Making Good Days

From the moment I opened my inbox, I knew things were bad. An overnight process had found SERIOUS PROBLEMS in my latest project, which was supposed to be finished. I jumped straight into the fix, kicking myself for not finding it sooner, despite all my efforts to check. My nerves were fried, my confidence shaken – it was going to be a bad day.

Which reminds me of this blog post I’ve been meaning to write, and the very catchy headline in a recent Harvard Business Review which inspired it: “What really motivates people“. Motivation is one of those Big Questions – how can we be more exited and interested in what we’re doing. A classic view of motivation says that people go to work to make money, so offering incentives like more money motivates people. While this proves relatively true for mechanical tasks, research has shown that for knowledge/thinking tasks, it is intrinsic motivators that work. Dan Pink has some great presentations on this, and he further points to three types of intrinsic motivators: autonomy (being able to set your own course), mastery (the opportunity to develop a significant skill), and purpose (working towards a higher cause). But these are all longer term motivators: month, year, career things, and with the spectre of a ruined day in front of me, I’m thinking on a shorter scale: days or weeks.

Which brings us back to this HBR article, which suggests a different motivator: making progress.

The authors, Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer, did a multi-year project to analyze regular workspace factors and how they influence creativity, productivity, and so on. From several hundred participants, they collected daily motivation and emotion rankings, then compared them against daily diaries. They found that good days – days with high motivation rankings – were very correlated with days when the participants felt like they had made good progress1. In an earlier article, the authors gave some details of their analysis with a series of examples from a software team in a crunch.

“Achieving a goal, accomplishing a task, or solving a problem often evoked great pleasure and sometimes elation. Even making good progress toward such goals could elicit the same reactions…Not surprisingly, there is a flip side to this effect. Across our entire database, the worst days—the most frustrating, sad, and fearful days—were characterized by setbacks in the work. Again, the magnitude of the event is not important: Even seemingly small setbacks had a substantial impact on inner work life.” 2

So I went back to work that bad day looking for a way to feel like I had made progress. I tightened up comments, refactored some code. I sent long overdue e-mails, and sat down to properly read about some company initiatives. I broke my biggest task into smaller pieces and got most of those pieces done. And while it still wasn’t a great day, it turned out okay.

Since then, when my starts to go south, I try to resist my urge to stay focused on just one thing until it’s put to rest. I start looking for quick wins – things I can put to rest easily and feel like I’ve made progress in the day. Most of the time, this works. It’s hard to keep up a good set of tasks that give quick wins; my best source is getting down on paper stuff that I’ve been thinking about in the back of my head. And sometimes I’ve got deadline pressure, and I can’t just put work down. For the times when I can use it, it’s great to have something to try to salvage the day.


  1. Amabile and Kramer are not the first to link good days with productivity. In 1959, Frederick Herzberg also did a study on what correlated with good days. Herzberg came up with something called the Two Factor Theory: One set of factors cause job satisfaction – these are called motivators, and are things like achievement and recognition. Another set of factors cause dissatisfaction – these are called hygiene factors, and include things like your salary or relationship with your boss. Motivators are internal to the work being done, while hygiene factors are external – more about working conditions and policies. Herzberg’s study supported his theory that these sets of factors are distinct – so to increase satisfaction involves aiding the intrinsic motivators, while decreasing dissatisfaction involves keeping up with the extrinsic hygiene factors. While Herzberg’s study covered many areas, it still reinforces that idea that the most powerful motivator is our own sense of achievement, or our sense of progress. 

  2. Page 10, Inner Work Life, Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer. _Inner Work Life* expands on the analysis with examples from the diaries of a software team working on a short-schedule, high-visibility project. 

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