When I reflect on the last six months or so of work, I can point to tasks and projects that I’ve completed and feel a sense of accomplishment. However, within that sense of accomplishment, like fruit on the bottom of a cup of yogurt, lies a sense of dissatisfaction.

In trying to understand why that dissatisfaction exists for me, I remembered Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I superimposed this framework for understanding human motivation over my work streams for the last half year and it helped me understand why I may be feeling the way I am.


Source: http://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

Here are the equivalents for my work and the percentage of my time they’ve been taking:

  • Basic Needs = Basic Work Functions (80% of my work)
    •  There are certain things that I have to do for my job. At minimum, I need to answer emails, complete basic tasks (e.g., review job applications), and meet with colleagues.
  • Psychological Needs = Optional, but Important, Work Functions (19% of my work)
    • These are the parts of my work that I don’t necessarily have to do, but matter. These are things like maintaining relationships with colleagues and stretch projects.
  • Self-Actualization Needs = Completely Optional, Self-Directed Projects (1% of my work)
    • This is the kind of work that gives me maximum freedom to experiment and solve interesting problems. Google’s famed 20% time is a version of this (which, I should add, was how Gmail was born).

To increase my satisfaction, I’d love to increase my self-actualized work from 1% of my work to closer to 20%. The following is an adapted description of self-actualized people that I think perfectly captures self-actualized work (same source as above):

  1. Perceives reality efficiently and can tolerate uncertainty
  2. Spontaneous in thought and action
  3. Problem-centered (not self-centered)
  4. Has a sense of humor
  5. Highly creative
  6. Resistant to enculturation, but not purposely unconventional
  7. Concerned for the welfare of humanity
  8. Capable of deep appreciation of basic life-experience
  9. Establishes deep satisfying interpersonal relationships with a few people
  10. Has peak experiences

I’m working on moving closer to this reality by taking every Friday off in July and August to work on side projects, literally creating my own 20% time. It’s an unsustainable strategy (I only have so many vacation days to use), but it will serve as a case study for how unstructured creative time can result in more self-actualized work.


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