Rachel Emma Silverman of the Wall Street Journal reported this week on a new study by University of California-Irvine's Gloria Mark and co-authors from Microsoft Research. Mark and her colleagues tracked 32 workers at Microsoft for more than 1,500 hours. They found that people's moods brightened when they performed busywork (i.e. rote activities), and they were less happy when they tackled challenging tasks. The article quotes Mark: “Focus involves a kind of stress and people aren’t generally happy when they are stressed,” says Dr. Mark. By contrast, “rote work is effortless, so you can get gratification for getting things done.”
What do I make of these findings? I think we have to take them with a large grain of salt. Years of research on intrinsic motivation shows that people value work in which:
- they have autonomy
- they feel that they are making a contribution to a greater goal
- they find challenging and rewarding
- there is some variety in the tasks being performed over time
What accounts for the difference in the findings? Well, if you evaluate people in the moment, I think you get different answers. In other words, the Microsoft study appears to examine people who are performing challenging work, and then from time to time, they perform some busywork. Of course, the busywork may be a great relief, a nice break from their tough duties. However, that's not the same as saying busywork is always mood brightening. If all you did was rote work, you might not be so happy. So, busywork can lighten the mood, but perhaps only when it comes in small doses amidst a stream of work that has the characteristics I listed above in bullet points.