In the third of a series of summer blogposts on the MaWSIG website, we have a post by writer and editor Tania Pattison about staying motivated.

It’s almost 4 p.m., and I haven’t done any work yet today. I’m sitting at my computer trying to motivate myself to work on a project that I’m not the least bit interested in, that does not pay well and where I feel underappreciated by the client. I desperately need to get this done, and I will start work – really! – after I just check my email one more time, put a load of laundry on, and see what’s happening on Facebook.

The situation described above is fictitious (I love my current projects!), but I have been in situations like this. There are some projects that I can work on happily for hours, while with others, it takes a real effort just to get started. Why? What motivates freelancers, and what causes motivation to lag?

Some years ago, when I was studying ELT Management through International House in London, I came across the work of Frederick Herzberg. Anyone who has taken an introductory business course will remember Herzberg as the person who created the Two-Factor Theory of ‘hygiene’ factors and ‘motivating’ factors. Herzberg’s hygiene factors include all those things that are extrinsic to the work itself: working conditions, colleagues, and money. Motivating factors, on the other hand, are those intrinsic to the work: the opportunity for growth, a sense of achievement, recognition of your work by others and a feeling that what you are doing is important or meaningful.

Herzberg’s point was that hygiene factors are not, in themselves, motivating. A lack of hygiene factors can be demotivating, but you cannot just make money and expect to stay inspired. Real motivation comes from the nature of the work itself.

Herzberg was likely not thinking about freelance ELT writers and editors when he came up with this in the 1950s, and much of what he says is more applicable in a traditional workplace situation. However, for a freelancer, an understanding of Herzberg’s work does help to explain why you may be strongly motivated by some projects, and less so by others.

Motivating projects … and not

I have an ongoing project that never fails to motivate me. No matter how tired I am, or how sore my back, neck or eyes may be from spending hours at a computer, I am always inspired by this work. This is my role as editor of IATEFL’s annual Conference Selections publication, a role I have had for eight years now. Why does this work motivate me? Let’s break it down. The hygiene factors are there: I make money for editing this publication, and I benefit in the form of subsidized conference expenses. I work with a nice group of people. I can work on my laptop in front of the fire. But more importantly, the motivating factors are also present. Over the years I have honed my editing skills on this publication (self-growth). Because I edit papers across the whole spectrum of ELT, I learn a lot about different aspects of the profession (more self-growth). I see the value of the publication; I know it provides a service to people who cannot make it to the annual conference. I get a lot of recognition from my peers for the work I do. I will soon be coming to the end of my work with Conference Selections, but I’m hopeful that the same will apply to my new role as editor of IATEFL’s Voices magazine.

I’m also highly motivated by my writing projects. I’ve recently written a coursebook that has been a dream project. I was paid well for my work, and I liked the client, but there was more to it than that. This book was slightly outside my comfort zone (it was not ELT), so there was professional growth. I also hope the book is going to make a difference to its users, mostly Indigenous students in northern Canada who have endured a lot of hardship and are now returning to college to turn their lives around. Other writing projects have been equally motivating. Most have been fairly compensated, I have had good feedback and I derive a lot of satisfaction from the creative process.

What is less motivating? I don’t want to single out any non-motivating project here, but remember that, according to Herzberg, when hygiene factors are not present, motivation lags. It’s safe to say that any project that makes a freelancer feel (a) underpaid, (b) underappreciated and (c) bored has the potential to cause a dip in motivation levels. I suspect we’ve all had a few of those.

Maintaining motivation

How can we deal with this? The key, I think, is to identify those projects where the hygiene factors are present, but that go beyond these factors and provide real motivators. Here are some questions to ask to gauge whether a project will be motivating or not.

Hygiene factors
  • Are you satisfied with the rate of pay? Or does it pay so badly that motivation suffers? I do a bit of academic editing on the side, and I have actually seen ads where the client is offering to pay £50 to get a dissertation edited. I’m not sure who would be motivated by that!
  • Do you like the client? In one-off projects, you may not form a relationship with a client. But if you work for publishers on repeat projects, you develop a relationship, a sense of working together to accomplish a goal.
  • Are your working conditions optimal? Of course, as a freelancer, you set your own hours and determine your own office space and dress code. But ask yourself whether the client is providing realistic deadlines and giving useful feedback.
Motivating factors
  • Does the project represent an opportunity for growth? Or are you just doing the same thing you’ve done a hundred times before and are, perhaps, slightly bored by? If so, is there a way to go beyond your comfort zone and try something new?
  • Are you allowed to be creative, to try different things, to experiment with your writing? One of the reasons I like writing for my Canadian publisher is that I have a lot of input into the direction my books will take. It’s a collaboration rather than a top-down process.
  • Can you see some value in what you are doing? Is there a real need for the materials you are creating? Or do you feel that you are going through the motions, just to make money for a publisher?

Without naming names, what factors have you found motivating or demotivating?

Tania Pattison is a freelance writer who has taught EAP in Canada and the UK, including intensive pre-sessional courses. Her recent publications include EAP and academic upgrading materials. She is a past MaWSIG committee member and is currently editor of IATEFL Voices and Conference Selections.