Productivity and Meaningful Work

More on how I try to stay productive

This is probably the second iteration of what seems to become a series of posts on why I am not a workaholic. I work most of the day on something, trying to always be productive, but that is only possible when doing meaningful work.

Meaningful Work

What do I mean when I say meaningful work? The definition will differ from person to person, and the reasons to not find something meaningful will, too. It is completely dependent on the context.

I personally am interested in many things. Indeed, the default is interest and I need a good reason to not believe in something being meaningless. Interest does not get means that I will work on it immediately though, I also need a trigger to get active in many cases. Also, whether I deem work meaningful or not is highly dependent on its form, not necessarily the content.

The main reasons to get me to see work as more meaningful are:

Note that this is pretty much a list of intrinsic motivations. The more of these are around, the more likely I am to be motivated to do something.

Extrinsic motivations like money can be a trigger, but if there is no underlying intrinsic motivation, I end up either trying to find an intrinsic motivation, I do something else for the time being or I do things I consider bad.

Negative Motivations

Above I described positive motivations. And I try to work almost exclusively based on these. But there are negative ones: deadlines, potential punishments, bad experiences.

If there is a potential punishment awaiting, it is very hard for me to make up an intrinsic motivation without finding ways to circumvent the initial task. Most likely, my mood will be bad for a week and I will end up doing as I am told with adding lengthy descriptions of why the task or anything related to it are bad.

Note that ranting here has a double function. First, it serves as a source of motivation: if I did not do the work, how could I rant about it. Second, it is an attempt to let people know that the work they assigned me is meaningless. And/or that the way they did so was bad, at least if I am the target group. 

It is different with negative experiences that come before I actually get to work. Indeed, these do motivate me. I have a trigger, and if I directly react to the negative experience, I will most likely have some form of feedback, too.

Take for example someone saying something I deem wrong. I write up a text countering their argument and send it to the person. Likely, there will be some reaction. Since it also means that I will get to sort my knowledge, writing up my ideas will have a lasting positive effect. With my blog I can publish them, so I have a way to keep it and maybe use it later on, too. I can thus reformulate the negative motivation into a positive one.


Freedom is also a major factor in regards to how much I can be motivated to do something. As I wrote above, I need to reformulate negative motivations into positive ones if I am to get motivated. If there is freedom, this act of reformulating is much easier.

Take for example two ways of how lecturers try to make sure people read the required readings. First, there is a rather general "take notes", second, there is a very limited "write summaries". Taking notes may mean that the student can choose to actually write a summary, a commentary, literally write notes at given parts of the text or write down interesting parts of the text. Since there is a rather free choice, students can choose whichever way suits them best. I write down parts of the text I deem interesting because this is the fastest way to get recyclable results: with Aklaman I can just get a summary of what I thought was interesting and can link the text parts with writing projects I am working on. I thus can thus reformulate the task to one that suits my real life workflow and is meaningful to me.

Writing summaries is the opposite. I don't read summaries. Rather than doing so, I'd just read the article or book chapter (again, if I've read it before as in this example). I also know that noone else besides maybe the lecturer will read the summary. Say, noone including myself will ever have a use for what I wrote there. I also do not learn anything by writing a summary. The only possible motivation would be the possible punishment for not writing, say, my work will likely end up in a way that's unsatisfying for me.

For me personally that means that I need to formulate my aims in a rather open way. If I want to work on a project but don't feel like working on a particular part of it, I need to be able to just take on another. If it's about leadership, then it means that formulating tasks openly is better than setting narrowly defined ones.

Taking Meaning Off One's Work

Of course, there are tasks that lose meaning over time. And here, other people can have quite some influence. My prime example for this is what happened when I worked on my bachelor thesis. Well, apparently I wrote two.

We didn't have any limitation set on the length of a potential bachelor thesis in our curriculum (the supervisor could just decide to not accept it if it was overly lengthy). Also, we were free to decide whether we wanted to write our thesis in English or German.

Since nobody I know reads Bachelor theses - aside from supervisors -, the only way to reformulate the thesis project to be meaningful (in terms of intrinsic rewards) was to write it with publishing in mind. That means it had to be grounded in interesting data (I chose to do field work for half a year), it had to be written in English, and it had to be much longer than the usual 40 pages.

When I worked on it, I also went to the Philippines and had countless very interesting talks about the topic of my thesis project. Upon returning to Germany, though, I lost many of the contacts and had practically no exchange about the topic. One of my Professors says "loneliness is one of an academics greatest enemies." That was the case with me: I gradually lost motivation. When I was finally told to cut it short and put it into the format of a normal bachelor thesis (say, fourty pages, no field work, repetition of what has already been written), say, to make it unpublishable, I refused and chose to write another thesis instead. I then worked on a bit on what had been my first project, brought it into a more publishable format, and am trying to get it published now. I only managed to get it to feel meaningful by removing the work from its original context, but I am glad that I did.

My second thesis project was essentially taking the easy route. For my first project, I had worked through most of what has been published on Filipino Overseas Migration in the last 25 years anyway, so I decided to recapitulate what I had read there. I took ten texts outlining very different aspects of Filipino Overseas Migration and summed them up. Finally I concluded that research on Filipino Overseas Migration has become diverse, that there are now canonical works in the research about Filipino Overseas Migration and that something along the lines of Filipino Diaspora Studies has developed into a distinct and independent field of inquiry.

While I am rather happy with the thesis in hindsight, I began working on it with the prospect of writing a mediocre thesis. That I am happy about the result is rather due to a stroke of luck than my actual motivation to work on it. Well, add to that that I wrote much of the thesis while suffering from a quite serious pneumonia, say, that it did actually turn out to be challenging in unexpected ways.

What to Do With Meaningless Work?

If there is no freedom to reformulate my task to actually become meaningful to me and if no stroke of luck (I suppose we can name the pneumonia I talked about in the previous section that, even if it meant that I couldn't breathe and emptied my bank account for medicine) comes around, what do I do about meaningless work? Well, first we are in the lucky situation of having a world of individuals: meaningless work might be fun for others. So maybe I can delegate it or get others to teach me more about its background.

For example: doing money-related paperwork is tedious. Working through formulars, looking at why certain information might be of interest to the one making the formular, and checking up on the legal background is fun. Since that turns filling out a simple formular into a rather complex task, doing it together with someone who's working in that field makes it much easier and more fun.

Second, there is productivity to be embraced in evading tedious and meaningless tasks. Aaron Swartz wrote:

Having a lot of different projects gives you work for different qualities of time. Plus, you'll have other things to work on if you get stuck or bored (and that can give your mind time to unstick yourself).

This is another reason for why I work on rather a diverse set of problems. I can always run off to another one without having to sink too deep into procrastination. I am writing this blog post because I don't feel like transfering quotes from scanned (image) PDFs to Aklaman. After finishing the post, I'll probably have more motivation to actually work on that.

Breaking up the problem, as described in the blog post referenced above does help with larger problems. If it is really small anyway and can't be made fun through looking at it from another angle, adding a challenge. Aaron Swartz describes how he made a joke of his assignments, and that's probably the best way to handle this worst of all cases. It adds a motivation, and a positive one at that.

Work Life Balance

I have a major problem with concepts like the work life balance, because it implies that work is, well, not part of life. Say, work needs to be tedious and uninteresting to be work. And life needs to be fun and good etc.

If work is really meaningful to me, I do it. And that's my life. Or I do something else that's meaningful. And then that will be life. Being productive by default (in some way) works like that. Of course, phases of unproductivity are necessary either way, but with doing the right work and having the right framing helps to minimize that.

Another restriction sure is necessary: I speak from a position of huge priviledge. Male, white, middle class. Student. Say, while I have no money for luxury, I can choose my work (or chose to not work). In a world in the narrative of work as "that thing you do for money and which can't be fun" is still prevailing, this means that I'm one of a lucky few. Let's hope that job losses due to automization can finally lead to a decoupling of the notion of work from its current implications - and probably from the concept of employment, too.