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.
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):
- Perceives reality efficiently and can tolerate uncertainty
- Spontaneous in thought and action
- Problem-centered (not self-centered)
- Has a sense of humor
- Highly creative
- Resistant to enculturation, but not purposely unconventional
- Concerned for the welfare of humanity
- Capable of deep appreciation of basic life-experience
- Establishes deep satisfying interpersonal relationships with a few people
- 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.