks to Paul Noble's Italian course, I was soon able to say "I'm not a diabetic but I have vomited", which I'm sure will come in very handy one day.

Week three, however, and something was amiss. I was waking at six but lying in bed until nine and I was starting each day with a feeling of dread that had nothing to do with Covid-19.

From the moment I opened my eyes, I felt the pressure of an over-scheduled day such as I hadn't had since leaving my last office job. My mind whirred as I contemplated fitting in all that exercise and feeding the Duolingo owl again.

Of course, none of it was actually obligatory (unlike my actual job) but all the same I felt I couldn't skip it. Not without having to put a big cross on my chart where I was supposed to put a star.

I started to wonder if gaping with horror while watching Tiger King counted as 'face yoga'. Could knitting count as yoga, too, if I did it while sitting on the floor?

I knew something had to give when I found myself looking forward to Fridays, when I'd already blocked out the columns usually reserved for yoga, exercise bike and Italian in favour of housework. Yep, I would rather clean the loo than spend 20 minutes doing sun salutations or learning how to tell someone I work as an architect with a Sicilian accent. Goodness, I'd rather clean somebody else's loo...

It took another week of guiltily cheating my own system before I realised that far from being motivating, that star chart was dragging me down.

Studies suggest that star charts don't work on pre-schoolers, either, and that using them to mould behaviour can have a variety of unhelpful side-effects.

There's plenty of research to show that if children are rewarded for doing something they might want to do anyway, it can end up discouraging them from doing that same activity without the promise of a payoff.

Stanford psychologist Mark Lepper and David Greene from the University of Michigan noticed this back in the 1970s when they studied the effects of rewards on 51 children, aged three and four, who were interested in drawing.

The children were divided into three groups. The first group were told that if they took part in a drawing task, they would receive a certificate. The second group would also receive the certificate but were not told in advance this was the case. They got a 'surprise reward'. The third group would not receive a reward (and were not told that the other groups would, either).

The children completed the first drawing task and were rewarded with the certificate, or not, according to which group they had been assigned.

Afterwards, the children were observed over a period of several days to see how much time they spent drawing of their own accord.

The researchers discovered that those children who had been told to expect a reward at the beginning of the experiment spent much less time drawing spontaneously than children from the other two groups. Without the promise of another reward, they were less motivated.

Since this classic experiment, the results have been replicated many times.

Promising a reward for activities and achievements - such as that represented by the accumulation of stars on a chart - seems to cause a drop-off in intrinsic motivation. Suddenly, certain activities aren't worth doing for their own sake.

There's another mechanism at work too, one which perhaps more accurately explains why the star chart system suddenly wasn't working for me.

Writing in Psychology Today, Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD suggests: "Promising a huge reward, far away in time, for perfect behaviour is a set-up for failure.

"Setting criteria that kids can't meet is also demoralising. I've seen more than a few 'behaviour mod charts' filled with frowny faces. Rather than reward systems, these end up being proof of the child's 'badness', which is never helpful."

I didn't have any frowny faces on my star chart but the big, ugly crosses I used to score through the squares that hadn't earned a star that day amounted to the same thing.

Seeing them added to my sense of Protestant work ethic-based guilt and my feeling that I was a worthless slacker.

Perhaps you've felt something similar when you haven't managed to clock up 10,000 steps in the park during your Government-sanctioned exercise hour.

Anne Thorndike, assistant professor of medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, which is affiliated with Harvard, has been researching the effects of activity trackers, such as Fitbit, on motivation.

The research isn't yet complete but it looks as though the effect Kennedy-Moore noticed with the children she studied seems to be holding true for Thorndike's subjects. Thorndike told verywellfit.com: "If you've set yourself a goal, and the wristband is telling you every time you look at it that you haven't reached that benchmark, you may eventually just take the thing off."

So, what's the solution? Having no goals, or moderating the goals we do have to reflect that in this period of isolation, sometimes getting out of bed, showering and getting dressed is a big achievement?

I've made myself a new chart. There's still a column for work because of course there are still bills to pay, and there's still a column for walking, because I never need to be persuaded to take a stroll in the park.

But the three other columns have been squished into one titled: 30 minutes of whatever I want to do.

The funny thing is, now that I don't approach lockdown like a period of Olympic triathlon training, that '30 minutes of whatever I want to do' is actually 30 minutes of yoga.

Belfast Telegraph