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Optimize for Motivation

When your client is hundreds of miles away, but your bed only three feet, it helps to understand motivation.

The first thing to understand about motivation is that it’s not something you do to someone. That’s called coercion. With enough power you can make anyone do almost anything, but you can’t make them want to; and typically creative work done by people who want to do it is better. The tl;dr of motivation is this:

If you want to build a ship, don’t start by collecting wood, sawing planks and assigning tasks, but awaken in people’s hearts a yearning for the beautiful deep sea. – Antoine de St Exupéry, Citadelle

Extrinsic motivation (especially contingent rewards such as bonuses) has been shown to only improve performance on menial repetitive tasks, and to decrease performance on even slightly creative tasks. There’s a good summary in Dan Pink’s TED talk on the surprising science of motivation (video, 18mins). Money is like hygiene: The right amount has to be present but you don’t want people thinking about it.

Alfie Kohn’s _Punished by Rewards is an excellent critique of reward systems.

What you can do is nourish and support people’s natural inclinations: Techies love to code, designers love designing. This is much easier to do with a remote team.

Anecdotaly, we all already know this: Where was the bulk of all open source software and Wikipedia articles created? The answer is not corporate headquarters, or a startup loft in the edgy part of town, but at home. If you prefer a metaphor, you don’t find large groups of cats in buildings downtown, but you do find many cats in homes — no herding required.

As a programmer or designer, you are at your best when in a state of flow. Even if you don’t know the term, it’s a mental state you are familiar with. Flow is when real work happens, and it’s something we need to cultivate. Jason Fried’s TEDx talk on why work doesn’t happen at work (video, 18mins) explains that remote work minimizes your exposure to managers and to meetings, the two big flow-breakers.

Most modern theories of motivation converge on the importance of intrinsic motivation, and central to that is feeling in control of your circumstances. Dan Pink’s _Drive calls that Autonomy.

Autonomy is the ability to direct your life, and it is a sliding scale. Being able to choose your tools, choose your approach to problem solving, and decide which problems need solving, all increase your autonomy.

Autonomous motivation has proven to promote greater conceptual understanding, result in better grades, enhance persistence at school and in sporting activities, generate higher productivity, less burnout, and greater levels of psychological well-being (see Drive for references). All other things being equal, remote workers have significantly higher autonomy than office workers. In the unflinching words of Jody Thompson on the ROWE blog:

It’s too bad that companies are still hiding behind glitzy buildings with on-site amenities, flexibility programs and knitting clubs when what people really want are their lives back.
It’s time to start giving kudos to companies that focus on results and give their people complete control to manage their own time. It’s time to stop holding companies in high esteem who are re-packaging the same old crap and making us feel guilty if we don’t embrace it.

An office may let you choose between two laptops, or give you money to buy furniture, but a remote team lets you choose which country to live in. At home you can:

  • Use a standing desk. I alternate between sitting and standing (and pacing) all day.
  • Walk away from your screen and actually think, as encouraged by Rick Hickley’s Hammock-driven development talk (video, 40mins).
  • Nap, and exercise, both of which will make you smarter. See the highly recommended _Brain Rules.

More broadly, feeling in control of your circumstances is a concept central to Psychology. More of it is better, and less of it is worse, on pretty much any axis you care to imagine.

Remote working allows us to optimize for motivation. Being three feet from my bed is just a pleasant side effect.

Graham King

About the author

Graham King

Graham's life has revolved around growing software since age 12. After many years of C, and more of Java, Graham fell in love with Python in 2003 and Django in 2005. Most of his previous career …

Graham is no longer active with Lincoln Loop, but you can find him at