Category Archives: Motivation

Beyond the Coffee Crutch: The Secret to Vitality at Work

iStock_000002195003XSmallWhat’s the number one reason for procrastinating? Survey says: low energy. Tackling tasks or chores when we are already tired is a surefire recipe for putting stuff off. Don’t we deserve to rest our feet, to have moments to recuperate after a long day? No argument here; that’s what I want too. The only problem is that we are probably going to be equally tired the next day and yet the task still remains, perhaps made even worse by the wait. Since chores rarely do themselves, we often have to find a new way to eke a little more energy from ourselves each day.

Promising to help us out with this is the recent research by Charlotte Fritz, Chak Fu Lam, and Gretchen Spreitzer, titled “It’s the little things that matter: An examination of knowledge worker’s energy management.” Science to the rescue once again.

Surveying 200 plus working professionals, the research team assessed the workers’ levels of both vitality and fatigue along with strategies that people use to up their energy. What they found wasn’t exactly what you would expect. These techniques were the ones that those with high vitality used:

  1. Learn something new
  2. Focus on what gives me joy in work
  3. Set a new goal
  4. Do something that will make a colleague happy
  5. Make time to show gratitude to someone I work with
  6. Seek feedback
  7. Reflect on how I make a difference at work
  8. Reflect on the meaning of my work

These techniques are value seeking and value creating activities, looking for what is enjoyable in your job or trying to frame the work in a way that creates value. On the other hand, the list below details the activities that are connected to workers with lower vitality and higher levels of fatigue.

  1. Drink a caffeinated beverage
  2. Talk to someone about common interests (e.g., sports)
  3. Listen to music
  4. Surf the web
  5. Check and send personal email or text messages
  6. Make plans for the evening or weekend
  7. Day dream
  8. Shop

Which of these lists do you belong to? If you are doing more of the latter, it likely means that you are chronically tired or fatigued. You need to tend to your energy levels. You have options, including getting more sleep, eating better, exercising, all the stuff you already know. But in addition to that, there is all the tactics from the vitality list. Value and energy are closely related as we always seem to have the energy to do what we like. How often did you not have the energy to write for work but were capable of novella long email messages to friends? Is shopping really less energy intensive than what you are avoiding? No, it is just more enjoyable.  Here’s a supporting excerpt from Chapter Eight of my book, The Procrastination Equation:

Whoever we are, we are likely to put off doing whatever we find excruciatingly dull. Boredom signals that what we are doing is irrelevant, and so the mind slides off the task. It makes sense, then, that procrastinators are much more likely than non-procrastinators to perceive life’s daily tasks as drudgery. Of all the boring tasks that fill the world, the one that tops most people’s hate list is routine paperwork. The busywork— filling in timesheets, submitting expense reports, and supplying the data that companies and governments endlessly require—seems pointless, even when it isn’t. Fortunately, however, boredom isn’t inherently part of any job—anything can be made more interesting simply by the way we treat it.

It seems pretty simple, “reflect on the meaning of my work” or “do something that will make a colleague happy,” but simple doesn’t mean ineffective. You might get an energetic boost by reflecting on how others depend on you, by being a hero to your boss, or honing a new skill that advances your career.  Of course, there are other techniques for increasing the value of your work and I cover a few more in Chapter Eight of my book, like “Games and Goals” and “Double or Nothing,” but that’s enough for now. Take another look at that vitality list and decide to do one thing. And in the spirit of seeking feedback myself, tell me how it worked for you. I’ll bet you it does better than that second cup of coffee you were thinking of getting.

Fritz, C., Lam, C. F., & Spreitzer, G. M. (2011). It’s the little things that matter: An examination of knowledge workers’ energy management. Academy of Management Perspective25(3), 28-39.

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Hard Work Beat Talent (But Only If Talent Doesn’t Work Hard)

76370-66978In a world where we are ridiculously overcommitted to making sure everyone is equal in every way, a new study just published in Psychological Science contains some sobering news you might not like. In their paper “Limits on the Predictive Power of Domain-Specific Experience and Knowledge in Skilled Performance ,” David Hambrick and Elizabeth Meinz kill the myth that talent doesn’t matter. We would love to believe, of course, that all we need to do to be the best is to try hard enough. You can be anything you want as long as we really want it: rocket scientist, pop icon, sport hero. There is no shortage of popular pundits promoting this myth. As Hambrick and Meinz point out:

Malcolm Gladwell (2008) commented that “The relationship between success and IQ works only up to a point. Once someone has reached an IQ of somewhere around 120, having additional IQ points doesn’t seem to translate into any measurable real world advantage” (pp. 78–79). In his own bestselling book, The Social Animal, David Brooks (2011) expressed the same idea: “A person with a 150 IQ is in theory much smarter than a person with a 120 1Q, but those additional 30 points produce little measurable benefit when it comes to lifetime success” (p. 165). Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks are simply wrong. At least in science, a high level of intellectual ability puts a person at a measurable advantage—and the higher the better.

The people peddling this notion that talent is irrelevant often cite a 1993 paper by Ericsson, Krampe, and Tech-Romer regarding deliberate practice in which the researchers argue that success is usually built upon purposeful, thoughtful and intense efforts to improve performance over about 10,000 hours. This is true; hard work does pay off. The Beatles got to be so good because they had to perform their music four hours a day (eight days a week) during their two year stint in Hamburg. Bobby Fischer became a grandmaster at chess after years of honing his skills at the Brooklyn Chess Club. But that wasn’t the question. What we want to know is whether hard work makes talent irrelevant. Will every group that jams together for 10,000 hours become the Fab Four and every chess obsessed child become a world champion?

Hambrick and Meinz showed the basic relationship between hard work and talent in this chart. The vertical axis measures your level of performance. Higher up means spectacular. The horizontal axis charts your innate talent, in this case cognitive ability, what the rest of the world refers to as “intelligence.” Further to the right means super smart. The two lines refer to different levels of deliberate practice. The red line refers to those who have put in the hours while the blue refers to those who haven’t made the effort.

There are two things to take away from this. The first is that being smart is a useful thing to inherit, right up there with a large trust fund. The more smarts you have, the higher your performance. And despite what Gladwell and Brooks say, intelligence’s benefits don’t disappear; the more innate talent of any sort you have, the better off you are going be.

If you take a careful look, however, you will notice that those of us with more modest abilities do have a chance. Even if you weren’t born with genius in your genes, you can outperform the smartest of individuals as long as you work hard and the latter doesn’t. Also, the differences between the smart and the not-so-smart shrink quite a bit if they both work hard. That means that talent still counts, but hard work puts you right up there.

Unless you are in a profession where there can only be one winner, like going for Olympic gold, this is pretty good news. With hard work, at the bare minimum you can be good at what you do. And though you might never be the best, you can give the best performers a run for their money. On the other hand, if you have chosen a career where only the very, very best succeed, you better be born with a lot of talent.

Necessarily, people who are exceptionally talented are also exceptionally rare. But from what we know about the prevalence of procrastination, people who work hard are also pretty rare too. Most of the time, you are going to be end up competing against rivals with one of these attributes, talent or hard work, not both. Those with natural aptitude and the willingness to put in the effort are as rare as diamonds, and twice as valuable. If you see one, take a picture, get an autograph, and wish them good luck. This world has problems and we especially need people like them.

As for us mortals, let’s take one more look at the chart. Is it better to be hard working with modest talents (the low end of the red line) or smart but lazy (the high end of the blue line)? The answer is cut and dried: hard work wins out. I told you might not like the news. But if you are ready to work hard, to change procrastination into motivation, you now know where to get started. by being here, you are already there.