woman sits on floor on laptop in background with dog sleeping in foregroudn

In the days and weeks that follow a period of burn out, there is a common sense of detachment from work that I have started referring to as ‘under-motivation’. It has the same relationship to ‘unmotivated’ as underpaid has to unpaid: it exists to an extent, but is not sufficient. I have found that this is frequently the case in the world of software engineering.

There are still various incentives to feel motivated. Money, of course, but also the feeling of ownership and pride in the results, and the gratifying sensation of getting something right – it’s that quick dopamine hit that many developers feel and gets them hooked on programming. But when those all fail, and I find myself avoiding forward motion on work based tasks, I turn to these three tricks to try and light a match to my motivation:

  • Organize your task list. When under-motivation strikes, it leaves its victim robbed of the desire to make meaningful progress on their current set of tasks. In the face of a mental roadblock, consider instead viewing the present responsibilities from a bird’s eye view, or like an architect observing a blueprint. Simply creating a sense of structure and control around the things that need to be done can open up a new and potentially easier path forward. It could also serve as a productive step to organize before taking a break, and setting the person up for success when they return to it.
  • Switch tasks for freshness. In my role as a developer and a manager, the majority of my tasks revolve around writing, reviewing and thinking about code. This is my preferred career path, but at times it gets tedious and I feel my attention start to wander and resist being drawn back in. These instances are a quality opportunity for me to flex a different muscle, such as writing, or spending some time practicing my management skills. Giving my brain a break from the complexity and occasional dryness of programming is frequently the change it needs to then tackle my to-do list with vigor.
  • Make it personal. One potential pitfall of a job that can demand near constant screen time is forgetting or undervaluing the personal connections that the role entails. For me, days spent under headphones, staring at words, my flow in rhythm with only keystrokes, mean a pileup of requests from various sources that become more and more burdensome the longer I let them sit. Frequently, the best anecdote for this inertia is a quick reminder that the person on the other end of the request is a co-worker, business associate, or even a friend. By refocusing the task at hand from a faceless ask of tedium to an investment in a relationship with another person, I find a new eagerness to help out, or simply to do a better job of being a fellow human employee.