I’ve been struggling with motivation of late, and if I’ve ever worked for you, you know that my motivation can be a fickle beast. I think I’ve finally come up with a metaphor that helps me think through my motivational challenges. I present to you my get-stuff-done sailboat.

When I let my mind wander recently, exploring that critical question “what motivates me”, I came up with two answers: 1) I am motivated by creating something that others appreciate, and 2) I am motivated by learning to create something that others appreciate. Learning, creating, and appreciation. Those things fueled my photography career for several years. When I reflect on who I’ve most enjoyed working with, it was those who appreciated my work, and let me know it. Every role that I’ve loved has had ample helpings of learning, creating and appreciation.

In my get-stuff-done sailboat metaphor, I am the boat, and its motion is me getting stuff done. Learning and creation are my sails. And appreciation is the wind in those sails. If a job has ample learning and creation opportunities, then my big sails will catch even the smallest amount of appreciation. If the job has no creativity or learning, then its like my sails are furled, and no amount of appreciation is going to move me forward.

“But isn’t it sad that you can’t do anything without people saying ‘Good job’?” Yes, it would be, but I find that “future me” can appreciate the work I’ve done and that can be enough in some situations.

My sailboat doesn’t have to move just because my creativity sails are filled with appreciation wind. There’s the rowboat of obligation. We all have tasks that we must do that give us no joy–filling out time sheets is one of those for me. So when its time to fill out my weekly time sheet, my sails are furled, and no one says “That was great, Rick”. So obligation moves my boat along. But obligation never moves me as quickly as motivation, so the row boat only helps when the motivation is very low.

And then there’s that anchor. That’s anxiety. I find Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Model helpful here. I feel anxiety when I perceive my skills are not up to the high challenge of a task. And I react to anxiety by shutting down. I avoid doing the thing that needs to be done. Even if my motivational sails are full, if I’m in high anxiety about the task, I’m stuck. And if there’s an obligation row boat trying to coax me along, then I feel a crap tonne of stress. Anxiety Anchor holding me back, mast creaking from the creativity of the task, and obligation row boat tugging at my bow–it can be literally painful.

When I feel that stress, and the realization that I’ve let my anxiety anchor drop finally hits me, I find I can lift that anchor myself. All I have to do is adjust my perception of my skill level. I just acknowledge I don’t know how to get to the end of the task, but I know a first step I can take, and then I’ll figure out the next step. And so on. That’s lifting my anchor, and then motivation and obligation (if needed) can carry me along.

Now for some examples where this metaphor feels like a good fit.

  • Cleaning out the garage so my wife can park her car in it. There’s no obligation row boat because I didn’t commit to doing it, and she didn’t ask me to. There’s no anxiety anchor because the challenge of the task isn’t high, and my skills are easily high enough to accomplish it. The act of creating a clean parking spot isn’t huge, but its definitely enough to catch the appreciation my wife showed at being able to park in the garage. And future me likes having her car in the garage too.
  • Building a development environment for a client. Obligation rowboat is available if needed. I know they’ll appreciate it when its done. The first time through, I enjoyed learning the detailed steps it took, and doing the work of installing the environment. But after we decided to torch it and start over on a different version of Windows, my sails aren’t quite as big. Its a little bit more tedious now. My anxiety anchor was hanging off my stern, but never dropped into the water.
  • Delivering the neighborhood newsletter to 80+ homes. There’s no creation or learning. I know people appreciate the delivery, but it doesn’t move me forward because the task isn’t motivating. I have no anxiety about it at all, so the anchor it sitting in its hold. The obligation row boat moves me along, without hindrance because I promised to doing it.

So that brings me to a problem–if I’ve promised to do something (or I know I have to) but I don’t, pretty much always the answer is anxiety. I have to pull that anchor up so that I can get-stuff-done.