Intrinsic motivation is overrated

I’d give myself a gold star for that

Colleen Lewis
4 min readJul 31, 2017


When I do 45 minutes of work, I give myself a gold star. Yes — I literally give myself a sticker. To be pedantic, it isn’t gold — the color of the sticker depends on the day of the week (obviously), but I’ll get to that in a second. I think my current sticker-reward system is pretty rad, hence the blog post. I’ve been coming up with elaborate systems to trick myself into getting work done for a long time (e.g. the one below from my high school Academic Decathlon team).

Sticker chart from high school

I’ll start with the boring part, time tracking, and then get to larger and larger sparkly stickers. I use a google doc to track my time. I just have a list of my projects with my current balance of minutes. When I start a new task, I mark the time (like the 8:36 below for blogging). Right now I have 15 different “projects” in the list. Some of them are short lived — others ongoing. (CSTT is work on my grant,

My Google-docs time tracking — I started blogging at 8:36 today.

I know that the Pomodoro Technique people tell me I should work on a single thing for 25 minutes. Whatever. I just make sure that I’m tracking times for each project.

At the beginning of the week, I pick which projects are a priority and each of these gets a circle on my sticker sheet. The size roughly equates with the priority. When I earn a star (by working 45 minutes) I get a star based upon what day of the week it is (Mon=red, Tues=orange, etc.)

Lien Diaz, Aman Yadav, and me discussing the wonders of stickers. Lien is not convinced. (Photo by Melissa Rasberry)

If I didn’t give a particular project a circle, those stars go into “email” and I try to minimize the stars there. In the boxes on the top, I keep track of the total stars I earn each day plus the number of hours of meetings. If I have an event on a particular day — I’ll note that too. When I’m looking back through these sheets (obviously that’s a thing I do), it is nice to be able to see why I didn’t get many stars on a day.

Two star charts with circles representing the important projects (circles with no stars are a bad sign).

This summer, I’ve added a new layer! Every project has a row on another set of sticker sheets. Here’s my “Equity” project — a book chapter about equity in CS. Every time I complete a star for this project, I fill in a tiny pie piece along that row. 10 tiny pie pieces add up to a bigger sticker!

Big stickers earned on my “equity” project — To date 28 little stars (45 minutes each) completed.

When I finish a whole row (5 big stars or 50 little stars — 37.5 hours), I get a praise-words-ribbon sticker. I refer to these as “tickets,” which authorize me to purchase something that I (1) want and need or (2) want and don’t need, but isn’t very expensive. These big stickers are super helpful for tracking my progress on these multi-week projects.

A completed row of 5 big stars + a praise-word-ribbon sticker.

I try to break projects up into these 50 little star components. For example, I have 7 rows dedicated to sub-projects on my grant ( and any work on that project that doesn’t fit into one of those sub-projects goes on the CSTT line. The pictures below show 3 completed rows labeled “NSF” — meaning I’ve spent 150 little stars writing NSF grants (although the total this summer was actually 250).

Three of the “Big sticker” charts with the projects for the summer.

Probably the most satisfying thing is looking back at the empty sticker sheets (which I obviously save). Turns out, work takes time. If I can get myself to put in the time on the projects that need it — I can probably finish them! I definitely can’t finish them without putting in the time!

Want to get started? My bubble sheet template, another template, my rows template, and my sticker brand.