The Paradox of Motivation

Based on research done by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi for his book Flow, we observe an interesting paradox about motivation. Both at work and in leisure.

We want to work less and spend more time in leisure. That’s obvious, but here’s the interesting bit. Contrary to popular opinion, we feel better at work than we do in our leisure time. We feel stronger, challenged, more creative and engaged when we are at work.

The reason behind it is simple but not well known. Flow state, the state of optimal experience is easier to attain at work than it is at leisure. Work has the major components of flow built into the structure itself which are, your level of skill is matched with the challenge/task faced at work, clear goals, feedback and rules. And, an opportunity to grow your skills to match the ever-increasing challenging situations. Time in leisure, on the other hand, does not have a structure like our work time and is usually wasted in a passive daze of inactivity and social media. And hence, people report feeling bored, dull and dissatisfied during leisure time.

The research showed that people wished to be doing something else to a much greater extent when they were at work than when at leisure, even though we spend more time in ‘flow’ at work. In other words, our motivation at work is low even in the flow state. And our motivation is high in leisure even if our quality of experience is low.

The reasons behind this paradox obviously can be divided into two major parts. One part related to work, and the other with how we spend our time in leisure. Work, even if it brings us an optimal experience is looked at as something which is forced on us. It is a burden on us, something that we have to do, as opposed to something that we get to do. Leisure time on the other hand, as mentioned previously is wasted in inactivity. Lying on the couch, watching Netflix, scrolling Instagram is a good representation of a majority of the time spent by people when they are at home. It just leaves us feeling unsatisfied at the end of the day.

The situation then isn’t ideal. We want to be highly motivated at work, and when we unwind, we want to recharge our batteries to take on the next day or the next challenge.

So how do we break this paradox?

The stereotype associated with work being a burden is a good first step. A realignment of the goals of the organization with that of the individual so that the individual feels that his/her work is adding to their personal development would also help. So could adding a bit of variety and challenge could also alleviate the feeling of low motivation at work.

On the other side, leisure time is unstructured as opposed to work, and it requires effort to shape it into something sustainable that we can enjoy over a longer period. Our hobbies provide us with the easiest route towards the flow state. Spending some time away from our screens is also a great idea as it allows our mind to free itself from the stimulation provided by the internet and think about creative ideas. And finally, my favourite, burning some calories. Movement or exercise of any kind is the easiest way to reduce the levels of stress in our bodies. How we use our leisure time has an impact on all other aspects of our lives and is an area that we should actively focus on.

A simple shift in focus could help us in rewiring our motivation which has gone haywire today due to a multitude of reasons. Thus, regaining our productive energy wouldn’t just make us better at work but could also help us in building a happier life.

Read, write, run. Not necessarily in that order. Love insights on human behaviour, productivity, football tactics and geo-politics.