I’m pretty sure we all agree that we perform better when we feel motivated. But have you ever thought about why motivation matters and how it’s linked to productivity? We look at motivation in all my client engagements, and the book I rely on to help describe and define motivation is Drive, The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink.

Carrot and stick is so 20th century.

Getting a little wonky here…. In Drive, Pink examines the standard view of the types of motivation that lead to increased creativity and productivity: rewards and punishment (aka carrot and stick). He replaces that view with a look at motivation based on human self-determination theory.

In its simplest form, self-determination theory says that our psyches have 3 basic needs that must be met for us to thrive: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. In this context, thrive means to experience enhanced creativity and productivity as a natural course. When these needs are not met or are quashed, we become less productive, less creative, and un-motivated.

So, in my coaching practice, I have my clients look at how their current jobs and lives fulfill these 3 basic psychological needs. Let’s concentrate on competence for now.

Competence and motivation.

Competence refers to being able to do something comfortably and efficiently. In our lives in general (including at work) we need to feel like we’re able to call on both our skills and talents to reach our goals. We know that we need to use our best skills on a regular basis to become successful and fulfilled because it’s built into our psychology.

Let’s say one of your top talents and skills (talents becomes skills when they are refined) is motivating and organizing teams to deliver exceptional outcomes. You know how to create a cohesive group and recognize how different personalities and approaches can be combined to deliver amazing results. When you’re called on to use these skills, you’re energized and your work flies by. In other words, you’re working in your “zone.” And this work meets your need to feel competent. When you meet this need in your work and life, you are intrinsically motivated to work harder and do better.

On the other hand, when you’re kept from working in your zone, when you’re required to work alone and create reports and do paperwork, you find that you’re exhausted. You check the clock continuously, you feel dull. Your motivation is gone. Your psychological need to feel competent is not being met.

Finding my zone!

By the way, this happens to me (and I’m in control of my work!). I’ll find that I’ve scheduled back-to-back days to work in my office writing and doing bookkeeping. So I start working. In the late afternoon, I’ll notice that I’m getting grumpy. I’m feeling stuck and, yes, dull. And I realize that I haven’t talked to anyone all day long. My number 1 area of competency? Communicating with others! And I’ve ignored it all day long. So now I use my awareness of my need to communicate with others when I set up my day. I make sure to include talking to a client, or a networking event, or lunch with a friend. And, magically, my work (and my attitude) improves!

Do you see how that works? When I’m feeling dull and unmotivated, I figure out why I’m not working in my zone. Then I make sure I engineer it into my day! I don’t have to spend all day working with people; I do have to spend some time doing it so that I experience maximum creativity which leads to maximum productivity.

Engineer exercising competence into your day.

You can do the same thing. If you find you’re not able to work in your zone on a regular basis, figure out how to engineer that work into your day and put it on your calendar. Working in your zone for at least one chunk of time every day will keep you motivated. And, if you’re really frustrated and unhappy, this will make your situation a little better.

I’ve had clients try this. The ones who are happy at work find that they can level up their performance and leave work feeling more creative and productive. And the clients who felt burned out? When they figured out how to engineer working in their zone into their day – even for 5-10 minutes – they reported that they felt better at the end of the day. It made their jobs bearable.

So…. What happens if you’re not allowed to engineer time into your day so you can feel maximum competence? Unfortunately, that means it’s time to start looking for a new job. If that’s the case, I’m thinking you’ve already thought about changing your situation. You realize that you’re not as productive as you could be. You’re not making the contributions you know you could make if they’d just let you do the work you do best – if you could just work in your zone.

Learning how to identify your areas of competence, what it looks like to use them at work, and how to describe them will empower you to seek out work that will meet your desire to deliver exceptional results.

Questions? Need help?

So, can you picture what it looks like to work in your zone of competence? Can you describe it to yourself or other people? Can you see how working like that will help you feel empowered and productive?


find your motivation