The psychology of how being told what to do impacts our productivity


I recently sat down with Erik Lukas of Geronimo. He’s one of the most laid back productive entrepreneurs I’ve ever met. In getting to know him I figured out how he came to be that way.

Erik never had a traditional job. So he’s never had someone tell him what to do. He successfully broke into the highly competitive beverages industry without any previous experience. I pondered about how he accomplished that:

Had someone told me the amount of work it would take to launch a beverage product I probably would not have done it. There’s a lot we figured out along the way — how to bottle drinks, how to get distribution, how to partner with other beverage companies, etc. On top of that everything took longer than expected.

He was successful because nobody ever told him what to do. Nobody ever told him it was impossible. That’s a powerful thing.

If you’re working at a regular job or ever have, you know what it’s like when your boss tells you what to do. You no longer want to do it. You get psychological reactance and you no longer feel like completing the task you normally would have done on your own.

Reactance is a motivational reaction to offers, persons, rules, or regulations that threaten or eliminate specific behavioral freedoms. Reactance occurs when a person feels that someone or something is taking away his or her choices or limiting the range of alternatives.

Reactance can occur when someone is heavily pressured to accept a certain view or attitude. Reactance can cause the person to adopt or strengthen a view or attitude that is contrary to what was intended, and also increases resistance to persuasion. People using reverse psychology are playing on at least an informal awareness of reactance, attempting to influence someone to choose the opposite of what they request.

Looking back on my own career I realized that my productivity had a direct correlation with how often someone tried to tell me what to do. Let’s look at some different levels of productivity where productivity is the amount of time I was making progress while in the office.

Complete Freedom

High productivity.

There was always a list of 5-10 small, medium and large projects that needed to be completed. My boss told me to decide for myself which one I wanted to do and to use any technology I wanted. Wow! I got to choose my own destiny and lead the entire project to completion. He was completely trusting and never told me how I should do things.

Challenge accepted. That type of freedom really motivated me. I wrote tons of code in short amounts of time because it was fun. I pushed myself because it was up to me to determine the success.

Limited Freedom

Medium Productivity.

These are times when an entire project was assigned to me, but stakeholders needed checkpoints to review progress and make decisions. In the early stages of the project I was really productive. Defining product features, creating wireframes, developing prototypes and laying the foundation of the core product.

As time went on stakeholders wanted their hands in everything. The product was starting to come together. Stakeholders wanted to guide it in the right direction. They started requiring UI changes, integrations with different platforms, additional product features, etc. The vision, the product and priorities were starting to take a different shape.

When stakeholders told me what to do my mind wanted to take a break. What they want may have been the right path, but mentally I was against it. Integrating their changes was a drag and I lost motivation.

Not Much Freedom

Low Productivity.

I was part of a scrum team at a large company. Some product manager/project manager/engineering manager already broke the workload up into user stories. Those user stories were further broken down into tasks. The tasks were then evenly divided amongst all the engineers. Each engineer didn’t have much of a say in it.

This is how the majority of work is distributed at large companies (or in some similar form). I was told exactly what to work on and even the day I was going to work on it. It was the most unproductive time of my life. I spent an hour at the gym every day. Another hour eating lunch. Several hours surfing the internet. I was really bored sitting under the fluorescent lighting. It felt like a chore to write code.

Care to share what impacts your productivity?

Join the discussion on Hacker News.


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