One of the most overlooked keys to work-life balance is the work itself. Work that engages the mind, feeds the heart, and fuels the soul is much easier to integrate into a meaningful, fun, and fulfilling life. Unfortunately, research suggests that many of us are not doing work that excites us, and this is working against our desire keep our heads and our hearts while keeping our jobs.
The good folks at GetVOIP recently published the results of a survey of 1,021 adults in the United States between the ages of 25 and 64*. These adults were asked the simple question, “Does your work excite you?” The responses were pretty evenly divided, with 54.5 percent of folks answering yes, and 45.5 percent answering no.
But things got really interesting when the researchers started slicing and dicing the data demographically**. Three demographic groups showed levels of excitement higher than the overall sample: city-dwellers, Southerners, and Millennials.
Compared to the total “yes” population of 54.5 percent, fully 57.8 percent of respondents between the ages of 25 and 34 said their work excited them. Southerners and city-dwellers were also above average, with 57.1 percent of both of those populations indicating excitement about their work.
So What? Does Work Have to Be Exciting?
While this research might raise as many questions as it answers (e.g., Why are Millennials so excited? Should I move to the South to get more excited? Does this sore look infected?), it has implications for all of us. If our work doesn’t excite us, the costs can be great. Among the risks we face when we settle for work that doesn’t excite us are the following:
- The spillover-crossover model means we bring our lack of excitement (i.e., dissatisfaction, unhappiness, blahs) to our homes and our communities.
- We do a less-than-awesome job at work, which makes it harder for us to feel like our work is meaningful or worthwhile, kicking off a vicious cycle of low productivity and low satisfaction.
- We feel more stress at work and at home because work seems to be taking away more than it’s giving.
How to Find Exciting Work
And those are just some of the costs of a job that doesn’t excite you. But what can you do about it? After all, we can’t all move to Alabama or Chicago or get in a time machine and go back to our 20s. Fortunately, the answer is pretty simple. When you boil it down, you have two choices:
- Find work that excites you.
- Find what excites you in your work.
While there’s always an appeal to option 1 — cutting the cord, quitting today, take this job and shove it, and all that — it’s rarely a practical or easy path. And while the world is full of guides to help you find work you love, it can be a long, frustrating, and expensive process. And if you quit your job without knowing what’s next and without a cushy pillow of cash to fall into, you can find yourself job-hunting in desperation, which is never a position of power or great decision-making.
Unfortunately, option 2 isn’t that much easier. If you’ve been struggling with a job that doesn’t excite you for a while, it can be tricky to find what’s good in it. However, this approach is less risky, and can actually be more rewarding when done right. One of the best approaches I’ve seen for taking this route is called job crafting, and it offers you three options for creating work that excites you out of your current situation:
- Change your mindset
- Change your tasks
- Change your relationships
Use Job Crafting to Turn the Job You Have into the Job You Want
Job crafting came out of the work and research of Dr. Amy Wrzesniewski. At its core, the approach involves assessing your current work situation, finding what’s good about it, finding what needs to change, and conducting small experiments until you’ve transformed it into a job that meets both your needs and the needs of the organization. Let’s look at each of the three job crafting options in detail.
Change Your Mindset
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” So said the melancholy Dane, Hamlet, in a rare moment of clarity. Shifting how we think about our work can make an enormous difference in how we experience it. Here are two practical ways to change your mind about your work:
Context and reframing: Early in my career, I had a job that I’d gotten quite good at and had grown pretty comfortable. Gradually, I started to notice myself feeling restless and questioning the meaning of my work. I understood my job, but wondered whether it really mattered to the world. Through conversations with a mentor, I was able to find meaning in the fact that the thousands of employees who worked for the company needed it to perform well so that they could feed, clothe, and shelter their families. And I realized that I had to kick ass at my job in order for the company to perform well. This newfound (if tenuous) sense of purpose bought me several months while I figured out my next move. Make a conscious effort to find the connections between your work and things that matter to you so that you have a context that gives your work meaning and purpose that excites you.
Gratitude: The trouble with dissatisfaction is that it’s an insatiable beast. The more dissatisfied we feel, the more we start to notice all the things that dissatisfy us, those things that confirm our belief that our job sucks. Research has shown, however, that making a conscious effort to notice the good things can dramatically improve our sense of positivity and wellbeing. One exercise that has proven very powerful is called Three Good Things. Simply commit, for one week, to take five minutes at the end of every day to write down (writing it down is important) three good things that happened that day, and then follow up with why each thing was good. This doesn’t need to be an exhaustive writing exercise, but just some quick scribbling. Most folks who do this for a week consistently find that they want to continue. Focusing on the good makes the bright spots brighter and the dull spots duller.
Here’s a brief video of positive psychology pioneer Martin Seligman explaining the Three Good Things exercise:
What’s awesome about it: There’s probably nothing that has greater influence on your experience of work than your mindset. Even a terrible job can be made bearable, even if only for a short time, by a change in mindset. As Victor Frankl revealed in Man’s Search for Meaning, the difference between a meaningful life and meaningless suffering lies in finding the meaning of our experiences.
What can go wrong: A change in mindset can be difficult to sustain, especially in the face of truly unpleasant circumstances. While you’re in that positive mindset, use your newly boosted creative energy to figure out what other changes (changes to job responsibilities, job relationships, or even major job changes) you need to make in the near future to create a sustained improvement in your situation.
Change Your Tasks
This approach is about changing the content of your job. Are there ways you can do more of the tasks you like, and less of the tasks you don’t? If you’re a project manager who loves all the communications and meetings, but hates all the spreadsheets and record keeping, is there a way that your job can become more about the former and less about the latter? The key here is identifying aspects of your job that you enjoy more than others and making those a bigger part of your day.
What’s awesome about it: The great thing about changing your tasks is that it’s really about incremental improvements, and chipping away at your job dissatisfiers so that a bigger chunk of your time, energy, and enthusiasm is focused on what excites you.
What can go wrong: Be mindful of your boss’s needs and those of other key stakeholders in your world. You’ll need to collaborate to figure out how responsibilities shift without dropping balls or stealing them. Make sure that the tasks you’re taking on actually need to be done, and make sure the tasks you’re minimizing either aren’t needed or are being done by someone else. Believe me: there’s someone else in your team who loves the spreadsheets and record keeping.
Change Your Relationships
Time and again, research has found that who we work with has as much influence over how we feel about our work as what we do (see this article on friends at work for more information). It’s possible to change who you interact with or how you interact with them in your work. Love working with younger people? See if there’s a way you can add mentorship to your day. Do you get a charge out of your interactions with the marketing team? Plan regular lunches or walks with folks in that department. If you find yourself energized by working with executives, find out how you can be of help to them more frequently. Over time, you can tip the balance so that you’re spending more time interacting with people who give you energy and less time with people who suck it out of you like khaki vampires.
What’s awesome about it: Our relationships at work have a profound effect on both our job satisfaction and our life satisfaction. If you’ve ever had that feeling of dread on a Sunday evening, it’s likely that a huge part of it had to do with who you worked with and how you worked with them. As Jim Rohn famously said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Choose wisely.
What can go wrong: Changing your relationships at work doesn’t mean turning your work time into social hour. Make sure that the relationships your focus on have some kind of relevance and connection to your job responsibilities and to the organization’s goals. As you build satisfying working relationships, be careful not to distract others or yourself with too much “relating” and not enough “working.”
Work Should Be Exciting
If you’re among the folks who aren’t excited about their work (and the odds are pretty good that you are), it can be easy to get stuck in the belief that that’s the way it’s supposed to be. When you talk to well-meaning friends and coworkers about your dissatisfaction, they might even confirm that belief with unhelpful responses like, “Well, that’s why they call it ‘work.'” But don’t be fooled. Work should be exciting.
I’ll say that again: work should be exciting. Work should be an expression of ourselves. Work should be a gift that we give to the universe. Work should be our contribution to the world we live in. It should matter. When we do work that excites us, we’re less stressed, more productive, and better able to contribute to our workplaces, our families, and our communities. We’re less occupied with the idea of work-life balance, because exciting work is not something separate from life; it is an integral part of a meaningful, fun, and fulfilling life. And we all deserve that.
* Note: This is not an endorsement of GetVOIP, but only because I have no familiarity with their products and services. I just think they put out really great content that I hope you’ll find relevant in your quest to integrate work with a meaningful, fun, and fulfilling life.
** Disclaimer for you data heads: I don’t have access to the actual raw data, so I don’t know the sample sizes for various populations, which means it’s difficult to determine the statistical significance of these demographic distinctions. Sorry about that.
P.S. If you liked this article, you might like the other content on my website, focused on helping you keep your head and your heart while keeping your job. You might even consider subscribing for weekly content. You just might. And I hope you do.
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