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Staying motivated while growing

For those unfamiliar with classic fairy tales, in Goldilocks, a little girl visited the home of a family of three bears, and tried each of their meals, chairs and beds. She choose the options most comfortable for her, in terms of taste, size and softness.

In cognitive science and developmental psychology, the Goldilocks effect or principle refers to an infant’s preference to attend to events which are neither too simple nor too complex according to their current representation of the world.

Human beings both love and need challenges, but there’s an optimal level of difficulty in them for us to be able to be both motivated and be growing at the same time.

Imagine you’re playing chess. If your opponent is a five-year-old kid you’ll quickly become bored as the match is way too easy, you’re not learning anything from it. On the other end of the spectrum if you play against Garry Kasparov you’ll be demotivated for another reason: there’s simply no way you can win and probably again won’t learn anything as the match will be over before you even begin to comprehend your opponent’s moves.

Compare the above with the experience you have when you’re playing against someone who’s closer to your current level — now you have a chance to win but you need to work really hard. Your focus is at the right place, all distractions fade and you’re soon in the flow. You are making progress and you’re most probably learning along the way. The challenge is optimal — ‘just manageable’. Sometimes you lose, sometimes you win but that’s not the point. Tasks like these — according to scientific research — are the ones most likely to keep us motivated and growing for the long term.

The key to progress is the temptation of constant challenge, with tasks that remain both achievable and interesting, broken up into pieces of work that are just right. As Orville Gilbert Brim, a social psychologist put it:

One of the important sources of human happiness is working on tasks at a suitable level of difficulty, neither too hard nor too easy.

It’s our task as managers to ensure our engineers are getting such tasks. We both need to help define them and grow our engineers to be more self-aware and conscious in defining such tasks themselves and also learn and teach how to break down seemingly impossible projects into smaller, achievable pieces. This differs from person to person and it’s one of the beauties and challenges of personal coaching. One guide could be setting S.M.A.R.T. goals but we don’t need to stick to a single framework.

The other very important aspect is constant measurement and feedback on your progress. Being in the moment of making progress is incredibly motivating but for this you need instant/quick feedback. In chess you get this by winning/losing the match or even by seeing the expression of concern on your opponent’s face when you make a critical move. In software development this measurement and feedback can be manifold, ranging from a few good words from colleagues through a nice bump in a graph on a dashboard to a green build. The important part is to have relevant measurement and feedback loop set up.

Long story short, one of the keys for staying motivated and growing is this two-factor strategy:

  1. Follow the Goldilocks principle and set goals/tasks which are both stretching and achievable
  2. Have measurement and if possible instant, frequent feedback on your progress

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