Perpetual Fuel: Finding the Motivation to Work

745600_running_on_emptyWhen a friend of mine heard that I was teleworking, she said “I can’t imagine doing my work without my boss watching my back. What motivates you to get anything done?”
I paused for a second, then replied, “I love doing it.”
Fast forward to a few hours later — one of my hosting accounts crashed, a delinquent client’s bill was two weeks overdue, and I received a long line of harsh comments on one of my blog posts post. Remembering what I said about loving my work, I felt tempted to take it back.
How do we stay motivated when crises come to us in groups? Or, to address a broader issue, how do we find the motivation to get things done when we’re feeling stuck?
What to Look For In Your Motivators
The majority of the existing research shows that our motivations can be separated into two categories — extrinsic and intrinsic,  although there are some studies contradicting this, pointing out that human behavior is more complex. For the sake of simplicity, let’s focus on the two main categories:

  • Intrinsic motivation. You feel rewarded from performing the task itself. This is where enjoying your work comes in.
  • Extrinsic motivation. Your motivation to perform a task comes from outside, including money, food, praise, etc.. Threats are also motivators, such as the threat of losing a client or being fired if you don’t perform your job well.

According to a study from the University of Alberta, extrinsic motivators are fine for short, low concentration tasks. Examples include replying to emails, interacting in social networks, or performing administrative tasks that we usually don’t feel “inspired” to do. To accomplish them, you might promise yourself a snack or a leisurely activity after you’ve finished.
But, as the study also points out, these external rewards prove to be ineffective for more long term, high concentration tasks, such as sketching logo ideas or writing a draft.
How do we get our important and creative projects done then, if we can’t rely on external rewards?
Career analyst Dan Pink recently gave a talk at TED about the science of motivation. In his talk, he noted three major motivators that were more effective than extrinsic motivators:

  • Autonomy. Pink defines this as “the urge to direct our own lives.” Most web workers already experience this to some extent, given that we have more control over when, where and how we work.
  • Mastery. “The desire to get better and better at something that matters.” How do you know you’re getting better at work? Do you quantify it?
  • Purpose. “The yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.” This is a deeper, more personal aspect of motivation that we have to figure out. A good starting point is to consider how your work output affects the world, no matter how small that effect seems to be.

Other studies also show that the way we commit to goals can affect how effective we are at pursuing them. Here are the criteria we should consider:

  • Active. Goals must be written on paper, your online calendar, or a planning tool. This is more effective than a mere mental note.
  • Voluntary. We must commit to our own goals with the knowledge of why they matter, instead of just feeling forced to by others. This reflects the “Autonomy” point made above.
  • Public. When we make our goals public, via our Twitter or Facebook updates for example, we have a higher chance of accomplishing them.

To make the most of what we know about motivation, we need to study our own habits. We can only be empowered if we know how to master our craft, commit to goals, and find our purpose. What rewards have worked well for you in the past? How did you manage to get through low-morale workdays?
Professional motivation isn’t a fixed point to aspire to — it’s an ongoing struggle. Some days we are easily motivated, while other days are more challenging. The key is to develop our own motivational processes so we can still get things done despite these challenges.
Are you good at sustaining motivation? How do you keep going when you’re not feeling motivated?
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