How to Herd Cats

It’s one of the most famous and fun metaphors out there: “It’s like herding cats!” It was the subject of a major and very popular technology company ad campaign, too:

The thing is, it doesn’t really make much sense. Herding cats is easy. You just put something the cats really want – a can of tuna, for example – in the place where you want them to go.

BAM! Herded.

I think that the idea that we have to exert force in order to get things accomplished is one of the most wasteful ideas ever. There have been several philosophies – aikido, open space, essentialism, open source – that capitalize on a different theory: if you want something done, exert just enough power to allow it to get done itself and no more.

I only bring it up because remembering the secret of herding cats can sometimes give you a useful strategy when it comes to motivation. It’s worth remembering, though, that it’s often not as easy as herding cats – because it’s hard to find something as ubiquitously yummy as a can of tuna is to a feline. As Daniel Pink explains quite eloquently in his book Drive,

“People use rewards expecting to gain the benefit of increasing another person’s motivation and behavior, but in so doing, they often incur the unintentional and hidden cost of undermining that person’s intrinsic motivation toward the activity.

This is why “bonuses” and the like often aren’t effective. You have to find something that the “cats” actually want. Want to know how hard that can be? Start small: what do you really want?

Playing Myself to Sleep

It’s a trickier question than you might think. For example, during a recent personal development meeting I chose to focus on “Recreation/Play”. Not because I thought it was easy – because of the opposite. I knew I could improve my education or my business or my health easily, but figuring out how to integrate real “play” into my life? That’s hard.

The most surprising thing, though, came when I asked myself: what will my life look like when I have Play as an integrated part of my life? I gave it away in the headline: it looked like sleep. Literally, I wrote: I will go to sleep easily and happily, content with the work I’ve done both for myself and others.

Now, if I had just said Figure out how to play! then there would have been any number of directions to go. Games! Sports! Join a band! And all of those may still apply – but by taking the time to figure out what I really want – sleep – I can make sure that all the myriad ideas – the cats in my brain – are heading in the same direction.

At least, that’s the theory. What kind of cats are you herding these days? And is there some way to apply influence, rather than force, to get them to go the way you want?

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