4 things that will make you more motivated, happy and creative at work

Harvard’s Teresa Amabile gave office workers something very simple: diaries. Then she reviewed their ups and downs and drew connections. What she learned was extraordinary.

She described the study in her book The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work.

Here are four of the biggest things she learned:

1) Progress motivates you more than anything else

Nothing is more motivating than progress in meaningful work and nothing more taxing than setbacks.

Via The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work:

This pattern is what we call the progress principle: of all the positive events that influence inner work life, the single most powerful is progress in meaningful work; of all the negative events, the single most powerful is the opposite of progress—setbacks in the work. We consider this to be a fundamental management principle: facilitating progress is the most effective way for managers to influence inner work life. Even when progress happens in small steps, a person’s sense of steady forward movement toward an important goal can make all the difference between a great day and a terrible one. This pattern became increasingly obvious as the diaries came in from all the teams in our study. People’s inner work lives seemed to lift or drag depending on whether or not their projects moved forward, even by small increments. Small wins often had a surprisingly strong positive effect, and small losses a surprisingly strong negative one. We tested our impressions more rigorously in two ways. Each confirmed the power of progress to dominate inner work life.

And it didn’t just affect motivation. Progress also inspired joy:

In an analysis of knowledge workers’ diaries, the authors found that nothing contributed more to a positive inner work life (the mix of emotions, motivations, and perceptions that is critical to performance) than making progress in meaningful work. If a person is motivated and happy at the end of the workday, it’s a good bet that he or she achieved something, however small. If the person drags out of the office disengaged and joyless, a setback is likely to blame.

2) Heavy time pressure kills creativity. But zero pressure is lousy too

Heavy time pressure kills creativity and morale. On the other hand, having no deadlines made people bored. Much like with stress, low-to-moderate time pressure produces the best results.

Via The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work:

Time pressure is one of the most interesting forces we studied. Although occasional time pressure for short periods can be exhilarating, using extreme time-pressure to stimulate positive inner work life, for weeks on end or even in the short run, is playing with fire. If managers regularly set impossibly short time-frames or impossibly high workloads, employees become stressed, unhappy, and unmotivated—burned out. Yet, people hate being bored. It was rare for any participant in our study to report a day with very low time pressure, such days—when they did occur—were also not conducive to positive inner work life. In general, then, low-to-moderate time pressure seems optimal for sustaining positive thoughts, feelings, and drives.

Heavy time pressure had such a negative effect it could reduce creativity for *days*:

We found that on days of the most extreme time pressure, the professionals in our study were 45 percent less likely to come up with a new idea or solve a complex problem. Even worse, there’s a kind of “pressure hangover,” with lower creativity persisting for two days or more.

3) You’re more creative when it’s not about the money

Amabile found artwork done for love was judged to be of higher quality than pieces done for money.

Via Dan Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us:

Teresa Amabile, the Harvard Business School professor and one of the world’s leading researchers on creativity, has frequently tested the effects of contingent rewards on the creative process…“Our results were quite startling,” the researchers wrote. “The commissioned works were rated as significantly less creative than the non-commissioned works, yet they were not rated as different in technical quality. Moreover, the artists reported feeling significantly more constrained when doing commissioned works than when doing non-commissioned works.”

So how can you reward good creative work when money hurts performance? Use bonuses.

Via Dan Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us:

…Amabile has found in some studies “that the highest levels of creativity were produced by subjects who received a reward as a kind of a bonus.” So when the poster turns out great, you could buy the design team a case of beer or even hand them a cash bonus without snuffing their creativity. The team didn’t expect any extras and getting them didn’t hinge on a particular outcome. You’re simply offering your appreciation for their stellar work. But keep in mind one ginormous caveat: Repeated “now that” bonuses can quickly become expected “if-then” entitlements—which can ultimately crater effective performance.

Or give rewards that support personal motivation. Good examples are recognition, helpful feedback, and time, freedom or resources to pursue exciting ideas.

Via Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else:

Even the prospect of direct rewards, normally suffocating to creativity, could be helpful if they were the right kinds of rewards—those that provide more time, freedom, or resources to pursue exciting ideas. These findings prompted Amabile to revise her hypothesis: Intrinsic motivation is still best, and extrinsic motivation that’s controlling is still detrimental to creativity, but extrinsic motivators that reinforce intrinsic drives can be highly effective.

4) Want to be more creative? Get happy

“Overall, the more positive a person’s mood on a given day, the more creative thinking he did that day.” There was even a carryover effect for the next two days after.

Via The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work:

Our diary study revealed a definitive connection between positive emotion and creativity. We looked at specific emotions as well as overall mood (the aggregate of a person’s positive and negative emotions during the day). Overall, the more positive a person’s mood on a given day, the more creative thinking he did that day. Across all study participants, there was a 50 percent increase in the odds of having a creative idea on days when people reported positive moods, compared with days when they reported negative moods.


We even found a surprising carryover effect showing that creativity follows from positive emotion. The more positive a person’s mood on a given day, the more creative thinking he did the next day—and, to some extent, the day after that—even taking into account his moods on those later days. This may be due to what psychologists call an incubation effect. Pleasant moods stimulate greater breadth in thinking—greater cognitive variation—which can linger and even build over a day or more. Such cognitive variation can lead to new insights at work.

Try it yourself

Keep a work diary and see what connections you can make between what happens at the office and how you feel. Amabile discusses the best way to do it in her 99u talk:

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This article first appeared at Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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