Staying motivated at work

Someone recently asked a group of us how to stay motivated at work. Here are three things that help me.

Thing the first: get out amongst your peers

Go to industry-related things not related to work. For me the semiannual pilgrimage to An Event Apart is a major motivator – I come home with new ideas and new passion every year.

But it doesn’t have to be a big conference. Go to your local UX meetups, your local CHI groups, whatever works for you. Hear people outside your immediate work bubble voice their concerns, give them ideas, get ideas from them. Even just a bitch session can be good for the soul.

Thing the second: always have something to do in your back pocket

Create your own side projects. If you feel under-utilized or bored, think of something small that you would like to see done. The purpose here isn’t to change the world (and in fact you may not want to tell your boss you’re doing them at all if they will be an ass about your time.) They’re to give you something related to your work that you care about, and that you can dip into when you need that break from the current project to clear your head.

Things I’ve taken on in the past voluntarily:

  • The site’s browser stats in a historical format so we could watch for trends. (Google Analytics sucks at this.)
  • A site map of our top (architectural) pages with page visit statistics we know which bits of the architecture are heavily active
  • A spreadsheet of the colors being used for a specific app and whether they’re accessible when mixed
  • A a wiki page of all the research articles I found useful on topics so I didn’t have to go hunt them down when someone said
  • A content inventory of an existing 2,000 page corporate wiki so I could clean the crap out

All but one of these has been so unimportant to the rest of the company that they failed to take on a life of their own, but they kept me sane either way. (When I left the browser stats one, on the other hand, it had become important enough that it took 6 people across 3 departments to replace me on it. Then again, it took 10 years to get that far.)

Instead, they gave me something arguably-work-related to do when I was too exhausted or frazzled to design well, or when I was letting an idea rattle around in my brain before it was ready to hit paper. Sometimes dead-stupid data entry can let the back of the mind get something done. Because I created them and their goals, I also set their deadlines, and nobody chases after me if I miss the deadlines.

And sometimes these tasks turn out to clean up technical or UX debt that just wouldn’t get done any other way. In that way, they can be both satisfying for me to complete and good for company. (Though I would argue if they keep me sane, they are already good for the company.)

Thing the 3rd: for god’s sake use your vacation

Yes, your project is important, critical even. You are important. You are still not The Guy, though, and the more you push yourself to work on a project without a break, the more mistakes you’ll make.

You know what it’s like to be working on something for hours, stuck and unable to find the problem? Then you take a walk, come back, and know what you did wrong in 5 minutes? That’s the small version of what a vacation can do.

I don’t care if you go home and program a robotic kitty litter tray or go travel the world, binge on a TV show, or spend a week in World of Warcraft. The whole time you’re away from work, the back of your brain is defragging, putting away pieces it just figured out, cleaning up the dirt, and connecting neurons in new was.

All of those are really good things to do.

I try to take a minimum of one day off every other month just so I know I’m taking care of myself. I also get a butt load of vacation and personal time. If you get less than a butt load, try to arrange half days out shopping or walking or golfing or moving your body in a not-work-related way every other month.

It’s also good to take at least one stretch that’s a week long. An article in referenced a study in the Journal of Happiness Studies and said:

Health and well-being rapidly increase when vacation starts, often just two days into the holiday. And, according to the study, health and well-being peak on the eighth day of vacation.

The takeaway from the study? Take shorter, more frequent vacations. Since when and how long you get away from work for vacation often depends on the amount of vacation time you’ve accrued, this approach encourages you to spread out your vacation time throughout the year instead of cashing it all in at once for one long trip.

In other words, if you get away for 3 or 4 days you’re already going to feel better, but if you get away for 8 days, you get the maximum benefits.

Get out, go defrag the brain pan while doing something unrelated to your paycheck.

Those are three tips that work for me. If they work for you, awesome!

Author: Anne Gibson

anne gibson is a Senior Staff Product Designer and General Troublemaker working on design systems from outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She's an editor and writer at The Interconnected. She is also published at A List Apart and The Pastry Box, and publishes short fiction when she's not persuading the terriers to stop wrecking things. (The terriers are winning.)