Chris is co-founder of Prolifiko, writing productivity coach, writer and content consultant.

Behavioural scientists often talk about the role that competition or cooperation plays in motivating us to keep fit, loose the pounds or cut the booze but can the same principles apply to help creatives meet their goals? What’s better for you – having a writing rival or a creative collaborator? This is how you use competition to keep you motivated. 

It’s not often that watching self-help TV inspires a think piece about creative productivity and behavior change. Trust Me I’m a Doctor is a British consumer show where real life doctors debunk medical myths and lift the lid on ‘miracle’ health cures and the like (okay it was Monday, I was tired).

In this particular episode, the medics ran an experiment where they asked a group of 30 or so sedentary office workers to spend less time in their swivel chairs and more time on the tread mill over the course of a month. They wanted to find what social conditions best motivated these people to maintain a more active lifestyle.

Cooperate or contest?

First, everyone’s activity levels were assessed and they were given individual exercise goals to hit. Then, the group was split into three.

The first group (the cooperators) were told that their personal activity target would contribute towards a goal that they would aim for collectively.

The second group (the competitors) were told that they’d be competing against each other for prizes and that their progress would be shown on a leaderboard.

The third control group were given nothing more than regular public health advice to read.

The researchers kept tabs on everyone’s activity levels to see which group was the most successful at sticking to a more active lifestyle. Would the urge to beat rivals or the dread of letting a group down keep them more motivated?

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The top spot

First, the researchers gave a big thumbs-down to public health leaflets as members of the control group barely made it past the photocopier – they made no progress at all. By comparison, the cooperators were far more active. Their activity levels increased 16 per cent over the month. But it was the competitors who experienced the largest improvements. Overall, they increased their activity levels by nearly a third (30 per cent) over four weeks. A clear winner so it seems.

But digging a little deeper shows something a bit odd going on. The collective activity levels of the competitors and cooperators were almost exactly the same until the final week. Then, in week four, two super-competitive people made mammoth leaps in their activity levels and so skewed the overall figure for the competitor group – some of who trailed badly.

Whilst competing succeeded in helping a few people become extremely productive, it also resulted in others falling behind. So what does this mean for creatives looking for that extra push to finish their project? Do you collaborative and cooperate or do you compete and contest to win.

We’ve written before about the myth of the lonely writer in their garret and the many benefits writers gain from strong social networks. Whether that’s writing groups, shared challenges, peer feedback or beta reading relationships, social pressure in some form can lead to dramatic improvements in your writing quality and productivity.

Creative dilemma

In this experiment, those who collaborated might not have reached the heady heights of activity that a few members of the competitor group achieved but as a whole, the cooperator group’s slow and steady approach still saw impressive collective improvements. Working together doesn’t result in big spikes of super-charged productivity, but does broadly work for all involved.

Being in a highly competitive group worked well for everyone until the very end – then the group became polarized between ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. Whilst it’s clear that competition achieves results, it might not be for everyone and if it’s not for you then it might even be damaging to your productivity – and probably your confidence.

Our own research suggests that writers are motivated (and demotivated) by similar factors to the activity-shy office workers in this experiment. It also suggests that different people get different benefits from group work.

Related reads: How other people make you more creative >>

The few not the many

Whilst some writers want to be part of communities for emotional support and encouragement, others value the structure and accountability that it brings. Some writers value working collectively towards a shared writing goal (like NaNoWriMo) whilst others value the feedback and opinions of others.

Other writers – perhaps a far smaller group – become spurred on to write through directly pitting themselves against their peers. This is often how writers in TV writing rooms work. Writer David Quantick, told us this about his experience of working in the writing room for the hit US TV comedy show Veep:

“It’s like working in a grenade factory where there’s no conveyor belt and you have to catch the grenades as they come at you. Writing rooms are all about who can shout the loudest,” he said.

But whilst working in a grenade-catching, high-pressure environment can work wonders for individual and collective creativity – it’s perhaps only for a certain type of writer and perhaps for only a certain type of writing.

If we can in any way extrapolate the findings from this tiny study to creative people and to writers it would be this: that whilst collaboration in some form works well for writers – you might just enjoy the whole process more – highly competitive environments work better but only for a few people – perhaps a very few.

What matters most then is finding the right motivational push for you and your personality and right environment to help you meet your creative goals.

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