The following post is a guestpost by Walter Chen, founder of a unique new project management tool IDoneThis. More about Walter at the bottom of the post. 

So, here is the thing right at the start: I’ve always been uncomfortable with the traditional ideal of the professional — cool, collected, and capable, checking off tasks left and right, all numbers and results and making it happen, please, with not a hair out of place. An effective employee, no fuss, no muss, a manager’s dream. You might as well be describing an ideal vacuum cleaner.

I admit that I’ve never been able to work that way.  There is one thing that always came first and most importantly for me: How am I feeling today? I found that it can easily happen to think of emotions as something that gets in the way of work. When I grew, I often heard that they obstruct reasoning and rationality, but I feel that we as humans can’t shut off our humanness when we come to work.

Feelings provide important feedback during our workday. It doesn’t make sense to pretend that it’s best or even possible to keep our emotions and work separate, treating our capacity for emotion and thought as weakness. I wanted to look into whether there was anything besides a gut feeling to my suspicions behind keeping the head and the heart separate in business.

What does emotion have to do with our work?

It turns out, quite a lot. Emotions play a leading role in how to succeed in business because they influence how much you try and this is widely misunderstood by bosses and managers.

Psychologists Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer interviewed over 600 managers and found a shocking result.  95 percent of managers misunderstood what motivates employees.  They thought what motivates employees was making money, getting raises and bonuses.  In fact, after analyzing over 12,000 employee diary entries, they discovered that the number one work motivator was emotion, not financial incentive: it’s the feeling of making progress every day toward a meaningful goal. In Fact, Dan Pink found that actually the exact oposite is true:

“The larger the monetary reward, the poorer the performance. – money doesn’t motivate us, at all, instead emotions do.” 

In the famous expriment by Dr. Edward Deci clarified again whether emotional feedback or money would engagement with work.  People were sitting in a room and tried to solve a puzzle while Deci measured how much time they put in, before giving up.  For Group A, he offered a cash reward for successfully solving the puzzle, and as you might expect, those people spent almost twice as much time trying to solve the puzzle as those people in Group B who weren’t offered a prize.

A surprising thing happened the next day, when Deci told Group A that there wasn’t enough money to pay them this time around: Group A lost interest in the puzzle.  Group B, on the other hand, having never been offered money in exchange for working on the puzzles, worked on the puzzles longer and longer in each consecutive session and maintained a higher level of sustained interest than Group A. So if it not money what else really motivates us?

The 3 real reasons that motivate us to work hard every day

Pink explains further that there are in fact just 3 very simple things that drive nearly each and everyone of us to work hard:

  • Autonomy: Our desire to direct our own lives. In short: “You probably want to do something interesting, let me get out of your way!”
  • Mastery: Our urge to get better at stuff.
  • Purpose: The feeling and intention that we can make a difference in the world.

If these three things play nicely together, Amabile and Kramer called this the somewhat obvious “inner work life balance” and emphasize its importance to how well we work. Inner work life is what’s going on in your head in response to workday events that affects your performance.

The components of the inner work life — motivation, emotions, and perceptions of how the above three things work together — feed each other. So ultimately our emotional processes ultimately our motivation to work. They end up being the main influencer of our performance.

Deci’s experiment showed that payment actually undermined intrinsic motivation because such external rewards thwart our “three psychological needs — to feel autonomous, to feel competent and to feel related to others.” As he told, “You need thinkers, problem solvers, people who can be creative and using money to motivate them will not get you that.”

What’s going on inside our brains that connects our emotions to motivate you as a thinker and problem solver?

Amabile and Kramer tell us this:

“depending on what happens with our emotions, motivation for the work can skyrocket or nosedive (or hardly shift at all).”

So how does our brain deal with emotion and connect it to such practical results like motivation and productivity? Well, the ironic part is that the parts of the brain that deal with emotions are actually connected to those that deal with cognition. Richard J. Davidson explains how emotional and cognitive functions interrelate. To get all “brainy” with this:

The brain connection of cognition and emotion is not segregated. The idea is that your “limbic system” is the seat of emotion […] and it is critical for your cognitive processes (e.g., the hippocampus for memory).

Emotions are wired straight into our thinking and cognitive functions such as memory, attention, and reasoning.

Let’s switch this around. We know what happens if we positively affect our emotions. But what about the other way round? Famous psychologist Alice Isen found that positive moods facilitate creative problem-solving. Negative emotions, on the other hand, lead us to think more narrowly:

“Negative emotions like fear and sadness can lead to brain activity and thought patterns that are detrimental to creative, productive work: (a) avoidance of risk; (b) difficulty remembering and planning; and (c) rational decision-making.”

Personally, I found this particularly interesting. I always had a good hunch that positive thinking will improve my daily performance. The impact of negative emotions was never that clear and gives me a lot to think about working hard on limiting these emotions.

3 Most important things to improve your inner work life and manage your motivation:

Yes, it’s done! With the knowledge about the impact of a positive inner work life and our emotions’ connection to great performance, I think we win the battle against the reserved, rational robot.

The key takeaway here for me is to pay more attention to our emotions and thoughts. It’s simple, we use them to be more awesome at what we do. Following on from the studies above, the following three main actions have proven the best results for keeping our emotions and positive thinking the highest:

  • Exercise – How to get started and why: We’ve discussed before in detail how exercise makes us happier. Any work-out will automatically release mood-enhancing chemicals and endorphin into your blood. This can immediately lift your mood and lowering stress. Exercise and maintenance of our physical health boosts our emotional health. The hard part here is of course how to get started with an exercise habit. Whatever it is you want to get into, the key is to start with easier task than you could actually do. Yes, that’s right. If you feel comfortable lifting 10kg, make it 5. The art is in the start as this post found.
  • Set yourself up for success – here is how: Amabile and Kramer’s most important finding is that making progress at work is the main way to fuel positive inner work life. Making progress is easier said than done but breaking it down to ask what will facilitate progress can be helpful.  Identify barriers and remove them, whether it’s too many meetings or micromanagement. Identify facilitators and implement or improve them, such as better communication or increased autonomy.  The feeling of progress triggers the emotions and brain activity that result in creativity and your best work.
  • Reflect and review through work diaries:  Pay careful attention to your inner work life by writing down thoughts and feelings about your workday in a work diary by yourself or with your team using a tool like iDoneThis. A regular practice of reflection helps you recognize patterns, gain insight about your work and work relationships, celebrate and appreciate achievements and gestures, and puzzle out what helps and hinders progress. Journaling itself will improve your inner work life, lifting your emotions and aiding cognitive processing and adaptation. Take ten minutes out of your day to reflect, vent, and celebrate.

Quick last fact: Emotions are the key driver to make your daily decisions

Here is an interesting last fact for you. Making decisions is all about our intellectual capability, right? I thought so too, turns out, that’s completely wrong. In an experiment by Antonio Damasio, named Descartes’ Error he discovered that the key element for making daily decisions is to have strong emotional feelings:

“One of Damasio’s patients, Elliot, suffered ventromedial frontal lobe damage and while retaining his intelligence, lost the ability to feel emotion.  The result was that he lost his ability to make decisions and to plan for the future, and he couldn’t hold on to a job.”

The way our brains are built make it necessary that emotions “cloud” our judgment. Without all that cloudy emotion, we wouldn’t be able to reason, have motivation, and make decisions.

Of course, I am sure that you have tons more insights into how you manage your own work-life balance and which things help you to stay motivated every day. What have you found to be your main driver to get up for work every day? Do you think some of the new habits mentioned above could be useful? I’d love your thoughts in the comments.


About the author: Walter Chen is the co-founder of iDoneThis, a simple way to preserve and celebrate progress at work, every day, that amazing companies like Zappos, Shopify, and reddit use.  He’d love to hear from you on Twitter at @smalter.

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Written by Walter Chen
  • Faizan Laghari

    Great read and insight into something which I personally though to be very simplistic. Turns out in is simple, but in a completely different way that I thought!

  • fenomalist

    Thank you for the awesome post. I actually logged-in just to comment here.

  • What a great blog post. I wrote a similar article about finding out what gets you out of bed in the morning as being the main factor that determines how the rest of your day will go.

    I agree that starting out something is the hardest part. When I was little I would hate taking baths, but once I was in the bath, I didn’t want to get out! The toy boats and imaginary water worlds were so fun. Now that I am in my 30’s, I notice I feel the same way now with working out; I tend to start off dreading it, but once I start I don’t want to stop! If anyone has any suggestions on how to overcome this, I would be happy to hear.

    I think a key factor in forming good habits is having interpersonal relationships with people who have the habits you aspire to have for yourself. A simply exchange of words with someone who is positive is sometimes all that is needed to motivate you to go on to go something positive yourself. 🙂

    • shrikant D

      Its more than just exchange of words and positive thinking!! I personally feel that its the power of your emotions and not just words..Hence its an emotional journey..You have to feel intense to have a kick start!! I hope this makes sense..

  • Great article, especially in a culture that often devalues emotion in favor of money or toughness or, well, anything but emotion.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Excellent. Can’t wait to pay my underlings less.

  • Great Article. Thanks for sharing.

  • davo

    I always hate seeing things like this – what you’re saying is that money isn’t the only motivating factor (my interpretation). What the pointy haired boss reads is – cool I can pay the suckers less, and just have to do some lamo tree hugger stuff every now and then. Personally I like working and getting paid well. Now every MBA will be trying to pay everyone less while fobbing them off with fake feel good stuff. I know I’ve been through this nonsense in a couple of places. The study is incomplete imho.

    • my last boss thought he could thank me instead of paying me. but that is because i had bad luck of the draw. a good boss should understand that these benefits are to be added on top of a decent salary.

    • Chimdale Mellifluousness

      I rather think that most bosses/employers would actually rather pay the employees more than to allow them autonomy/authority over their work output. Really, that’s a part of the problem.

  • What you’ve written is true but not teh full picture.. cognitive processes are generally wired into our emotional centres but they are informed by emotion not driven by. Some behaviour is emotionally driven (amygdala) and that ebhaviour generally doesn’t form memories as the signals won’t form synapses… Too many holes in this report that make it another agenda pushing piece rather than an informative one. Also some sketchy uses of information that are not entirely truthful or accurate…

    Also ‘Pink’s Autonomy stuff… read Deci and Ryans – Self Determination Theory if you want to see where the original work is done.. You will notice relatedness has been ommited from your version (do you not want your staff to belong?)

    Mood is a more influential behaviour modifier but you have completely skipped over that (emotions are very different to mood)…

    Sport is important although ‘taking it easy’ is not the one medicine for all answer, treat people as individuals and you may get a better response from them (theres an interesting tip for employers in affecting staff emotions)…

    Diaries are a great postiive psych technique… worth doing!

    • Michelle Pokorny

      David, I agree that this incomplete. I would refer to the work of Paul Lawrence and Nithin Nohria of Harvard, their theory and book “Driven: How Human Nature Shapes our Choices”. They theorize all human nature is directed by four, innate, biological human drives. The drives to Acquire (yes, money, resources, rewards, status), Bond (relatedness fits here), Create or Comprehend (to learn, seek meaning, grow, contribute, be part of something bigger than ourself), and to Defend (we defend anything we come to consider ‘ours’). Behind each of these are very strong emotions. Our decisions and actions are directed by the tension between each of these drives tugging on us. To isolate a ‘solving a puzzle’ study and to interpret as we aren’t motivated by money or something else of value -ever – is silly – and can’t be compared to whether and how money or reward plays a role in our decisions to work somewhere or if we work harder there. We are motivated by ALL of these drives and , yes, the associated emotions that influence what we ultimately choose to do. Thanks – @michpoko

      • Thank you for the reference, I will be sure to check them out! I imagine that morals and values would be found in the ‘defend’ section of this model?

  • Chilliej

    Great article. Money is a short term motivator and many people will accept an emotionally dull task for the sake of getting paid. In the long term, though, if we can not find emotional satisfaction with our work, we will seek other work. If money is your biggest driver it is likely, not definite, but likely you will switch jobs and/or careers multiple times and never really find satisfaction in your work.

  • This is a fantastic post Walter. A sense of purpose and belonging gives you the all essential boost to get up and get going as you have rightly pointed out. I think exercising or playing sport on a regular basis also motivates our daily moves as it not only provides a high level of energy, but brings with it confidence, positivity and an abundance of vigour.

  • Marc Chooi

    i gather the implications of this article is not to advise employers to pay your employees less, but to ensure they get rewarded emotionally with a sense of belonging at the end of the day… i work for a luxury company with a good pay, but my boss would come up with tasks and proposals that would not see the light of day, and i gather that as bad leadership and execution from my superiors… after everything is done and ground work laid out, all she said was i think we do not need to do it now… just KIV for next time… u know there is only so many times u can arrange for media, and PR and events without making yourself look like you are just talk and no go… imagine working 3 years in this environment… every proposal… every action plan… it is like a never ending story, not to mention life draining at best, but still i stayed there and drain my life for the pay… getting less and less motivated to be creative, to perform… running out of passion… if this is how u want your staff to feel… go ahead… just pay them… staff don’t care as long as we get paid… and we also would not have your best interest at heart or sense of belonging… well, if u also desire employee’s “i am doing everything u told me” kinda attitude… there u have it, retro 80’s abfab work ethic revival… let’s see how far this relationship would last whilst no one gains anything from this relationship in this competitive day and age…

  • I 10000% agree with this!!!

  • I agree with others that one needs to be careful in the interpretation of this research … for example, at what level of pay/compensation does the next marginal amount not matter as much … 20K, 50K, 100K … I think it’s simplistic to think that there are no clip level in terms of marginal utilility … if you want to look at priorities of someone or some company, you look to how they spend $ – on what and when. It’s a window into what they deem important. This should not be a binary argument – it’s the power of the “and” here … both are important.

  • key is love what you do, do what you love – and be able to afford it. Caring, for another, in on form or another, can make even odious, tedious work “lovable.”

  • This article merely goes to corroborate that Humans do NOT require money to work or do jobs in general.
    Its an excellent contribution to the notion that a non-monetary based economy can actually work – but in such a capacity where we use automation to the maximum and our latest most advanced technology (which should be in line with our latest scientific knowledge, as opposed to the outdated trash we use now) for benefit of everyone (so ‘bartering’ wouldn’t be necessary – seeing how our production industry is already automated to a high degree and most of the global workforce is in the service industry which is by itself being automated and an exponentially increasing rate)..

    Many people would say that without monetary incentive, civilization as we know it would cease to exist.
    Depends on how you look at it… but allow me to elaborate: it would basically mean transformation of our society into a mature and emergent one in which social awareness is in line with our latest scientific knowledge, and people are exposed to relevant general education in all subjects relating to man, being prompted to think critically (question everything) and to actually be problem solvers where we use latest science and technology to everyone’s benefit (as opposed to the select few).

    We already had the ability to get rid of most of our problems since over 100 years ago.
    Money stopped representing resources when Humanity began producing abundance via technology.
    So, take a good look at our technology through history, inform yourselves of what is possible (don’t simply take my word for it).

  • Anne Charnock

    Great blogpost. I’m a big fan of Antonio Damasio’s book “Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain”– a great resource for me when researching “A Calculated Life”. I needed to know the difference between emotion and feeling. Damasio said that Shakespeare summed up the difference in just 4 lines of verse towards the end of “Richard II”.

  • Kate Watt

    I am not sure I will ever stop clicking on the links!! I started with one blog and am not even sure how i ended up in this one but have loved every single one I have read – they say “when you are ready for the teacher – the teacher will appear” Brilliant!

  • Holly McIlwain

    I agree with you Walter that we are fed by accomplishments. Studies show every time that managers think they need to pay more to attract and keep workers and workers never rank money in the top 3 things they want in their workplace. Accomplishments at work, especially building your own business or making large contributions to your employer truly “feeds” us. Working on my startup for 100-hour weeks these past 14 months has been one of the fastest learning curve times of my life. There are so many moving parts and for a while tasks were added faster than they were completed, which lead to frustration. Even though many bricks must be laid to get to the goal, launching the new company, and it’s an intricate network of intermediate steps/goals, when small milestones are reached and daily tasks lists complete, it feels great and that fuels the 5AM wakeup to start again every day. We can make ourselves improve our vibration/thoughts to be more positive, to exercise and meditate and relax to improve our overall health and happiness. However, where does the ambition to continually work on ourselves come from? I think to some degree it can be improved in any individual, but for those of us with an overdose of ambition, I do not know where I got it. It is a gift. My soul arrived here with a lot of positive energy. Sure I work on it, but where did I get the ambition to work on it? This is why I do not condemn or look down upon those who just don’t have the ambition to help themselves. We are all wired differently and as a connected humanity, we can help to inspire each other, but accept everybody on their journey, those who “get it,” and those who do not. Thanks Y’all.

  • Me

    What a load of BS. Basically, enjoy your job, if you don’t, then you’re f*cked

  • Sanjeev

    Great article Walter ! Simple and practical insight into inner work-life balance mechanism.

  • jason

    I disagree…. It’s about Money.

  • jason

    I look at the pictures of most of these posters wearing ties & what have you… probably have pretty good jobs… they read this & tell someone who is a janitor to shut up & do your job… & like it.

    what motivation would a janitor have to be the best janitor? don’t get me wrong, they’ll do the job. and they’ll probably do a good job…. but don’t tell me they are motivated by their job.

  • Free Will

    I would like to add “First one has a “thought” which produces an emotion the emotion then actives the action part of the brain…its that action they create that will bring to them the “results” …to change a result one con not just back up to the action part they have to start at the thought process first and work from there. I have for the last 10 years developed a system based of the “Emotional Communication Trigger Points” which is directly connected to the “relationship driven platforms” Peace!

  • C.C. Meis

    I do agree that our emotional life does effect everything we do including our work performance. When I was 18 I read somewhere that in a love relationship that positive reinforcement… Like compliments and really believing that a person can do all kinds of wonderful things, and tell them how you appreciate all they do for you. This really does go a long way in keeping any relationship happy. So all my life I put this practice to use with my husband and son. And I found that if I complimented them and let them know that they are good at what they do…the more they are willing to do it for you. Plus it helps with their self confidence to the point that they will believe they can do what you tell them they are good at. I also found that if you constantly give negative feed back… You will get negative results. This is harder to do than you make think…at least for me it is because my natural tendency is to criticize. Or I come up with some negative response. I find that I have to say to myself “now they did this job for me…find something good to say and really mean it.” But I also believe that monetary reward is very important….especially if it is a job you do for a living. And most important is to remember that your employees are not robots. They have families, and they get sick and you should give them leeway or at least let them know you care.

  • orson

    Just a slight point of clarification on David Pink’s study: he found that financial incentives did not speed up creative tasks. Non-creative, which also equate to more manual or rote tasks did speed up with financial incentives.

  • blah

    This is seriously what I needed. I honestly thought about my emotions and tried so hard to shut them off like my brother tells me. Everyone says not to use emotions. But damn it I’m human and I have the right to feel! I don’t feel bad for using my emotions. I can if I wanna! Thanks you for having me. I will now launch a rocket into space.