Young people at the office

Three Steps to a Rich Inner Life—at Work

Would you like to read a business book that focuses on the inner life?

Then take a look at The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins To Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work by Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile, who is herself an introvert and known for her pathbreaking work on creativity. Amabile and her husband and co-author, Steven Kramer, write about their study of 238 people at seven different companies. Every day, they sent this group a questionnaire and asked them to record a diary entry. They collected 12,000 diaries in all.

One of their main findings: performance is driven by people’s “inner lives”—how they think and feel about their work.

Here are three ways to have a healthy inner work life, based on Amabile and Kramer’s research:

1. Set daily goals so you feel that you’re continually making progress. If you’re writing a novel, for example, you should focus not on the day two years from now when you aim to write “The End,” but on the moment two hours from now, when you complete your daily 500-word quota.

2. Spend time every single day on aspects of your work that matter most to you. Here’s Amabile as quoted on author Dan Pink’s terrific blog:

“Religiously protect at least 20 minutes – and, ideally, much more – every day, to tackle something in the work that matters most to you. Hide in an empty conference room, if you have to, or sneak out in disguise to a nearby coffee shop. Then make note of any progress you made (even if it was a small win), and decide where to pick up again the next day. The progress, and the mini-celebration of simply noting it, can lift your inner work life.”

3. To be creative, work in an atmosphere free of judgment. This bit actually comes not from Amabile’s new book but from her previous research as described by my friend Jonathan Fields in his book, Uncertainty: Turning Fuel and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance:

“In one experiment, Amabile collected twenty completed works from each of twenty-three artists; half the works by each artist were commissioned, meaning there was a clear expectation of public evaluation and judgment from the get-go, and half were created with no expectation that they’d ever see the light of day. All 460 works were then evaluated for creativity by a panel of experts that included gallery owners, art historians, museum curators, and others….Amabile reported [that] “the commissioned works were rated as significantly less creative than the non-commissioned works, yet they were not rated as different in technical quality.” While part of that loss in creativity may be due to a shift from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation (soul work versus paid work),…the change in the artists’ expectations of exposure, evaluation and judgment likely plays a very real, if not predominant, role in the drop in creativity.”

If you’d like to know more, Amabile and Kramer’s book is for sale here.

Do you find this advice helpful? What techniques do you use for a rich inner work life?

*The above post previously appeared on Susan Cain’s former blog, The Power of Introverts.



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