Let’s face it. We spend 40+ hours a week at work and that doesn’t count for the drive, getting ready, and trying to unwind after a long day. The last thing anyone wants is to spend the better part of their life accomplishing nothing. But it doesn’t have to be worthless, as a matter of fact, it isn’t.
Every job matters, if it didn’t the position wouldn’t exist. But finding meaning in your work isn’t easy. It’s become hidden in the increased complexities of the world around us. It’s easy to see in some places but hard in others. Let me explain.
It’s easy to see the loss of meaning in your work on an assembly line. A shoemaker used to create a shoe from start to finish. When the shoe was complete the cobbler could admire their work. They could see the value they were bringing from their labor. Then the assembly line changed everything.
A person on the assembly line was making a hundred more shoes a day, but there was a problem. They couldn’t see the results of their labor. They couldn’t experience meaning and purpose from a long day of work. They were producing more but getting less satisfaction. In the same way, creatives and white-collar employees are going through the same thing.
Hundreds of people are contributing to one product. On my projects, we have five teams all working a small part to create one solution. It’s difficult to take pride in your work when you play such a small role. But everyone plays a key role. Every single person is on the project because they’re essential to making a great solution. The meaning in every person’s work is there even though it’s hard to see.
1. You’re Important in the Big Picture
Finding meaning comes from two directions, top-down and bottom-up. Leadership should help everyone understand how their work contributes to the organization. If they aren’t, you’ll need to look for it yourself. Here’s how I do it.
I work at a large cloud service provider. We help manage and maintain our clients’ technology. My piece of the puzzle is quite small but I help in a big way. My focus on Microsoft technology is critical in helping clients see the value in what we do. My tiny role has big value on the big picture. But I don’t do it alone.
Each team plays a critical role in the project. Each team brings their unique skillset to the table. I can’t replace a single person on the project or do what I do without everyone contributing. I’m sure your work is the same.
Every role in an organization is critical. If it doesn’t seem like it, stop and think. Take time to notice how important you are in the big picture. Take time to understand the organization as a whole and how you fit.
2. Manage Your Tasks and Time
If you’re like me, your days, weeks, and months are packed with hundreds of tasks. Some big and some small. Some of those tasks are boring and make you dread your work while other tasks bring job satisfaction. What if you changed the amount of time and energy you put on each task? What if you focused on tasks that brought more meaning to your work? Let’s dive into some research before I discuss what I do.
Research¹ has shown there are three ways people can find meaning in their work.
- Motives: What motivates you? Do you enjoy personal growth or creating friendships? By focusing on tasks that align with your personal motivation you’ll find rich purpose in your work.
- Strengths: We all love doing what we’re good at. Problem-solving, communicating, a particular set of tasks. Becoming an expert in a particular area can create meaning. With a focus on a particular area, you’ll produce higher quality results. Results you can be proud of.
- Passions: What are you passionate about? What do you love to do? Do you love learning, tackling new problems? Teaching others? By focusing on what you enjoy you can cultivate more meaning in your day-to-day life.
I love productivity. I never grew up thinking “Wow I wish I could perform the same task over and over again but become more efficient at it.” But for whatever reason, that’s where I landed. I’m fortunate enough that all three characteristics landed in the same place.
I’m motivated to find a better way to do the same task. My technical background in scripting and the Office suite has made me a pro at automation. From building complex environments to creating an email template. Nothing “tickles my fancy” like learning how to do something better.
When I work on creating a new script or improving a process late in the day I can’t sleep. I’m so overwhelmed by the idea of cutting 1 hour off a 40-hour project I’m become entranced. That’s why I focus on projects.
I have a lot of tasks that can’t fit into my productivity bubble. A lot of one-off requests that I can’t improve the process on. But I schedule time every day to work on the thing I’m passionate about. Things that help me do my job better and improve the organization as a whole.
What’s good for the individual is not necessarily bad for the community.
Finding ways to make your work meaningful doesn’t have to hurt the organization. You can have your cake and eat it too. What changes could you make that will allow you to focus on your passions while still contributing to the organization as a whole?
3. Help Yourself by Helping Others
It’s the most counter-intuitive yet science-backed way to find meaning in your life. Did you ever watch the sitcom Friends?
Have you seen the Friends episode where Phoebe’s stuck in an ethical dilemma? Phoebe is trying to perform a completely selfless task. Every time she does something good she’s happy she helped someone else. While hilarious, science has also proven it to be true.
Elizabeth Dunn² has a fantastic Ted Talk where she discusses the science of happiness. As it turns out, people that help others are happier. You can apply the same insights and find joy and meaning at work too.
Do you have better technology skills then your peers? Take 20 minutes from your day to help the person that’s frustrated with their computer. What happens? You’ll find a sense of accomplishment that will last all day.
New person at work? What if you took the time to help them through all the difficult processes? Wouldn’t you get a sense of accomplishment and make a friend along the way?
There are hundreds of small ways we can help one another. From having a conversation to helping someone fix the printer that breaks weekly. What if you had a tiny win every day for a month? We’d find our passion and I’d bet your colleagues would too.
4. Redefine Your Relationships
The evidence¹ is overwhelming. Building high-quality relationships drive deeper meaning in your life. That’s bad news for people like me who aren’t social but I’ve learned a few tricks. Before we jump into the tricks let’s discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Complaining, and other forms of negativity spread like a disease. You can’t find meaning, motivation, and happiness when you’re beaten down by negativity. One person complains to a team of five and everyone on the team is a little less happy. Becoming a little less happy makes you more likely to complain. So you complain, and everyone else is a little unhappy. Avoid the spiral of death at all costs.
Likewise, high-quality relationships create a positive environment. We become enchanted when someone shares their passion. Someone starts talking about knitting and before you know it you think knitting is awesome! How do we reframe our relationships to create a better environment?
When someone needs to vent listen and be supportive but don’t engage. After the conversation remind yourself why you come to work whether it’s family or driving a fancy car. Take a moment to recharge. Remind yourself that what you do matters.
If a particular group of people gathers around the water cooler to complain, bring a bottle of water to work. If someone in the next cube over is constantly whining, bring headphones. Do whatever it takes to avoid it. In some places, it’s impossible to cut out the garbage so we’ll need to fight fire with water. By bringing some positivity you can change the culture of your workplace. Here’s how.
By helping others, you can encourage others and create a culture of support. If someone’s having PC issues, fix their problems and cut the negativity. You can foster a community of mutual empowerment. You don’t have to be a computer wizard to redefine your relationships either.
By changing the way you communicate you can build a more meaningful relationship. Don’t get me wrong. Small talk isn’t bad. Talking about the weather or sports is fine but it doesn’t build a high-quality relationship. Letting someone talk about what they’re passionate about does.
We all have topics we’re excited about. Whether it’s kids, skiing or Dungeons and Dragons. There’s a lot of topics for people to be passionate about. Why not let them talk about? Let someone else share their passions with you. Learn about their interests. Learn about what makes them excited. Create a meaningful relationship by listening about something that’s important to them.
5. Create Your Own Feedback Loop
Going right along with relationship building is the short and positive feedback loop. This little bugger makes the ordinary extraordinary. It makes the demotivated motivated. It’s the sliced bread of crushing it at work.
Here’s the thing video game designers figured out but for some reason, the rest of us haven’t. Have you ever played a video game where you level up or unlock something new? I love it. The joy of getting fake items or a new exciting option. Rewards work and they’re not only in video games.
They’re used to keep people posting, sharing, and engaging on social media too. The amount of effort people put into getting more followers is astounding. Why aren’t we using it at work?
You can give positive feedback to everyone you work with. With a little thank you and a little bit of your time you can make someone’s day. You can create a culture where people are putting their best foot forward. That’s it. There’s no magic. No secret remedy. When someone does a great job tell them. You can get positive feedback for yourself too. For me, it’s automatic but you can go out and find it. Let me explain how it works for me.
I’m the last person on most of my projects. Other experts build the environment and I carry the ball across the finish line. I get to have conversations with a happy customer when the job is complete. When I do a great job, I get a thank you. If you’re not the last person on your projects you’ll need to go out a find it.
Track projects if you’re stuck in the middle where you never get a chance to see the final product. When the project is complete take a moment to view your work in its full glory. Take a moment to call the next colleague in the line and ask them how it went. Ask them if they had any trouble with your work. You’ll either get great feedback so you can knock it out of the park next time or a big thanks.
That’s it. A couple of changes can make the difference between finding meaning or misery.
What about you? What are you passionate about? What gives your work meaning?
Good luck and don’t give up after a week. Like anything, you get better with practice!
- Job crafting and meaningful work by J. Berg, J. Dutton, and A. Wrzesniewski
- Helping others makes us happier by Elizabeth Dunn