When was the last time you had discretionary time on your hands, wondering what to do with a gift of time where nothing was planned or expected of you? If it wasn’t yesterday, then read on.
A summer morning stands out with vivid clarity in my mind. I was eight years old. My younger sister, Dee Dee, and I were up before our parents. We were excited to put on our new summer shorts and begin our day. But we were up so early, all our neighborhood friends were still sleeping. And we were bored.
That’s when something magical happened. We went outside and discovered we could turn the steps in our front yard into a game. We ran in opposite directions around the house to see where we met each time. We practiced jumping over the wooden fence between yards. We used the sheets hanging on our backyard clothes line as a makeshift tent.
Exhausted, we flopped down in the grass and began pointing at puffy white clouds in animal shapes against the blue sky. I remember feeling full and satisfied, inventive and adventurous, with a love of games—especially the ones my sister and I created for ourselves.
Dr. Edward Deci, the father of intrinsic motivation, has long lamented that we over-program our children’s lives, robbing them of the discretionary time to be bored. No one wants to be bored, Deci reasons, so we find ways to entertain ourselves. And that’s when we discover our intrinsic motivation—what we enjoy doing simply because of our inherent interest in doing it.
Today’s organizations are filled with employees who are not intrinsically motivated because they haven’t had the discretionary time to discover or tap into their intrinsic motivation.
Do yourself a favor and try these 3 ideas:
Use discretionary time to discover your intrinsic motivation. When you have an unplanned moment, notice the activities you gravitate toward. When there is empty space in your life, what do you want to do? Even if you don’t have the time to get into it or aren’t in a position to do it, recognize your yearning—take note of it. Your discretionary time can reveal the things you are intrinsically motivated to do.
For example, years ago when I would find myself on an airplane without work to do, on vacation with blocks of unplanned time, or with a rare free afternoon on a weekend, I would notice an intense longing to write. Today, I still experience that tug to pull out pen and paper (or iPad) and capture thoughts and ideas. My down time reminds me of my intrinsic motivation.
Tap into your intrinsic motivation at work. When you know what intrinsically motivates you, it’s fun to find ways of integrating it into your work. I link writing to a variety of work-related tasks such as returning emails, explaining details in written form, drafting proposals, and blogging.
Help reveal other people’s intrinsic motivation. I remember thinking that if my boss caught me reading at work, I’d be branded as lazy. Don’t be that boss. Don’t perpetuate the myth that you need to drive productivity through pressure and constant motion. Instead, encourage your employees to take mindfulness moments. Talk to them about their interests, both work related and personal. Help people discover their own intrinsic motivation. And then help them find creative ways to integrate it into their everyday tasks.
Remember, intrinsic motivation is a good thing. When people are intrinsically motivated they pursue goals for the enjoyment it brings, not because of an external reward or outside pressure. They are more apt to attain a state of flow—that place where time flies and they are in the zone because the demands of the task are matched with their competence to do it. Compelling evidence demonstrates that when people are intrinsically motivated, they generate positive energy, higher degrees of creativity, and sustainable productivity.
One more idea. Do your kids, and their future employer, a favor. Leave them alone with nothing to do sometimes. It might drive you crazy for a while, but it will be precious time where they can discover their intrinsic motivation for writing, reading, teaching, learning, memorizing, running, sports, music, history, or math. Helping your children discover their intrinsic motivation is a gift that will keep on giving.
About the Author
Susan Fowler is a senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies, co-creator of the company’s Optimal Motivation and Situational Self Leadership training programs, and the author of the bestselling book, Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing.