Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

The Secret to Feeling Energized at Work? Autonomy.

Imagine there was something you could add to your car’s engine, so that after driving a hundred miles, you’d end up with more gas in the tank than you started with. Wouldn’t you use it? OK, that product doesn’t exist, and maybe never will. But there is something you can give your team that will have the same effect: interesting work.

Most of us think of interest in our work as a luxury — something that is pleasant but unnecessary, like chocolates on your hotel pillow. But it’s not a luxury, it is, in fact, a powerful motivator. Research shows that finding what you do interesting and believing it has inherent value is likely the single best way to stay motivated despite difficulty, setbacks, and unexpected roadblocks. Additionally, interest in your work doesn’t just keep you going despite fatigue, it actually replenishes your energy.

In their studies, psychologists at California State University gave participants a task to work on that was particularly draining, and then varied whether the next task was difficult-but-interesting or relatively easy-but-dull. They found that people who worked on the interesting task put in more effort and performed much better (despite being tired) than those who worked on the boring task – even though it was actually harder than the boring task.

In another study, the researchers found that working on something interesting resulted in better performance on a subsequent task as well. In other words, you don’t just do a better job on Task A because you find Task A interesting – you do a better job on follow-up Task B because you found Task A interesting. The replenished energy flows into whatever you do next.

So how can you make work more interesting for your team, especially when it actually is tedious or uninspiring? The experience of choice. When people feel a sense of autonomy — when they have some say in what they do and how they do it — they find naturally find whatever they are doing to be much more interesting (autonomy, as it happens, increases creativity, too).

And while true autonomy in the workplace can be hard to come by, the feeling of choice can be created fairly easily, using these three tips:

Liberally share your goals.

First, and most obviously, your team needs to understand why the goal they’ve been assigned has value. Too often, we tell people what they need to do, without taking the time to explain why it’s important, or how it fits into the bigger picture. Don’t assume the why is as obvious to your team as it is to you and be sure to repeat the message often.

Allow your team to dictate their personal processes.

Allowing your team members to tailor the way they work to their preferences and abilities will also give them heightened sense of control. Some people like to do lots of prep and detailed planning before tackling a project, while others prefer a more in-the-moment, spontaneous process.  Some want to check in with you frequently for feedback, while others feel that too much feedback disrupts their flow and feels like micromanaging. Ask your team members about the approach they prefer, and then – if possible – respect that preference. If you can’t give them total free rein, try giving them a choice between two options for how to proceed. If even that is not possible, skip directly to the next tip.

Offer choice, even on the peripheral matters.

If you have to assign both the goal and the method for reaching it, try creating the feeling of choice by inviting your team member to make decisions about more peripheral aspects of the task. For instance, if everyone has to attend weekly team meetings to improve communication and collaboration, you can have team members take turns deciding what the topic of the meeting will be each week, or even what kind of lunch will be ordered in. Studies show that these more peripheral decisions can create the feeling of choice, even when the choices aren’t particularly meaningful.


Take time to reflect on how you might be able create a greater sense of choice in your own workplace using these methods. You’ll make the work more interesting, and wind up with a team that has a lot more gas in the tank.

How about you?

How do you replenish your energy when working on something difficult?

More insights on: Energy / Fatigue

Heidi Grant Halvorson

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Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, of Columbia’s Motivation Science Center, is an author and speaker.  In Succeed, she revealed surprising science-based strategies we can use to reach goals.  Her new book is Focus:  Using Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence.
load comments (14)
  • Connie

    I would also add the following:

    1. Recognition – Not just in rewarding them and allowing them to take credit, but also a recognition that their opinions matter and are respected and considered. Even if you can’t implement their suggestions 100%, you have to act upon them in a way that addresses the problems they raise.

    2. Guidance and roadmaps are also important. Nothing worse than having them spinning their wheels only to have them find out later on that they are headed towards the wrong direction. (Which adds importance to giving them the whys and the context as mentioned in this post)

  • RichieOnix

    Whenever I’m working on a difficult job I like to create some sort of map, grid, or action list to make the job less intimidating. Yes if there are lots of task people might get more intimidated by the seeing the long list or big map but they can see everything that needs to get done. Its better to put it on paper and be able to visualize it rather than keeping it in your head and thinking about it. HUGE HEADACHE.

  • StartAskingQuestions

    Thanks for this great article. Dan Ariely has also done research in this area (he discusses this in his TEDx talk “What Makes Us Feel Good About Our Work?”) showing that “meaning” is a critical motivator — it’s more important than money. I’d add that a huge component of this is having control over when and where work gets done — through workplace flexibility. Autonomy should include being able to leave the office for a few hours in the afternoon to clear your head, and then going back to a project that evening. Or working through a problem over a 14-hour day and then taking some time the next morning to sleep a little late. I write more about this here, on a new website all about the need for change in the workplace:

  • Danielle

    Great article. I know my job could use these tips!!

  • nancy a

    I have seen this play out in the manufacturing environment. I was just speaking with a former employee about boredom in the work environment. We used to cross train operators to increase our capabilities, and prevent repetative task injury (carpel tunnel), but also to relieve boredom. Some people work very well and are content with repatitive, boring tasks. There are a good portion of employees that do not work well with boring repetative tasks. We found that by placing these people in challenging, non boring operations their quality, efficiency and ability to stay with a task longer improved dramatically.

  • Corey Zanotti

    Good stuff. I’m working in design right now and I’m leading my own project (me alone on this one). The entire direction of the project, which is my designs being prototyped is up to me. Its a learning process as I haven’t prototyped in this fashion before. I’m making all the decisions and guiding the entire projects outcome. Its a new experience.

  • certifyD

    Good stuff. I see the autonomy you speak of as giving some Ownership back to every team member, employee or partner. It makes a big difference on commitment and extra work when the going gets tough. Thanks for posting.

  • ruthenium66

    Some of us need to collaborate, too. Working with an antisocial, telecommuting manager (no. of subordinates: 1. me.) who is a manager because it came with more money…is crushingly boring and depressing. I have such fond memory of “all hands on deck” work by various teams I’ve been a part of. A good boss can make the most tedious work OK if the environment is rewarding. I have plenty of autonomy on a day to day basis…and am so lonely and unfocused.

  • Alberta Industrial Photography

    I completely agree – though there is a lot

  • whatgoeson

    People who aren’t micromanaged and are expected to be competent adults tend to be happier and more responsible than those who work in heavily controlled environments where they basically get infantilized and treated like criminals.

  • Angela

    This is also great advice for individuals working for themselves. Don’t say yes to every project that comes your way only ones that truly interest you. This could be called the “Sword of Gryffindor” theory, “it only takes in that which makes it stronger.” Super nerdy, sorry couldn’t help myself.

  • MrTonyD

    If you work at a place where you have to attend weekly team meetings then you are already working at a place with no real respect for autonomy. Ask yourself a question: If you asked all the people in that meeting when if and when they would like to meet – what answer do you think you would get? Would everyone be saying “once every week”?

    My experience is that there are many ways to communicate and build team. And these meetings set up by managers for “communication” or “collaboration” are really an expression of manager authority – especially given the dynamic real world requirements for collaboration and communication.

    One innovative company I worked for actually required senior manager approval of any status reporting or standing meeting. And I’ve seen standing meetings banned at some companies. (And, for what it’s worth, when I worked on projects for Steve Jobs he would just come by at random times and ask about how things were going. He would get other people or other resources involved when appropriate.)

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