About motivation

This blog post is a bit different than usual, in the sense that is not technical at all, but just my reflexions about how to get motivated, and my thoughts about why I think our (my?) motivation drops down from time to time.

The idea of this blog post comes from a small “motivational crisis” I suffered right after my Christmas vacations.

Longest GitHub streak

“A picture speaks a thousand words” – they say, so just take a look to my GitHub contribution chart to see what I mean with “motivational crisis”.

From mid December to mid February, I entered some kind of vicious cycle of demotivation: I was unmotivated at work, so I was less productive, which made me feel more unmotivated, which made me be less productive, which… after some time, I managed to leave this circle and start working with regularity again, but the fact is that this is not the first time that happens to me, and I know that this is a common issue, specially among programmers, so I started thinking about the cause of these demotivation peaks. This is just a compilation of my thoughts and some real science as well. Brace yourselves.

Why do I get unmotivated?

There are of course multiple reasons for this, and it is very personal and particular to each individual, but there are mainly three factors that I found that really affect my motivation at a given time:

1. Repetitive, mechanical or non-challenging tasks

There are times when on “has to do what he/she is told to”, or times where something just needs to get done, and it is something that you don’t get anything from. These situations really desperate me, but this is something we really have to deal with as grown up people ;-). If you’ve read the subtitle of my blog, you will understand this a little bit more. I always try to automate everything that can be automated, both for the sake of reliability and reproducibility, and because I find stupid doing the same exact task more than once. Whenever I can’t automate something for whatever reason, but I still have to do that thing, it really drops down my productivity.

2. Getting stuck on something you can’t do anything about

Occasionally, you get stuck in something that you just can’t do anything about. The classical example is when your work depends on third parties. When that happens and I can’t continue with my work, or even worst, I have to be attentive to their actions on the matter, preventing me to focus 100% on another task, I get really frustrated. Frustration and motivation are not good friends…

3. Uncontrolled procrastination

Procrastination is a real problem among people that work 100% of the time in front of a computer. In developer specially I would say. Do you recognise this situation? You’re working on something and you start Google-ing for some issue you’re having — “Hmm this conversation is interesting, and that framework/library/tool they’re talking about… I’m going to read about it, just to grasp the general idea” and… boom! Suddenly the day has gone and you’ve done anything but reading.

When that happens you feel bad because you’ve not been productive. Which makes you loose motivation.

How to get out from that demotivation vicious circle?

However you get unmotivated, once you get there it may be difficult to get out sometimes. Here are some tips that help me keep motivated.

If you have to do it, do it as soon as possible

Delaying “must” tasks is not a good idea. If you have to do something that you don’t like, the worst thing you can do is keep down-prioritizing it in your TODO list. All the time that these unwanted tasks are in your todo list, it is time that you have that voice in the back of your head telling you — “you should be doing that task… you will have to at some point”.

It is difficult, but be strong, sit down and work on that task as soon as possible. When you finish it you will have double satisfaction: Getting something done, and getting rid of something you don’t like. Think about that: the sooner you finish that task, the sooner you will be able to work on something you really like.

If you can wait, they can wait

This is regarding the second cause of demotivation. If you have to wait for someone in order to be able to continue your work, just do it. The key is not to obsess about that. Schedule some time for following up with third parties and don’t stress yourself on waiting for an answer. For example, send a reminder or answer related mails only at the end/beginning of the day. What you have to avoid is feeling bad about it, if there is nothing you can do, that’s it, don’t worry. Use the waiting time to work on something that motivates you.

Procrastination is not always a bad thing

On her book A Mind For Numbers, Barbara Oakley talks a lot about motivation and procrastination. The main idea about procrastination is that we do that because it gives us an immediate satisfaction feeling or “reward” for our brain. When you procrastinate, your brain is satisfied because you are moving your thoughts to something more pleasant. However, in long term, because you know that you should be doing something else, you feel bad about it. In order to stop feeling bad, you move again your thoughts to another more pleasant matter, and so on. This is why when one procrastinates, basically keeps going back and forth several things: reading a bit of this, a bit of that.

To avoid this, what I do is try to use this immediate satisfaction in my favour. I try to follow a routine where I work focused for a period of time and, when this time passes, I give myself a reward: a coffee, some reading, check facebook, a walk, etc. If you’re not disciplined enough to control that routine by yourself, try using something like the pomodoro technique for some time. The important part is to manage this “work/something done implies reward” flow. It is difficult at the beginning, but it pays off.

“Gamify” your work

Whenever possible, try to make it fun! One thing that I find fun and motivating right now, for example, is the GitHub longest streak. I am about to reach my longest contributions streak and, even if I know that it is not important at all how continued you contribute, I find it challenging and motivating to do so. This also pushes me to work on personal projects, which is good! Try to “compete” with friends, get inspired by what other developers you admire are doing. Ultimately, have fun!

Know yourself better

Finally, but by no means less important: Know yourself better. This may sound poetic, but knowing yourself will help you to understand why you are unmotivated, and more importantly, how to recharge your batteries.

A couple of months ago a good friend of mine introduced me to the topic of personalities. Thanks to him I’ve gotten to understand my personality better and thus learned a couple of things that help me to keep good energy. If you’re interested on this kind of stuff, this blog post is a very good introduction to the topic.

Being truthful to yourself is important, and will help you to keep a good mood and energy. If you are more of an extroverted and enjoy social activities, being with people and going to dinners and parties, go and do it. If you are more of an introvert and enjoy having time for yourself, reading or going for a walk, go and do it. No matter your personality, the important thing here is that you know what makes you feel better, and that you find the time for those things. Being on a good mood is 90% all you have to do to keep motivated.

What are your thoughts about motivation? Do you happen to have these motivation valleys? What do you do when that happens? Comment below for a nice discussion :-)

Thank you for reading and sharing!

Guillermo Carrasco

In automation, we trust.