Motivation: From real work to yard work

I’m not doing yard work.

Last week, I started a seven-week sabbatical that my company graciously offered. As the idea of this company perk bubbled up, the idea was to allow time to recharge and relax, get away from it all and come back to work with a fresh mind.

My first instinct: No thanks. I love pretty much everything about my job. My coworkers, our members, the mission, my responsibilities, the fulfillment I get from working hard, the opportunities to improve… there’s a lot to not just like, but truly love. I don’t want to be away from that for seven days, let alone seven weeks.

But I took it, because, hey, when do you get an offer like this? Lots of benefits: Sleeping in sounds nice. My commute is replaced with a family road trip. Time with family. Time for me.

And, as my wife told me, time to spend on her “honey-do” list. First up: Landscaping the backyard.

Note: The word “landscaping” is as absent from my list of benefits as it is from my résumé. But when she said it was important to her to have decorative rock edging, then it became important to me.

Our conversation quickly turned to how capable I would be to lug a pile of rocks from the front yard to the back. I can, case closed, so let’s do this. We bought 2 cubic yards of rock, which now sits in our driveway.

Only this project is more than rock. In fact, that’s the least of it. We need to dig up the grass we no longer want. Right? At least put down weed block. Uh oh, we didn’t discuss paver blocks to match the rest of the house’s look. Wait, what do we do with the sod we dig up? These thoughts have consumed my sabbatical so far, especially since the opportunity to do the work has been hampered by the rain that has fallen Every. Single. Day.

I recognize these are first world problems. In fact, I’ve come to a first world answer: Let’s pay someone else to do it.

My knee-jerk reaction to that thought was: I’m a failure. I’m giving up on a project that really shouldn’t be all that tough. I’m physically capable of doing this. It’s not rocket science. I could always just take my best swing, then get someone to fix it afterwards.

I stumbled across Dan Pink’s TEDTalk on motivation. One of the many takeaways are three elements he says workers need in order to stay motivated: Autonomy (“the urge to direct our own lives”), mastery (“the desire to get better and better at something that matters”), and purpose (“the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.”)

I really dig this (and this fuller version of his talk) because it explains why this landscaping project feels like such a waste of time. The desire for this project didn’t come from within, it’s a one-time project that I’ll never repeat, and maybe a couple dozen people will ever see the result. This is the opposite of motivation. (Well, except the part where it would make my wife happy. But that motivates me to find a solution, not to do the job myself.)

What I find interesting is that the same checklist sums up why I love my job — it’s a slam-dunk to check those three boxes as a doer. What about as a manager? Am I providing my team the opportunity and reinforcement to stoke their passion for the job, giving them the chance to develop in the ways that help them in a way that also helps the company’s mission?

Maybe this sabbatical is going to be good for me after all.

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