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Have You Accidentally Sabotaged Your Motivation to Work?

Leisure activities are meeting needs we used to satisfy through work.

"How can I motivate myself to work?"

I've asked myself that question many times in my life.

It’s funny, though. Here are some questions I've never asked:

  • How can I motivate myself to eat pizza?
  • How can I motivate myself to talk with an attractive woman?
  • How can I motivate myself to get out of these cold, wet clothes and slip into the hot tub?

I haven’t asked these questions, either:

  • How can I motivate myself to play my favorite video game?
  • How can I motivate myself to play disc golf?

At this point a question comes to mind.

bored at work

Why Are So Many Activities So Much More Compelling than Work?

bored at work

Why Are So Many Activities So Much More Compelling than Work?

I find the above activities intrinsically motivating. My work often isn't? Why?

Some of the above activities are designed to help meet my immediate physical needs (for food, for sex, for companionship, for warmth). There’s little puzzle there. Such activities are essential to my evolutionary mandate to survive and replicate.

But, when we compare the leisure activities to work, things get a little puzzling. Work seems to have a much stronger connection to evolutionary fitness than playing video games or disc golf. Shouldn't we expect work to be more compelling as well?

In some ways this is just as puzzling as other things we find in the modern world.

The Beetle-Bottle Battle

a jewel beetle mounting a beer bottle

Photo Credit: Darryl Gwynne

Once upon a time, if you were a male jewel beetle, the female jewel beetle was the sexiest thing around. Those beautifully-dimpled, amber-brown wings...those mesmerizing hips...mmm. Then one day, the Australian stubby beer bottle came along.

And that was that.

That beetle is doing exactly what you think it’s doing to that bottle. This is happening all over Australia, while female beetles go unwooed.

Why are Beetles Hitting the Bottle?

Male jewel beetles are (and were designed through evolution to be) triggered by patches of amber-brown and the presence of dimples to pursue sex with anything in their environment bearing those cues (apparently).

And for ages those cues reliably led male beetles to pursue sex with female beetles. The normal stimulus triggered adaptive behavior.

Then things changed. The Australian stubby beer bottle came along bearing these same cues, only much more clearly. The amber-brown, dimpled goodness of the beer bottle is not a normal stimulus. It’s a super-normal stimulus. And this super-normal stimulus is triggering maladaptive behavior.

Or consider another question relevant to members of our own species.

Why are Humans Hitting the Food Court?

It used to be that a fairly bland stew of beef, carrots, cabbage, and potatoes was the tastiest thing around. Hearty and satisfying.


But now we have pizza and pastries. And potatoes need to spend hours getting all gussied up if they want to have the slightest chance of getting our attention.

Many people are starting to think that junk food, too, is a super-normal stimulus for humans (This is the theme of David Kessler’s book, The End of Overeating).

Whole foods, with their higher water content, higher fiber content, lower salt and flavor content, are the normal rewards of food-seeking behavior. We are supposed to like those foods. But we don’t like them as much as we used to. We have tasted pizza, and things might never be the same again.

In the case of junk food, it’s not the external cues that are super-normal, but the internal reward (Actually, thanks to modern marketing, it’s both, but it starts with the internal reward). Pizza delivers its payload of glucose, salt, fat, and flavor in a relatively intense way when compared to whole foods. So the behavior of pursuing and eating pizza is reinforced more strongly than the behavior of pursuing and eating foods with less flavor, lower calorie density, and more fiber.

And that means, when we get that pang of hunger, and start thinking about what to eat, pizza and other processed convenience foods are much more likely to come to mind than a simple pot roast. Add to that the fact that a good pot roast can take hours to prepare, and you can typically shove a large bolus of junk food down your gullet within minutes, and it’s little wonder people are eating more super-normal food, and less normal food.

If junk food turns out to play a causal role in the diabetes and obesity stories, then this is another case of super-normal stimuli causing maladaptive behavior.

Now, with the idea of "super-normal stimulus" in mind, let's get back to work.

Work as a Way to Meet Basic Psychological Needs

According to Self Determination Theory, we humans have three main psychological needs. We have a need for autonomy, a need for competence, and a need for relatedness (or connection to a community). (see The What and Why of Goal Pursuits)

And, believe it or not, work can be a fantastic way to get these needs met.

If you were the blacksmith in an medieval town, your work wasn't perfect. It could become tedious, and demand for your services would have its ups and downs. But you could also hone your craft over time, and become a master of metal. No one would tell you how to do your job, because no one else knew your craft like you did. And, if anyone needed smithing services, you were the go-to person for that service for the community.

In short, your craft provided you with autonomy and felt competence. And, because others depended on you for your skills just as you depended on them for their skills, your work contributed to your sense of connection to your community as well.

We are attracted to activities that promise autonomy, competence, and relatedness. And that means we can be very attracted to at least some kinds of work.

However, there’s a reason this example comes from a bygone era. Such examples are clearer and crisper, because some features of the modern work world can also frustrate our psychological needs.

In the modern world autonomy is often frustrated by the need of firms to coordinate the activities of one employee with another.

And felt competence is frustrated by fact that we now live in a village of seven billion people instead of a few hundred. In an old-style village we might spend 500 hours achieving “go-to” status for a skill. In the modern world we can work all our lives and still feel mediocre.

That’s not to say that no one enjoys their work these days. Many people do. In fact some people are positively driven to advance their careers. But a large portion of the workforce is also simply “working for the weekend."

And, even as work becomes less compelling, something else is happening.

Leisure Activities are Growing More Compelling

As a species we have invented many leisure activities, and the ones that have turned out to be most rewarding have been selected and modified, while the less-compelling activities have been forgotten.

As the world became smaller over the last few centuries, we could choose not only from the pastimes that had evolved within our own community, but also from those that evolved in communities around the world. Just as we learned to ask ourselves whether we’re more in the mood for Mexican or Chinese food, we also began selecting our leisure activities from a larger pool of options.

a disc golfer attempting a putt

Disc golf is an extremely compelling activity for many people (the author included). And some (the author included) might even consider it the pinnacle of old-style pastime evolution.

Playing disc golf well requires many different skills, which gives a person many opportunities to develop competence. Each shot provides reinforcement. Sometimes the reinforcement is positive, and sometimes it's negative. As one gets better, other players say “nice shot” more often. And, because there are many kinds of shots, and players have different physical abilities, there’s some freedom to develop an individual playing style that matches one’s native abilities and one’s risk/reward temperament.

These different playing styles can become important when playing a “doubles” version of the game. Two average players with complementary skills can find themselves paired up in a team that’s much better than the sum of its parts. And that’s an almost surefire recipe for feelings of relatedness or connectedness.

In short, disc golf provides its players with feelings of competence, autonomy, and relatedness. And it provides it faster and more purely than any job they've had.

And That’s Just the Beginning

In the past our leisure activities grew more and more compelling through a relatively slow process of tinkering and filtering.

But now, video game developers are very consciously designing their games to satisfy our needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness (meeting psychological needs is one of the rubrics Jesse Schell recommends in The Art of Game Design). And these games are growing more compelling by the year.

Skyrim, for instance, allows a player to go anywhere in the game world at almost any time, and allows a player some freedom to mold her character in her own image. As a player’s character develops skills within the game, the player also gains skills as a player. The game provides players with virtual companions who form a team, and each member of the team contributes something unique to the success of the team, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. And, as time goes on, the townsfolk express more and more awe and admiration whenever the player’s character ambles into town.

Few jobs can satisfy a person’s needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness so quickly and purely.

Games like Skyrim, Call of Duty, and World of Warcraft can deliver hits of autonomy, competence and relatedness, for those susceptible to its charms, better than anything previously seen in history. And these games are getting more and more compelling all the time. People already sink hundreds of hours into these games. Imagine what game developers can do when much more immersive virtual reality systems come online. People may never leave these games.

Not everyone enjoys video games (yet). But developers are rapidly figuring out ways to offer more and more different kinds of people the kinds of experiences that appeal to them.

And other activities, such as social media and video entertainment are rapidly evolving as well.

So that raises yet another question.

Are Our Leisure Activities Spoiling Our Appetites for Work?

If we are hungry, and someone offers us a plain baked potato, we might well turn our noses up at it, in spite of the fact that a plain potato is perfectly good nutrition. And part of the reason we find that potato unappetizing is because tastier modern foods have raised our reward thresholds. Old, normal rewards just don’t cut it anymore.

So, when we find ourselves asking “How can I get myself to do my work?", perhaps it’s reasonable to suspect a similar dynamic at play. Perhaps we find our work less compelling, in part, because our leisure activities have raised our reward threshold, and it takes a more intense reward to satisfy our psychological needs.

If so, that will help shape our answers to our final question.

How Can We Increase Our Workplace Motivation?

There are many reasons we might lose our motivation to work. Finding it relatively dull or uninspiring is just one of them.

If we are stuck staring at our computer screen because we are overwhelmed with dozens of stray thoughts distracting us, then we should simply find a way to clear our minds.

If we are unclear about the purpose of our work, then we should figure out the purpose of our work.

If we don’t know how to do something, we should plan it out better, or learn a new skill.

But if we lack motivation to work because we find our work dull, and our thoughts are more on the golf course than on our work, then it seems we have a couple choices. We can 1) try to make our work more interesting, or 2) reduce our exposure to psychological junk food.

There is not space here to go into detail about both of these kinds of strategies. So I’ll just say a word or two about each and point to a good resource for further investigation.

Workplace Gamification

The goal of workplace "gamification" is to make our work as compelling as the games we enjoy.

The term has been a buzzword for at least a few years now, and many tricks have been tried.

Some attempts to gamify work can create perverse incentives that work against the long-term interest of the firm. Some can make employees feel like children, or stifle creativity.

However, when done well, there are many ways to restructure our work so it is much more compelling, and much more likely to provide things like autonomy, felt competence, and relatedness.

And some of the most successful gamification techniques have already been in use for decades.

Agile SCRUM is a wildly successful development strategy in many sectors of the economy (but especially in software development). Part of its charm is that it breaks large projects into quests (called "sprints") that take one or two weeks each. It allows each member of the team to contribute to the completion of the sprint in his or her own unique and essential way, and it provides regular feedback that leaves team members with an ever growing sense of competence.

So one way to make our work more compelling is to make our work more compelling.

But there's another way to approach the problem. And please don't hate me for bringing it up, but maybe our best bet is to do something downright puritanical.

Stop Having So Much Fun Outside of Work

Please tell me you are resisting this suggestion. I know I am.

This is not universal advice. There are places for compelling leisure activities. And maybe, one day, when robots and software are doing all the productive work needed by the economy, we humans will be free to pursue whatever compelling activity suits our fancy.

But, if you are serious about advancing your career, perhaps, just maybe, you might want to keep your appetite for work strong. And that means that maybe, perhaps, just possibly you should consider cutting back on the activities you find more compelling than your work.

Let me be more blunt and specific. If you want to succeed in business, maybe you should give up your favorite video game. Or maybe you should consider limiting your time spent on social media such as Facebook. Or maybe you should stop watching television.

The reason these might be good ideas is not only because these activities compete for your time. It's also because, by indulging in them, you might be making your work feel dull and uninspiring by comparison.

It might be that you have been spoiling your appetite for work.

So there you have it. Now let me have it. Tell me why I’m a killjoy in the comments section. I’m prepared.

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