The Truth About Work

Motivation and Lies

Motivation is a fickle thing. You can see it in action here on this blog, or rather in inaction as there are often “droughts” between posts (and draughts between drafts…). Back in June I tried to write a post each day that had a title of the form “X and Y”. I was overambitious and they petered out after a bit. This was one of those posts and was originally titled “Motivation and Lies” in melodramatic fashion. I came back to the original draft this evening and quite liked it; so I rewrote the introduction, cut out some of the swears, and rounded out the conclusion a bit.

I have thought about what motivates me a lot in the past few months and I tried to pay attention to my motivation level as it waxed and waned around my various tasks. Sometimes motivation expresses itself as that grit that drives us through a difficult series of events no matter what and sometimes it can desert us altogether despite things going great. I think I have experienced both of these lately. Sometimes it is sleep related (and here I am, late at night, typing up another blog post) so that as my fatigue increases, my motivation wanes. It’s hard to have the drive to do things when your head is swimming because you got five hours sleep in little bursts last night.

Obviously the ideal approach to staying motivated is to be in a position where it isn’t an issue. This happens sometimes when I experience what is often called a “flow state”. In this state everything just comes one after the other and very little effort is required to maintain attention to a task or application to solving a problem. We are not talking about inane tasks either, just ones that you end up happily doing almost automatically: you end up deep in thought yet hardly thinking. For me it often happens when I am writing or programming and sometimes when I draw or get really absorbed in music. These things, the writing and the programming at least, are things that are sometimes difficult to get started on, but once I get going I can put aside all those basic distractions – for food, sleep, pictures of cats, etc – and just get the job done.

So What Is The Truth About Work?

Of course, that approach to motivation, to only attempt activities that get you in to a flow state, well that is a rather privileged position to be in. Most of us have jobs we hate, jobs that take something that used to be fun when we were kids, that we kind of had a talent for once, and turn it into a banal hellish nightmare that we can’t escape from, let alone summon up a flow state for. Most of us have our flow states crushed by unthinking or inept managers, or by our own insecurity and sense of imposterhood: usually a little of both. So the advice “to stay motivated, get into a flow state” seems tantamount to either hippy career advice – “follow your dreams, man” – or to something a little more anarchic: “stay at home and paint a picture of your dog, dog”. Neither of these approaches will get you through your nine to five.

I notice that a large number of productivity gurus are starting to fall behind the line of “do the work”. That is, if you turn up and work, you will reap the benefits of continually chipping away at the coal face in the long run. To me, this is crap. Why should I keep turning up to do the work if I am a) mis-used, b) under-used, c) under-valued, and d) not doing any good for the world by doing it? If you do not address your lack of motivation with any other plan than “it will get better if I keep turning up” then you are going to get done over. I know, because I have been there.

And so the truth about work is that unless you really are your own master and are doing something that you truly love, you are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. No one will allow you to flow and flourish, because they need you to keep turning up every day to be their beast of burden. But if you just accept the drudgery of it and keep turning up in the hope of things getting better, you will never flow and you will never flourish.

One thing that few productivity gurus will tell you is that the solution is to quit. They won’t tell you that there is point where the only solution to what is bothering you is to quit because they are vested in the system that is keeping you down. But the truth about work is that beyond a certain point you can either quit yourself or quit your job. And you really don’t want to quit yourself right?1 You can subsume yourself and all those nagging voices, and this will get you by for a little while, but in the end if you are unhappy and unmotivated, you will have to get the hell out of Dodge. This is what I decided to do. I will write about my experience of that in a future post.

  1. And if you do, you should probably get better help than you will find here. ↩ 

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