The Sawyer effect

In the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom is tasked with painting his aunt’s fence. Tom is bored by the thought of having to do all that work and comes up with a plan to recruit his friends to do it for him willingly. He convinces them that the task is fun, and before he knows it, they beg him to hand over the brush and the paint. Tom used the Sawyer effect to turn the work into play for his friends. But the effect also works the other way around to make play feel like work.

This effect was studied in a 1970’s research study where preschool children were given a ribbon as a reward for drawing. After two weeks of reinforcement of this practice, the kids were less interested in drawing. Instead of being a fun playtime, drawing had become work to them.

In Drive, Daniel Pink describes the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is driven by forces that originate in the person’s own desires and interests, while external rewards or punishments fuel extrinsic motivation. The children from the study above started as being intrinsically motivated. They wanted to draw because they enjoyed it. When the ribbon rewards were introduced, they were given the signal that drawing was an unattractive activity. And within two weeks, they had adopted that message and were less attracted to drawing in general.

What can we learn from this when we’re trying to build workplaces where people can thrive? If work can be turned into play and play can be turned into work, we must try to find and emphasize practices that enable the former. That will help people find their intrinsic motivation for their work and take the pressure off people around them to keep them motivated. 

My 2022 morning routine

A good morning routine lays the foundation for a good day. I’ve been trying to stick to a routine for quite a few years now, and my days always feel more productive and coherent when I start them off in a good way. With the new year, I wanted to think about if there was anything I could do differently to set myself up for success. What are the things that I want for myself? How can I form a routine that helps me get there?

The big thing that I want to put more focus on this year is to write and publish. So I wanted to make sure to incorporate that into my morning routine in a stronger way for a while. I also want to try to get through my morning without getting in front of a screen. Many mornings where I have failed to complete my routine has been due to me being distracted by something. News, notifications, emails, etc. I really want to try to “finish” my morning before I open up to information from the outside.

So, here’s my 2022 morning routine.

  • Wake up.
    I’ve always identified as a morning person, and I love getting an early start to my day. A change I made a few months ago was to set my alarm for 7 hours after I went to sleep. That’s instead of having it set for a particular time every morning. It’s has been a good practice, but it has also led to me not always getting in bed in time. I’m going to change my habit a little bit, and try to set my alarm for a time that allows me to get through my routine before my kids wake up. This usually means 6:45. And since my new routine needs 1:15, that means that I should be out of bed by 5:30.
  • Water and morning clothes.
    I start the day with a glass of water and get into my morning clothes. That’s basically another way to say “my workout clothes”. This should be done in no more than 5 minutes.
  • Writing for 30 minutes.
    This one is new. I used to read for 30 minutes, but as I said I want to focus more on writing and publishing. So my primary focus in this edition of my morning routine will be to write. I’m not sure what those 30 minutes will look like yet. If nothing else, I’ll sit down to stare at a blank page for 30 minutes.
  • Workout 15 minutes.
    My routine for a while has been a 30-minute session every other morning. That hasn’t worked great, so I’m trying this short, everyday routine for a while instead.
  • Get dressed.
    No more than 10 minutes. Shower included.

At this point, I’ll consider my morning routine to be done. I’ll say good morning to the family, and I might help the kids get ready and ship them off to school. Once the house is empty I’ll sit down in front of the computer and get going on the day. That always starts with reviewing my to-do list and my various inboxes to make a plan for the day. Once that’s done, I’m off for the races.

Nine guidelines to stay productive with group chat

The odds are that you’re using some group chat at work. If it’s called Slack, Teams, WhatsApp, or Skype makes no difference. If you don’t manage it properly, it will wreak havoc on your productivity. These are nine guidelines that I use to turn group chat from a nuisance to a valuable tool.

1. Manage your DND settings

People must communicate with each other even when the recipient is not around. When you take responsibility for your focus, everybody else can communicate as needed.

2. Set you notifications preferences

Most chat software allows you to set pretty detailed preferences for notifications. Make sure that you don’t get disturbed by unnecessary notifications and that you don’t miss important messages. Set the default to a standard that fits you, and make use of the mute channel setting as appropriate.

3. Use public channels

When you communicate in public channels, you foster transparency and inclusion. You also increase the chance of getting good and relevant feedback.

4. Signal your status

Use the status and profile features to let the team know what’s going on. It’s also a good idea to have a separate channel for status updates.

5. Follow the async communication principles

  1. Provide enough information to understand context
  2. Provide enough information to cover most follow-up questions
  3. Provide all the resources needed
  4. Be clear with what you need
  5. Be clear with your deadline

Read more in Five principles for great asynchronous communication.

6. Use threads

For discussions about a particular topic, use the threads feature. That leaves the main channel free from noise. If you need more room, create a shared document or hop on a call (remember to document it).

7. Don’t check it all the time

Having unread messages doesn’t mean that you’re behind on something. Let other people get on with their work while you get on with yours. Come back to check your messages when you’re out of your focus zone.

8. Respond by the end of your day

Unless a specific deadline is set on a message, it’s reasonable to expect that people respond by the end of their working day.

Make sure that you make it a habit to check off any important messages before you leave for the day.

9. Use the phone for emergencies

If you need to get a hold of someone for an emergency, use the phone. Calling people up and speaking to them directly is the best way to make sure that they give attention to your need. Don’t forget to transfer the information back to somewhere others can access it.

Why writing is more important than reading

I’m an avid book reader. I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of books of the years, both fiction and non-fiction. At any given time I’ll have at least two books that I’m reading, and a long list of books to read after that. Whenever I have a problem that I’m thinking about I turn to books for help and guidance. And I consider several of my greatest mentors to be some of the authors of those books.

Yet, I still believe that reading beats writing. If I could only have either reading or writing I’d pick writing any day. Writing forces me to think through my own believes and ideas. It makes me pit concepts against each other and really think about my arguments. It gives me a debating partner, myself, to discuss and debate in a way that reading never can.

It’s in writing that I’m able to consolidate and combine ideas into something that is even more valuable to me, than the ideas expressed by others. 

And writing has another quality. It lets you share what you’ve learned with others. When you write, no matter how much it’s inspired by someone else, you create something new. And your voice is valuable to someone else. Someone that wouldn’t have been exposed to that idea without you. When you write and publish your writing, you give others an opportunity to become better too.

And let’s not forget — without writing there would be no books. That’s why I write. And that’s why you should write too.

Gratitude > complaints

Appreciate what you have. Such a simple lesson, yet one so hard to live by. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the wants and desires and lose sight of what is already in front of you. As the stoic philosopher, Epictetus once wrote

He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.

This is as true as ever in our era of instant gratification. But how can you help yourself not to give in to your desires? To not complain about the state of things and crave for what could be? A few years ago, I did the Complaint Free World challenge. It’s straightforward but hard on the verge of impossible. Start a timer. Whenever you catch yourself complaining about anything — reset the timer. Keep doing that until you’ve gone for 21 days straight without complaining. Simple, right?

I can’t remember if I managed to finish the challenge. But I vividly remember how illuminating it was to realize how much I complained. I consider myself solution-oriented, happy, and non-complaining per default. But the first few days of the challenge felt like I voiced complaint after complaint. It was a great reality check!

Since a couple of weeks, I’m trying a similar yet different practice. Whenever I catch myself complaining, I immediately counter it with something that I’m grateful for. Preferably something within the same topic. For example, if I catch myself complaining about the weather, I counter it with something about the weather that I’m grateful for. It’s less daunting than the challenge, and I like how it also makes a difference to other people. When they hear me complain, they’ll hopefully hear me be grateful a moment later.


Leader-to-leader is easiest explained by contrasting it with leader-to-follower. It’s common for people to unconsciously divide people into leaders and followers and make assumptions about what each group can do. These assumptions will influence the way we think and act and have an impact on performance.

In the “leader-to-follower” model, leaders tell followers what to do. The leader becomes the bottle-neck and the single point of failure. Given time, it’s a sure-fire way to make enthusiastic and engaged employees disengaged and disillusioned.

The “leader-to-leader” model recognizes that everyone has the ability and potential to lead. Some people lead groups of other people, some people lead themselves and their actions. It taps into each individual’s potential in an organization and reduces dependency on any one person. It allows senior leaders to step back and encourages junior and middle leaders to step up.

The leader-to-leader model requires three components to work: control, competency, and clarity. Control is the root component, with the other two acting as supporting pillars. Without competence and clarity, decentralized control will quickly bring chaos.


To decentralize control is a core feature of the leader-to-leader model. Each individual needs the freedom and authority to decide why, what, and how they’re going to work. The goal is to delegate decision-making as far as possible in the organization. 

  • As a person in a traditional leadership role: Give up control by delegating. Make it clear that even while you’re giving up control, you are maintaining responsibility. 
  • As a person not in a traditional leadership role: Don’t expect “a leader” to solve your problems for you. Think of yourself as a leader of your specific domain, and act like it. A practical change to make is to rephrase “Can I…?” to “I intend to…!” when you have found something that needs to change.


Every person at every level must have the technical competence to make the right decision at any given time. Things will quickly fall apart if people are given control without having the required knowledge and resources. 

  • As a person in a traditional leadership role: Make sure that people you delegate to have the skills required. Be explicit about your expectations and talk about the skills needs of the person you delegate to. 
  • As a person not in a traditional leadership role: Look closely at the responsibilities you are given. Do you have the skills needed to handle them? If not, be explicit with what skills you need to develop. This is not a failure. Finding and closing gaps in our skillset should be a celebrated accomplishment.


For people at all levels to make effective decisions, they must be aligned with the organization’s purpose. They need to have a complete understanding of the goals and decision-making criteria. 

  • As a person in a traditional leadership role: Make sure that the purpose, goals, and decision-making criteria are known to everyone. Communicate about them often and clearly. Have explicit conversations with your people about them. 
  • As a person not in a traditional leadership role: You need to fully understand the purpose, goals, and decision-making criteria that you are to operate within. If you’re unsure about any of the three, act as a leader and go find them.

Work with the garage door open

I have an affection for work done in the open. I love how OSS projects morph and take shape in front of everyone who’s interested. I love how an open-minded conversation can totally re-frame a project. I love the tension and inspiration that comes with putting your work on display. Not the output of the work but the actual, messy work.

Down the street from my house lives an elderly gentleman who’s a true jack of all trades. He fixes cars, repaints old furniture, does woodworking, and gardens. He does it all in front of his huge garage, with both doors wide open. And he’s quick to strike up a conversation with anyone who seems interested. His work makes the neighborhood a friendlier and happier place. And I think that the neighborhood makes him a friendlier and happier person.

I have befriended many of my neighbors in similar ways. Fixing things around the house, doing a work-out on the driveway, or playing with the kids on the street. Exposing myself and the work I do has led to conversations, that in turn has led to both dinners and friendships.

When we open up our workspace to the public it becomes approachable. It turns into something that other people can take part in, ask questions about, and have opinions on. It’s the creative opposite of opening up your garage to show off the old Camaro that you finished renovating.

It’s obvious that we should bring the same practices to the workplace. We should put the work we do on display for everyone to see. Especially when the work is still taking shape. That’s when we can allow people to ask questions, have opinions, and influence our path. The closer we get the mark the work as done, the more rigid it becomes. When you roll that Camaro through the doors it’s too late for me to mention that article I read about repairing vinyl. And it’s too late for me to even try to understand how you have managed to turn a banged-up old car into the piece of art that sits on your driveway. By then, we’ve lost that opportunity to connect.

So whatever you’re working on right now, I encourage you to share it. Open up your garage door. Someone might walk by and glance at what you’re doing. They won’t care if it’s messy in there. The truth is that they’ll appreciate it. They might appreciate it enough to ask you a question. Or to tell you a story. To connect and learn.