Why we do what we do

Ever wonder why we do what we do? Why something at work really excites and motivates you while others aren’t excited in the same way? Or why someone chooses to spend their spare time doing something that would bore the pants off you?

We think that what motivates us is a fascinating topic. Others seem to think so too – there’s been a ton of research done over the last 60 years with some pretty conclusive findings. So we’ve taken the research and translated it into some really practical headlines for you here.

Reading time: 5 minutes

High performance headlines

  • We choose to do stuff that we’re good at, feel in control over and that connects us to others and a purpose. That explains why some people choose to do some things and others choose something else entirely.
  • External goals will motivate us but not as much as when we do something for the sake of it. External goals and rewards – like money – will keep us motivated, interested and performing well in the short-term. But for long-term sustained motivation, you can’t beat the motivation of doing something for the love and enjoyment of it.
  • People give away their motivation. We choose – usually not knowingly – to allow other people’s actions and uncontrollable events to affect our motivation, and start blaming them. We give away responsibility for our motivation, which is nutty.
  • Break the cycle. Get back in charge of your motivation by focusing on the right things and stop focusing on the wrong things.

The full viewpoint

Ever wondered why we do what we do?

According to Ed Deci, author of “Why we do what we do” it’s something to do with doing stuff that we are confident of doing, where we have a sense of choice over doing that thing, and something that helps us feel connected to others. He describes self determination theory (SDT) as a theory of motivation made up of three basic needs related to: confidence, control and connectedness. So, we do what we do to fuel these three things.

So how come in the workplace we often find people that are demotivated. Most people in most places start a job motivated, right?

Most people apply for jobs that they want to do? Well according to SDT motivation is not a black or white thing, it’s not something that you have or don’t have, but rather it’s something with different degrees. At the high end, there is motivation to do something because you just love it. The reason David Beckham carried on playing football when he had been dropped by England and had been shunned by Real Madrid was because he loved playing football. The reason Michael Schumacher carried on racing, in a sport not without danger, after winning the first 5 of his 7 World Motor Racing titles: because he loved racing. There are other lower quality motivators, such as money, to please someone else, or out of guilt.

But if most people, most of the time, start off motivated, what happens?

What we come across, especially at the front line of businesses, amongst the customer facing staff that do all the ‘real work’, be that in customer service, sales or wherever, is that over time people have lost their way. From being keen and willing, from being enthusiastic and energetic, people have become tired and bored. They have started referring to “they”, these other senior people who have all the control and power and make all the decisions that determine what they do, and when, and how they do it. They become passive, resigned to ever changing internal processes, systems that don’t work, targets that may or may not be achievable and a whole series of internal measures that don’t mean anything to them.

And what is more, typically, the focus of their time, energy and attention, is on those very things that they can’t control. This is a double whammy. Firstly it means that their attention is drawn away from those things that they can control and influence, and secondly, because they are spending all their time thinking and talking about things outside of their influence then their sense of control starts to fall, and fall… and those feelings can then reduce a sense of togetherness, and also dent your confidence. Not a great domino effect!

Sound familiar? Sound productive? Sound motivated?

Sometimes, just sometimes, it takes a little catalyst that arrests this vicious circle. Instead, by encouraging folks to stop, and reflect, and consider those things over which they have choice, by encouraging them to recall what it’s like to be connected with others, then a sense of control begins to return. And suddenly, or gradually, although nothing has changed, everything begins to change. Ideas begin to flow, people take a greater interest in other people’s work, confidence builds, people offer support and receive it, and though the work is still the same it somehow feels different.

We recently had some feedback from a business we’d worked with that sort of sums this up:

“Strange how we needed you to give us permission, as it were, to do what we would do naturally.”

Now what is that all about?

That’s what it is all about, why we do what we do.

So if you haven’t done it for a while just take a moment to reflect on what is taking up your mental and physical energy, and we suggest that you focus on those things that you can control, very often starting with your own mindset, your attitude, and your behaviour.