Why I Lost My Motivation For Work and What I Did Instead

Updated to Productivity on January 6, 2020.

When I was 15 years old my whole world changed.

My older brother Dan, fresh back from his second year of whitewater raft guiding in Northern British Columbia had started his own company. He wanted my help. My first job job was painting our newly fabricated rafts in preparation for the coming summer season. The following year – even before having a driver’s license – I was entrusted with guiding guests through the rapids of the Thomson and Fraser Rivers.

I had responsibility and I loved it.

In the ensuing years, I would graduate from guide to lead guide to partner and then enjoy the eventual windfall (in 1970’s terms) of selling our company. Those were the glory years of long, hot summer days, the brotherhood of guiding and grueling hard work all in the name of happy customers. We were enrolled, had the tattoo, and showed up everyday ready to work hard because it felt good to see the results of our labour which, as Thoreau wrote “yielded an instant and immeasurable crop.”

We’re not in Kansas anymore

Today I spend countless hours bent over my keyboard, responding to emails, writing my blog, or communicating with my team. And even though I know my work is meaningful and our clients love what we do, I’m finding it getting harder to stay motivated.

I know times have changed and we’re not in Kansas anymore I just wish the results of my work were a little more obvious.

We all want clients to sign up online, give us their money, and leave us alone. It’s all about numbers instead of nurturing relationships and scaling up instead of slow growth.

The problem is that on many days my efforts feel infinitesimally small – like trying to fill a bailing bucket with a teaspoon. I’m making process, but it’s painfully slow. And it’s hard to stay motivated when the goal post doesn’t seem to be getting much closer.

The good news is I’ve discovered the missing ingredient to my motivation. You have to measure your work.

Measure your work

We all want to see the progress of our work. 

After spending the morning working in your garden it feels good to look back at your results. Similarly, it’s rewarding to empty your Inbox, reorganize your office, or to write 500 words for a new blog post.

Seeing progress can fuel the intrinsic motivation Edward Deci wrote about in his seminal work on Self-Determination Theory. This is the idea that we feel more motivated to take action when we feel more in control of the outcome–we are motivated by the need for growth. “The starting place for change is accepting oneself,” Deci wrote, “and taking interest in one’s inner world.”

The action-results cycle of getting work done satisfies my need for accomplishment and motivates me to do more. I haven’t necessarily completed the job, but I can see I’ve made progress.

Results rule

For me to enjoy what Deci calls Intrinsic Motivation I have to see results. Here are some examples:

When I go to the gym I always record the workout. That simple notation on a calendar is a reminder that I took control and made the workout happen.

When I need to update my website I block 30-45 minutes to work on one of a list of changes I want to make. Completing that one block of work is my accomplishment.

If I’m writing a new blog or the emails to promote a webinar, I consider the draft is one goal. Completing the draft (again I block time for this work) is my reward.

Every time I see the results of my work I feel more in control. When I feel more in control I’m motivated to do more. When I’m more motivated hard jobs become manageable and boring keyboard work has meaning.

We are all spending more time in a digital world where results are harder to measure. This is the inevitability of moving to an online universe where, in many cases, we don’t meet our customers or even see the product we shipped.

By building your day around accomplishments (as small as they might be) you can enjoy making progress. We might not always have external rewards to get us out of bed, but we can always take control of designing our own rewards.

Enjoyed this article? Here are 3 more all about getting the work done:

Five tried and true writing sources. I’m using one here.
Three daily habits that will transform your productivity.
How to achieve any goal with the miracle 10-minute solution.


Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash