The Secret Ingredient To A Productive And Satisfying Career

Often overlooked in favor of money or external rewards, intrinsic motivation is critical to our career satisfaction and productivity.

The Secret Ingredient To A Productive And Satisfying Career
[Photo: Flickr user olle svensson; App Photo: Flickr user Sonny Abesamis]

Daniel Kim was the CEO at online game company Nexon America when he had a career epiphany that changed his life. His mentor Bill Moggridge, founder of the design firm IDEO, had recently passed away. It was at Moggridge’s memorial service at Stanford in 2012 when Kim had a moment of clarity: What was most important to him wasn’t being at the top of his field or making as much money as possible, it was doing meaningful design work–the kind of work he simply couldn’t do as CEO at a gaming company.


Kim did the math. If a design project takes three to four months and he had between 25 to 30 years left in his career, he realized he only had time for about 100 new projects. Put in those terms, time, he realized, was of the essence.

Kim quit his job and in 2013 moved to the firm Daylight Design, where he opened and oversaw the company’s office in Seoul, South Korea. At this new job, he would spend at least half his time doing design work. “Now every time a project comes up, I go through the same thinking process: ‘How many projects do I have left in me and is this project worth it?'” says Kim.

It’s easy to hustle through our daily tasks, head down, focused on what’s next on the long list of to-dos. But taking a step back to evaluate what really motivates and drives us is critical, not just for our well-being, but also, as research has shown, for our productivity.

Intrinsic vs. External Motivation

Social psychologists call this type of drive “intrinsic motivation,” or the desire and urge inside ourselves that propels us to do the work we do and do it well. While we’re often motivated by external factors like pay, approval, or recognition, research has shown that intrinsic motivation is fundamental not just for our long-term happiness, but also for the quality of our work.

Anecdotally, we see this in our everyday lives. When we’re excited about a project, we’re more invested in doing a good job. Researchers Yoon Jik Cho and James Perry looked at the effect of intrinsic motivation on employee attitudes by analyzing data on more than 200,000 people. They found that employees who were intrinsically motivated were three times more engaged than those who were motivated by external factors like pay. “Quite simply, you’re more likely to like your job if you focus on the work itself, and less likely to enjoy it if you’re focused on money,” Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor of business psychology at University College London writes in Harvard Business Review.

The Connection To Productivity

But it’s not just our well-being and overall happiness that’s affected. New research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, shows that people are more productive and committed to the activities they’re engaged in when motivated by personal interest and satisfaction rather than external factors like compensation.


For example, in one of their studies, University of Chicago researchers Kaitlin Woolley and Ayelet Fishbach found that when participants were given the choice between a dull and better-paid task or a fun but not as well-paid one, most participants went with the dull option, thinking of the end result as the most important factor in their decision. But the researchers found that those who picked the better-paid task tended to regret their choice more than those who picked the fun but lesser-paid alternative. The lesson here: Money can only take you so far.

Why Outside Motivators Don’t Last

External motivators can be helpful in the short term, but according to Alfie Kohn, author of the book Punished by Rewards, external rewards like money aren’t sustainable and can actually have negative effects on our well-being and quality of work over time.

For example, external motivators can encourage people to take fewer risks and focus on getting a task done as quickly as possible, according to Kohn. They also lead people to feel less in control of the work they are doing, which can stifle creativity. And by using external rewards to drive motivation, we actually run the risk of decreasing the potential personal rewards and satisfaction. “Extrinsic rewards can erode intrinsic interest,” Kohn writes. “People who see themselves as working for money, approval, or competitive success find their tasks less pleasurable, and therefore do not do them as well.”

What’s At The Heart Of Our Intrinsic Motivation

We’re all motivated by our own unique set of factors. Think about what excites and drives you most in work and life. For some, it’s the feeling being challenged and pushed to learn and grow that serves as a motivating factor. For others, it’s a sense of trust and cooperation with the people they work with–wanting to be part of a bigger mission or goal. And then there’s the simple factor of happiness. What work excites and makes you happy? How can you incorporate more of that into your daily routine?

For Kim, making time for creative work on a daily basis was a fundamental way to tap into this intrinsic motivation. It’s also part of the ethos of his company, which has offices in Silicon Valley and Seoul, and where every partner is expected to spend a minimum of half their work time on creative design projects.

But it’s important to note that it’s not just the work you do on a daily basis, but how it fits into your life overall that contributes to our internal drive. “A lot of people think about intrinsic motivation when it comes to your career and the type of work you do,” says Kim. “But one of the things I try to keep an eye on is balance–making sure we value personal time with our families. Without that balance, I don’t think you can truly be happy or satisfied with the work that you do.”


About the author

Jane Porter writes about creativity, business, technology, health, education and literature. She's a 2013 Emerging Writing Fellow with the Center For Fiction.