The three key drivers for making progress

Losing motivation is very common in our industry, as the frequency of questions about this topic in the Monospace Mentor community indicates. I’m no exception; I have experienced a lack of drive and dips in work ethic a lot myself, and I still do.

I’ve read a lot about motivation ever since I got my first IT management job back in 2004. One of the most popular non-academic books on this issue is “Drive” by Daniel Pink. In it, Pink differentiates between different levels of motivation. “Motivation 1.0” describes the desire to satisfy our basic needs such as food or procreation. Motivation 2.0 can be summed up as “Seek pleasure and avoid pain”. Unfortunately, all too often, this is all we get in terms of motivation in our jobs.

The most obvious way this “carrot and stick” principle manifests in our work is in salary increases and bonuses. They’re a very common carrot that gets dangled in front of us as a motivator to achieve specific targets. Promotions have a similar effect because not only do they come with a pay raise, they also provide prestige in form of a shiny new job title. Sticks often come in the form of deadlines; the threat of project delays and their possible career consequences create pressure on us to perform.

Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash

Pink collected ample scientific evidence that this kind of motivation isn’t very effective or sustainable. The reason is that it relies on external rewards and punishments to encourage certain behaviours. Extrinsic motivation loses its effect quickly and needs to be constantly renewed or even intensified. In “Drive”, Pink states that intrinsic motivation (which he calls “motivation 3.0”) is far superior. This motivation comes from our own desire to learn, to create, and to contribute to something bigger than ourselves. To foster these internal drives, we need autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Which brings us to my advice on what to do when we feel that we’ve lost our zeal.

Losing steam isn’t necessarily caused by an existential crisis. Sometimes, the solution is as easy as just shaking things up a bit by switching to a different task, or working from a coffee shop. If you notice the dip reoccurring in short intervals or lasting for a longer duration, I recommend you take a timeout to look at the three ingredients that nourish your intrinsic motivation. Because often, a slight change of “diet” is all it takes to reignite that spark. Here’s a bunch of questions that can help you get back on track:

  • Autonomy: Are you currently driven mostly by external factors such as objectives and deadlines? How do they align with your own goals? Is there room to pursue those as well?
  • Mastery: Do you experience personal growth? Sometimes, we just don’t see it even though it’s there. It’s also possible that your job has become kind of dull. What ways can you think of that introduce learning and improving your skills back into your work days?
  • Purpose: Have you lost sight of why you’ve started doing this in the first place? Is that purpose still there, or has it changed? Can you identify something other than your pay check that gives meaning to your work?

Especially the latest of the three driver can easily go missing unnoticed. Losing sight of purpose leads to losing motivation. I have a great work environment, and I can pick from plenty of challenges that allow me to grow. But over time, I tend to lose sight of the reason I’m doing what I’m doing and end up “just doing”. More and more, the motivation why I’m tackling task X becomes “because it’s on my to-do list”. I hope that O-Zone, the “Work/Life Command Center” I’ve built myself in Notion will help with this issue. In there, I have three “O’s” (thus O-Zone, also O₃=Ozone) that keep my tasks grounded in deeper meaning: outcomes, objectives and obligations.

Each task (I call them actions) belongs to an outcome, a project with a short-to-medium term goal. That’s where most to-do list managers stop. My system goes further, though. Each outcome is aligned with an objective, a long-term goal or principle that’s important to me. Examples for objectives are “Stay healthy” (example outcome: “Exercise” with actions “Exercise daily”, “Buy new kettlebell”) or “Maintain meaningful relationships” (example outcome: “Keep in touch with friends and family” with action “Arrange monthly call with Andy”). Finally, all objectives are associated with one or more obligations, top-level areas in my life such as “Personality and learning” or “Monospace Mentor business”. Adding these additional levels of meaning to my tasks will help me put them in perspective and maintain my momentum better.

Spending a bit of thought on the questions above is often enough to get your motor running again. If not, it’s possible that you’re losing motivation because your current job is missing one or more of the three drivers, autonomy, mastery and purpose. In that case, it’s time for a course correction!

This article was originally published in my newsletter, “News From the Server Room”. To get my column “Mentor Monologue” fresh when I publish it, subscribe here.

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