A thing I’ve been thinking about a bit over the last few weeks is how to sustain motivation as you come into the “this no longer holds any intrinsic interest for me” phase of a project. I have a couple of these on my plate right now, but I also want to do my work well. Here I’m jotting down a couple of the strategies I’ve been taking so far; I’ll probably have another post like this in roughly six months when these particular projects are wrapped up.
– 1. –
Find related problems you can solve that support the effort or the team, which are intrinsically interesting.
If you keep your eyes open, you can sometimes find problems which don’t directly advance the project you’re working on, but which both indirectly advance the project and also give you something to work on when you need a break. In my context, this looks like small but broadly-useful pieces of developer tooling.
For example: we’re in a spot where we’re spinning up a number of new applications in a given framework and stack. After getting through everything else on my plate this last Friday, I took a couple hours and started putting together a little tool that will make the major part of that process a single command-line invocation. This doesn’t directly advance the project I’m working on. But it will be useful for our whole team over the next six months.
Another example here for me is identifying technical initiatives we need, and taking the time to think through how we can accomplish them. These are real problems that we really need to solve, and even if we don’t need them solved today (because we’re prioritizing other things), there is a lot of value in figuring out we’ll solve them when we do get to them in a few months.
Both of those kinds of things can help by giving a sense of accomplishment while simultaneously doing something besides the main task, but they don’t require huge blocks of time or keep you from getting the main project done. And they do advance your team or your project in some sense.
– 2. –
Find tasks which are totally unrelated and instrincically interesting, but which do not keep you from getting your main job done.
This is kind of like the previous task except that it may or may not even be related to what you’re working on. I have a couple pieces of technology work that I variously have started and will be starting that are totally unrelated to my main projects. But they’re things that I can go after a bit here and a bit there – the last half hour of a day when my brain is shot, or over lunch, or for a few hours when I’ve finished everything else on my plate.
These kinds of things help me by serving as a reward for getting through the stuff I need to get through. They thus provide a kind of extrinsic motivation where my intrinsic motivation has flagged. They also have enough intrinsic interest of their own that I can feel some of that very helpful sense of accomplishing something I care about when I make progress on them.
It’s important that these things fit the profile I described, though: easy to move forward in small chunks of time, and okay to take a long while to finish. The danger with these–even more than with the first kind of small tasks I suggested–is that they are so interesting, and you have to make sure you do still get your regular work done.
– 3. –
Find ways to gain a sense of momentum.
This one is in some ways the hardest of these, because it’s just digging in deeper on the slog of the project in question–but it’s also the one that most directly gets you closer to the end of the project. The trick is to find a rhythm where you actually move meaningfully closer to the goal of finishing the project all the time, while not ending up bogged down in nothing but slogs along the way.
A big part of this is figuring out how to break up the project into smaller and more tractable pieces, and then alternating the various elements of it in such a way that you can continually feel the satisfaction of finishing things. Over the last two weeks at work, despite some pretty significant frustrations which made it really hard to do this, I came out with more of a sense of momentum than I had even before those frustrations came up–precisely because I actually knocked out the things we aimed to get done in that specific span of time. And we’re in a spot where we’re actually about to go live with the first meaningful chunk of what we’ve been building.
Keeping that sense of momentum is really important. Even when you’re looking at a 6-month stretch of not-that-interesting a set of work ahead of you, it helps to see yourself chipping away at it and making real progress.
– 4. –
Just watch this sequence from Doctor Who Series 9 over and over again. Or better yet, the whole episode.
Personally, I think that’s a hell of a bird.