Handling Inconsistency in Motivation and Focus

psychedelic-panda

Picture unrelated. Sure grabs your attention, though, doesn’t it?

I’m the type of person who can really focus on a subject when they find it interesting. When I first got into chess, I was buried in chess books non-stop for weeks. That said, it also comes with a huge problem: when I don’t find a subject interesting, I have a lot of trouble motivating myself and getting things done. So, how do I manage to motivate myself when I don’t find a task interesting?

Everyone is different, but I’ve found feedback and accountability helps a lot. In a work environment, “accountability” effectively means deadlines. Used incorrectly, deadlines can be a miserable thing, but used correctly, they make it a lot easier to stay on task.

At Zynga, whenever I began a new task, my first job was to estimate how long the task would take. This also isn’t wasted time, as the process of estimation also means you’re breaking down the problem and researching it more. So, after taking an hour or two looking into a new feature, I might settle on “this should take me about three days”. Our team’s producers also did a daily check-in at the end of the day, so I could keep them updated on whether I was on track, if I needed help, etc. This both held me accountable and also made sure I got daily feedback on how I was doing. Overall, although I sometimes had the rare day where I couldn’t focus, this worked really well in terms of keeping me on task. It’s heavy on the deadlines, but as you’re mostly setting them yourself, they’re realistic rather than overbearing. It’s also fairly low in terms of overhead, and should scale well to a smaller team.

Conversely, at Wooga, I had a bit more trouble. Our team on Diamond Dash worked in 1-week sprints. Our work flow was essentially “hey guys, go get these things done by the end of the week” and our team of three programmers would just grab tasks throughout and get them done. The biggest problem is that I didn’t feel any real sense of accountability for slacking. There’s a psychological factor at work here, too: tell me to get something done in a week, and you’ll have it in a week. Ask me how long it’ll take to do that task, and I’ll tell you “three days” and have it done in that time. Sure, there was morning stand-up, but that doesn’t have the same feeling of accountability as talking one-on-one with my producer: if you didn’t really make progress, just say “still working on [task]” and all is forgiven. The only time I was really given direct feedback on my performance was my exit interview after being an intern for six months. It’s not like I was dropping the ball and making my team pick up the slack, but I had a lot more trouble staying focused than when I was at Zynga. Some people will thrive in such an incredibly hands-off environment, but I struggled.

Just to be clear, I’m not blaming anyone else for my lack of focus. It is most certainly a personal flaw. That said, I really think the feeling of accountability at Zynga really made all the difference in the world. At Wooga, if I got nothing done that day, my mental reaction was more along the lines of “eh, I’ve got the rest of the week, I’ll get it done on time”.  And get it done I did, even though my productivity was far from maximum. Eventually it became a habit, and over time my productivity slowly slipped and got worse, which makes it hard to identify and fix. I also developed a bad habit of regularly coming in a few minutes late and missing stand-up, and it took maybe two months before someone sat down with me and said “hey, we really need you here on time in the morning”. Problem fixed pretty much immediately, and all it took was a 30-second conversation. Obviously I knew that I shouldn’t keep coming in late in the back of my mind, but the lack of regular feedback left me in a self-reinforcing loop of “nobody’s said anything… does anyone actually care? Huh, I guess not as long as I’m getting my work done.”

In my exit interview at Zynga, I was told I did a good job and had a lot of potential. Conversely, my performance at Wooga could be summarized as “decent” even though I know I’m capable of much better. I was told pretty much what I’ve said above: I got my work done, but it also seemed like I spent a lot of time unfocused. Not spectacular, not poor, just… satisfactory. Similar patterns applied in my group projects in school: if we all held each other accountable, we got things done. If we didn’t, we barely scraped something together by the due date.

The takeaway? Figure out what works for you, and find a work environment that fits what you need to stay on task. It’s possible to hold your teammates accountable without making things feel overbearing, and in giving regular feedback, you let people know their day-to-day work and performance actually matters. Don’t let people fall into thinking others don’t care; it’ll build upon itself and just get worse over time, and you probably won’t notice the problem until it’s gotten pretty bad.

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