Everyone wants to be happy and engaged at work. We want to enjoy what we do, feel satisfied and fulfilled. The tricky thing is, we tend to treat work motivation and engagement as something that is an element of the job – we either have a job that is interesting or a job that is boring. On the contrary, feeling engaged and motivated at work is up to you, more than you realize!
So, how do you stay happy and motivated at work, regardless of the circumstances?
By recognizing what are the physical, cognitive and emotional elements of work motivation and by learning how to improve them. In this blog post, you will learn how to do it. We offer you a comprehensive framework of work motivation and engagement, that can help you achieve a truly positive and fulfilling state at work. We will guide you step by step through different tactics and methods that can improve your work well-being and make you happy and motivated.
As always, our team of neuroscience and psychology PhDs have gone through more than fifty academic studies related to work motivation, to offer you this comprehensive, science-based framework of work motivation.
What makes you happy and motivated at work?
There is this general notion that some people are lucky to have their dream job, a job that is fulfilling, satisfying and makes them happy and motivated, while others – most of probably – have to ‘suffer’ in our regular, not-so-engaging jobs.
Is it true though?
Research shows that work engagement – so the state of positive, fulfilling and motivated well-being at work – is not just up to your job. Of course, physical, psychological, and organizational aspects of your job play a role in how you feel at work, for example how much autonomy or coaching you receive. However – that’s not the whole story. Being engaged and motivated at work is a result of
- your physical energy levels
- your dedication to what you do, and
- how absorbed you are in your job.
In other words, even if your job is sometimes less than ideal, you can work with what you got, to increase your motivation levels.
So, how does it work in your brain? It’s simple. Your motivation levels depend largely on your brain’s reward and response system: when you work on something that stimulates you in a positive way, your brain becomes engaged and releases dopamine into your prefrontal cortex. Dopamine is our ‘feel-good’ hormone, usually activated in situations such as winning, learning, helping others, etc. And because our brain likes dopamine, such activities can become addictive, and voilà, we have our first motivator in the brain.
There is the other side of the motivation coin though – the threat response, located in your hypothalamus. Anything that may be perceived as a threat releases serotonin, which in turn, prepares your body to a potential ‘fight or flight’ response. So, anything that can threaten your survival – your brain makes you want to avoid it.
That is the simplest way to describe your motivation in the brain. However, if we look at your motivation and engagement at work, it becomes more interesting: the rewards and positive feeling should occur on three parallel levels: physical, cognitive, and emotional, to give you a state of engagement. In other words, it’s not just the content of your job that matters, but also how you think and how you feel physically and emotionally.
In what follows, we will guide you through all three elements of work motivation and engagement: vigor, absorption and dedication, and we will provide you with simple tricks and tactics to improve it.
How work vigor can enhance your work motivation
Work vigor represents your subjective experience of energy and aliveness at work, and the higher it is – the more engaged you feel. If you feel vigorous, you’ll approach your task with more energy, you will also derive satisfaction just from the mere experience of feeling energetic and alive at work. Interestingly, your level of vigor depends on several factors, some of them dependent on your job, such as:
- your workload and
- job demands
but some of them dependent on you, such as:
- your physical health or
- the way you recover from stress.
Although that may seem like common sense, people tend to forget that their physical state determines to a large extent how motivated they are at work. So, here’s how to feel more vigorous at work!
Create a list of ‘boring’ tasks and do them
According to effort-recovery model, the effort you spend to fulfil your job tasks triggers sympathetic reaction in your body – such as increased blood pressure or higher level of cortisol, the stress hormone.
To restore your energy resources, you need to use the functional systems that have not been used in the strenuous tasks. So, staying constantly engaged is not good for you! You need to alter your tasks at work between engaging, stimulating tasks and tasks that are inherently boring.
The easiest way to do so, is to create a list of tasks that you can do as a break from your typical activities. Then, you can set up a reminder to spend at least 5-10 minutes every few hours on those tasks. While it may sometimes feel counterproductive, it will benefit you in long term by increasing your levels of vigor at work. You can put on your list tasks such as:
- Tasks that require physical movement and getting off your desk, such as walking to the copy machine.
- Tasks that do not require your full concentration levels, such as sorting emails.
- Tasks that you consider as ‘boring’, such as replying to some emails and invitations.
- Tasks that are less important and you tend to postpone them, such as monthly goals review.
When you have a list ready, it is easy to switch between your regular, engaging tasks and those you put on the above list. That way, you can ensure your levels of vigor remain high.
How work absorption increases work motivation
Work absorption is the state of flow you experience when you’re at work. Do you know those moments when you are fully concentrated and happily engrossed in what you do? When the time flies by and you don’t think of detaching from your task? Yes – that is work absorption.
Those who are captivated and immersed completely in their tasks experience higher level of job satisfaction and happiness at work. Moreover, absorption in your work means you can concentrate effortlessly, your attention is focused and you feel in complete control of your task. It must be pointed out though, that absorption is more than just a short-term ‘peak’ of your focus or a temporary flow. It is a rather persistent state of mind that helps you to stay motivated and engaged in what you do. Here’s how to get there!
Clear your head
It is difficult to get into a fully focused state if your mind is racing and you are constantly distracted by things you need to get done or plan or even just think about. We’ve all been there – we are so ready to crack on the next task at work, but every once in a while, something pops into our head and the we have two choices:
- Break the flow and focus on the new thing.
- Try to stay in the flow, having in the back of your mind new thing that you might forget.
One way or another, this is not good for you. To overcome it and give yourself a chance to stay fully focused and absorbed in what you do, here are two steps you can follow:
1. First, assign a certain amount of time for a specific task. Make sure the task is clear, well-defined and actionable. For example, setting aside 5 hours to ‘write up a new project’ is not the best idea. Instead, you can break it down into smaller chunks and assign smaller amount of time for each one of them, for example: 30 min to write up the goals and the timeframe of the new project, based on the evaluation of your previous projects. Sounds more specific and actionable, right?
2. Once you have your task clearly defined and you set aside a certain amount of time, get yourself a pen and a piece of paper. When you start working on the task, this piece of paper will be your memory back-up. Anything that pops into your head and is irrelevant to the task you’re working on, write it down. Don’t elaborate on it, don’t explain it, just write down how it pops in your head. It can be something like ‘Remind Annie about Friday’, ‘find that email about the board meeting’, ‘check the weather for tomorrow’. Put down virtually anything, regardless of how important it is, or how relevant it is to your work. That way, you can carry on doing your task for a set amount of time without being distracted, but also, without worrying you might forget something later.
How work dedication leads to work motivation
Dedication at work means that you are strongly and truly involved in what you do, because you feel proud, inspired and enthusiastic about your job. In addition, dedication is linked with how much you identify yourself with what you do. For example, if your job allows you to use your strengths and skills, if the tasks you do are aligned with your goals and values – you’re more likely to feel dedicated to your work.
Interestingly, the opposite of dedication at work is cynicism, an inclination to mistrust others and doubt their good intentions. So, on one hand we have a dedicated person that is feeling the ownership and dedication of their work, and on the other – someone who has a very skeptical attitude towards their work and coworkers. How to deal with it and stay dedicated? There you go:
Re-align yourself with your work
When you start feeling less dedicated at work, you can re-align yourself with your job by finding the common ground between how you feel and what you do. Although not every job is a perfect match for you, you can find something good in every job.
By finding the elements that align your values and your goals with what you do, you can increase your levels of work motivation. In other words, find a way to identify yourself with your job to increase your engagement. Here is how:
- Get a pen and paper. On the right-hand side, write down the following six subheadings:
- I feel proud at work because…
- I feel my work is significant because…
- I feel inspired at work because…
- I feel enthusiastic at work because…
- I feel challenged at work because…
- Then, spend a minute on each of the subheadings. Write down the reasons why you might feel a certain way at work. If you struggle to name the reasons, because you don’t feel particularly proud or inspired at that moment – it’s ok. You can replace ‘because’ with ‘when’ (e.g., ‘I feel proud at work when…’).
So, if you can’t think of a reason why you are enthusiastic at work, because all your enthusiasm is gone, write down when do you feel enthusiastic at work. It might be when you do a particular task, or maybe a specific time of the day, or any other moment you can think of when you felt enthusiastic.
While the first four statements are clearly positive, the last one being challenged is less straightforward. Nevertheless, it is also very important.
To feel fully engaged at work, we must feel challenged from time to time, because without being challenged, we cannot grow and fulfil our potential. Challenges help us focus our attention and can make you more dedicated. So, feeling challenged at work is good for you!
Altogether, this task reminds you why do you do what you do. It helps you to find something intrinsically motivating in your work.
Recap of the psychological framework for increasing your motivation at work
By following this framework, you can learn simple tricks and tactics on how to increase your motivation and engagement levels at work. Here is a recap of what we talked about in this post:
You can maintain high levels of work motivation by tackling those three areas of work engagement:
Work vigor – Ensure your levels of energy at work are high by alternating between stimulating and non-stimulating tasks.
Work absorption – Clear your head to focus on a specific task only, by assigning timeframe for doing it and avoiding distractions in a smart way.
Work dedication – Re-align yourself with your work by identifying what makes you proud, challenged and inspired at work.
Altogether, remember that work motivation is something you can improve – by tackling how you feel about your work, how you do your tasks and how much energy you have, you can increase your engagement.