Motivation and inspiration are fickle and tricky things. They are fleeting and temporal things that come when we don’t want them and are gone when we do. So how do you maintain them? How do you make them work for you, instead of against you?
It seems there’s an inverse correlation between time to work on things and both motivation and inspiration. When I have time, I don’t want to work. When I want to work, I don’t have time. It’s a frustrating situation to be in, but I think there’s more than just a simple correlation here. I think there’s a real relationship between being away from work tasks and being inspired to do work.
I see two very different questions and problems here, as well. In my experience, motivation is the drive to get something done for some reason. Inspiration, on the other hand, is that new thought or understanding of a situation that allows to do something creative or different in solving a problem or completing a task. The two are often linked, but I don’t think they are the same thing.
When we step away and are doing something else, we don’t shut down our work situation completely. There’s almost always some background thought going on, related to the problems that we’re facing in our work. By giving our brains a rest from the actual work, though, we are freed up of the “I have to solve this” mentality. Having time to do other things becomes important because it gives our brain a chance to make new connections and come up with new ideas and new understanding of the situation. It’s when we’re not focused on the problem at hand that we typically see the largest break through in our understanding or perceptions of a problem.
This is the essence of inspiration, in my experience – being able to step away and do something completely different, then finding a solution or thought that seems to come from nowhere.
It’s tremendously important, then, to have time away from your work. Play video games. Go to the park with your kids. Learn to knit. Listen to the wind blowing in the trees. Go to a club and dance the night away. Sit on the couch and read a book that has nothing to do with your job. Do something – find something – that will get you away from your job, and be enjoyable on it’s own.
I believe inspiration strikes when we find a balance between work and things outside of work – when we fill our lives with joy and new knowledge of things that don’t pertain to the problems we are paid to solve. So get out there and find something that you enjoy, other than work.
This is a much trickier beast than inspiration. There are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is the desire to do well simply for the sake of doing well. It’s the passion that you have for the work itself and for doing a good job with the work. Intrinsic motivation is what keeps us up at night, after the family is in bed, hacking away at that project that we want to finish because it’s so much fun and we’re so close and I just need to do this one more thing… Extrinsic motivation is some outside force giving you a reason to do the work. It’s a person paying you for the work. It’s the punishment that you’ll face if you don’t complete the work. It’s the “complete this, and you’ll get that” reward or the “complete this, OR you’ll get that!” punishment.
Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are necessary. Unfortunately, most people in business put a huge emphasis on extrinsic motivation. “Do this work, and you’ll get a raise.” “Take this position, and you’ll have this authority.” “Complete this task in these constraints, and you’ll get this bonus.” But the reality of motivation is backward from what most people think.
Extrinsic motivation only works in rote, repeatable, almost mechanical work. If your job is to screw in a certain number of fixtures on cabinets in a certain period of time, then extrinsic motivation of getting more money if you screw in more fixtures will work. You’ll work faster and more efficiently so that you can earn more. If your job is creative in nature (at least in some aspects), as software development and design work is, then extrinsic motivations can actually demotivate people. There are studies in psychology that show extrinsic motivations quickly become a deterrent to doing our best work when that work is creative in nature. That is, what you enjoy doing quickly becomes “work” and you lose your enjoyment. You become accustomed to the “give me x for y” and you lose motivation and inspiration because of the consistent increase in the amount of “y” to maintain the motivation.
I’ve Greatly Oversimplified This
I’ve made some rather black and white statements about motivation and inspirations above, and I want you to know that it’s never this simple.
There’s a lot of hard work that goes in to inspiration. If you don’t bang you head against your desk, trying to figure out why that one thing won’t work right, if you don’t do the research to completely understand every last aspect of the task, if you haven’t done the preparation and work necessary to be completely informed, then the inspiration may never strike. Claiming “I’m waiting for inspiration” is not an excuse to slack off. Not doing your work is a great way to destroy both inspiration and motivation.
Similarly, there are some feedback mechanisms and rewards that can help you with intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic factors are not always bad. A mentor giving you praise, seeing your open source project helping others, and other similar types of rewards are both extrinsic and intrinsically motivating.
There’s never a black and white, clear-cut answer to any of this. But learning about the extremes in some of these scenarios can help us find the middle ground where reality lives.
The Iron Of Inspiration And Motivation
When dealing with reality, I like to use some old cliches such as “strike while the iron is hot”. This is trying to say that we should do the work when the inspiration hits. Inspiration can be a huge motivator to get something done. You have that “OH! That’s how I can solve this!” moment, and then you go do it. The iron is hot with the fire of inspiration. Unfortunately, inspiration is fleeting and can often lead us down the wrong path.
There’s a second part of this saying that I heard once: “strike to make the iron hot”. This, to me, has a better focus on the real world that we live in. Most jobs want us to work 8 to 5 (or something like that). Even for me – and independent developer and entrepreneur – I’m stuck in this same hourly grind most days of the week, because I have kids in school and a wife with a job teaching at a large university. When the wife and kids are out of the house, it’s my time to work. When I pick up my son from school, it’s time for me to stop working.
To “strike while the iron is hot” doesn’t happen much for me, because of my family needs. I usually find inspiration in the middle of playing with my kids, in the evening. I can’t just leave and go work. So for me, I try to “strike to make the iron hot”. That is, I sit down in the morning with a specific task or goal in mind, and I start working. I try ideas. I fumble my way through solutions. I delete things I don’t like and try again. Going through the motions of work will bring my brain in to the mode of getting work done – I’m striking the iron to make it hot. Once the iron is warmed up from the physical force of going through the motions, it becomes easier for me to find inspiration by taking small breaks in my day. A short walk around the block. A quick reading of a blog post. Stopping to listen to the wind in the trees. Whatever the thing is, stepping away while my brain is in work mode and giving myself a chance to relax will often create the necessary inspiration that I need. Finding inspiration in the middle of the work day allows me to quickly heat the irons that I have already warmed up.
Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose
Lastly, I have a few resources that you may find interesting, regarding motivation. Daniel Pink has written a book called Drive that talks about these real problems with motivation in a creative world. His work is easy to read and understand, but is based on years of research from well known psychologists (I was lucky and knew of this research before I read his book, thanks to my wife who has a Ph.D. in Psychology). If you would like to know more about motivation in a thinking and creative world, I highly recommend picking up this book and watching the 10 minute video that was produced from the books material, as a conference speech that Daniel Pink gave.
There is certainly more to staying motivated and inspired than I’ve covered here. But I hope it helps to at least understand these things a little, and to begin to get an idea of how we can work to take advantage of both.