Maintaining motivation @ home


I got an email from an academic recently requesting I come speak to their student group about maintaining motivation across the day. Well actually, it was a digital invitation to come speak in their Collaborate session (we all meet virtually nowadays).

This has become a bigger topic recently because there are genuine differences in maintaining motivation when working from home, versus going into a workplace.

What the students were finding is that they started the day OK, but lost motivation and focus in the afternoon.

It got me thinking about whether it is indeed a loss of motivation or perhaps something else at play.


I think it might have more to do with the work setting

A workplace is full of reminders and triggers for us to engage in work, which I think we interpret as ‘motivation’ because we are constantly being triggered and prompted to engage in work related activities. We also have around us the necessary equipment and materials to engage in that work. Hence working@work is easier because the environment is both set up for work and it constantly triggers us to work.

It isn’t so much that we are more ‘motivated’ at work, it is just that going to work puts us in an environment where work behaviours are supported and other behaviours are not. We feel busier at work, because just about every activity we engage in at work ‘feels’ work-related. Even a casual conversation with a colleague feels like work, because we can call it ‘networking’ or ‘information exchange’ or ‘professional development’

Compare this to working@home, where many of the of the reminders and triggers around us relate to activities other than work. If I look around my home office, I see lots of items that encourage me to do stuff other than work (guitar, bike, garden, art materials). I also don’t have access to the same equipment and people and rooms that generally support my work activities.

This creates a greater sense of internal conflict. There is now competition for our attention between work-related activities and non-work related activities. Thus my perception is that I am not doing as much work as I should, which I may interpret as a lack of motivation.

I am not convinced though that motivation is the problem.


Motivation is a feeling and is a crappy guide

Ok, so it is more complex than that, but for the moment, let’s consider that motivation is a feeling. We ‘feel’ motivated or we don’t. We feel more or less energised to work.

Now feelings are a useful guide in some contexts. If we feel unsafe in a situation it might be appropriate for us to remove ourselves. If we feel nervous about an upcoming presentation, it guides us to prepare ourselves well for it.

But motivation as a feeling is not a great guide for picking when and how to work. If we only worked when we felt motivated and energised, then hardly any stuff would get done.

Motivation is simply too slippery to get hold of in a way that allows us to wield it as a productivity tool.

I can be motivated to exercise when I wake up in the morning, but by the afternoon that motivation has completely disappeared. It might re-emerge when I watch a news story about exercise, but disappear again when I see there is ice-cream in the fridge.

My suggestion is to abandon ‘motivation’ as something you can control in a way that makes you more productive.

Which raises the question – what else should someone focus on instead if trying to stay productive when working@home?


1. Modify your environment to create a workspace within your home space

Remember how I said that when you physically go to work, you surround yourself with triggers for work and this helps keep you focused on work-related activities.

You’re going to need to set up a workspace@home that similarly triggers you to work.

Now I am lucky that I have been able to devote part of my ‘study’ to creating a workspace@home. I have proper desktop computer, monitors, printer, filing cabinets, stationary, headphones, webcam etc. When I sit down in that space, I feel like I am there to work. It feels qualitatively different from other spaces in my house such as the couch that are associated with relaxation and doing ‘sweet f*&k all’.

You might not be as lucky. You might have just a bedroom or a part of the lounge in which to work.

Doesn’t change the underlying goal though.

In whatever space you have, try to carve out a section that clearly feels like a workspace. It might be by adding a small desk with a monitor you can plug your laptop into. It might be a little corner of the lounge where you can set up a lamp and a laptop. It doesn’t have to be huge or complex. Just somewhere that becomes your ongoing work space.

If you can, make it attractive (add a little of your personality) and comfortable (somewhere you’d be happy to sit for a few hours each day). A workspace doesn’t need to be dreary and business like. In my workspace, I have a lego Batmobile and a funny picture by Tim Sharp.

If you continue to work in spaces that are associated with other activities (e.g. a bed or couch), you’ll constantly be fighting those contradictory triggers.


2. Make work easy to do by having the right equipment

There is this idea in the habit formation literature that humans tend to default to whatever the easiest solution to a problem is.

If the problem is ‘how am I going to spend my time here at home?’ then we’ll default to the easiest things first, which, if you are me, are eating and YouTube.

Work is much harder to default to because lots of things need to be in place for it to be the easiest thing.

Now it is probably impossible to make work the easiest thing to do, but it is possible to make it easier. In point #1 above, I talked about creating a dedicated work space.

But it isn’t just the space that determines whether work is easy to do. It is the equipment also.

Anyone working or studying from home is going to need a decent computer, webcam, headphones, internet, telephone and some private space for conversations. If you don’t have the necessary equipment, then acquire it.

If you can’t acquire it, you will need to problem-solve options. Maybe you need to do some days at the uni computer labs. Maybe you need to book all your phone calls into dedicated time slots where you can get privacy from other housemates. Maybe you need noise cancelling headphones. Maybe you need to lock your brother out in the shed.

My guess is you already know what the biggest barriers to working from home are for you. The question is whether you are actively seeking solutions to those problems or avoiding them. The more you avoid these problems, the more difficult it will be to work from home and the less motivated you will feel. We call that a negative feedback loop. Problem –> avoidance –> more problems –> more avoidance.


3. Get better at describing and listing tasks

When you don’t actually have to go to work, you need another way of tracking that you are indeed working.

I’ve found that keeping more detailed lists of tasks for the day and week to be incredibly helpful in this regard.

I use Google Calendar to both track appointments and meetings but also allocate time to specific tasks. The first thing I do each day is allocate time to each of the tasks that I want to get done that day. I try to be as specific as I can about the task to complete. So instead of writing ‘do a blog post’, I would write ‘start that blog post about motivation’.

When I’ve completed a task in Google Calendar, I change its colour. This helps me stay motivated because I can get a quick visual representation showing me that I am getting stuff done. The image below is a obscured overview of my previous week. You can see a bunch of completed tasks (green), a few uncompleted tasks (blue) and some meetings (red). The prominence of green tells me it was a fairly productive week.

If you don’t have a way of tracking what you are getting done, then you are robbing yourself of a source of reinforcement and reward that you are indeed getting shit done.



4. Develop pre and post-work rituals and transitions

I am someone that struggles with transitions.

If, unexpectedly, I am forced to relocate from one task to another or from one place to another, I have a mini internal tantrum.

My brain likes predictability in terms of routines.

I can use this to my benefit though.

For example, I built a totally new morning routine when I started working from home. Meditation, yoga or walk, shower, glass of water then sit down at 8.45 and fire up my calendar and put my tasks in for the day.

When I’ve completed tasks, I step away from the computer and spend some time in the garden, or doing a few push-ups or raiding the cupboard or playing my guitar. These activities help me mentally detach from the work for 5-15 minutes before sitting down to the next task. They are transition activities.

At 5.00pm, I shut down my computer, switch off all the monitors and carry my dishes to the sink. This is my end of day routine.

Now, whilst I might be on the more neurotic end of the routine-loving spectrum, I find that many people respond positively to clearly defined routines, especially those that signal a movement from rest/play into work and vice versa.

You are going to want to set up some rituals that mark the passage from non-work to work and back again.


Remember that emotions aren’t the best guide when it comes to productivity

One of the most valuable lessons I ever learned about myself was that I was capable of doing work even when:

a) I was quite upset

b) I was quite stressed out

c) I lacked any interest in what I was doing

I’m certainly not saying that I did my ‘best’ work during those times, but I could get stuff done and in doing so, keep momentum going.

Everyone is fascinated with the wrong M word.

Aim for momentum (reliably and continually getting important stuff done), rather than motivation and your productivity will improve.

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