5 tools to make work meaningful – no matter what
Most of us have been able to look forward to a future with at least some bright spots – a project completed, a holiday, a new position, a hiking or cycling adventure, or an overseas trip. There was plenty to keep us motivated! But, for the moment, that appears to have changed. As one client put it, “The worst part is not being able to plan ahead!”
Changes with far-reaching implications have been around forever, trying to undermine our confidence in decision-making. Perhaps this is simply an opportunity to review what works best for maintaining a solid sense of purpose at work.
When the broad context of our work seems more uncertain than usual, our work’s meaningfulness can slip away, leaving us feeling disengaged and frustrated and seeking distractions. Remind me what this is all about again? What’s the point of this work? What happened to real fun with real people? These are just some concerns we’ve heard. These feelings are very understandable, but they are not the last word.
Working – whether from home, in mixed mode or back in the office – can be full of vitality and hope. This type of work involves high engagement, a strong sense of fulfilment and contribution and a promise of progress. It still exists (we have written about it). It’s meaningful work, and the challenge today is to maintain progress towards it, despite the circumstances we now find ourselves in.
To do this, there are some distinctions worth grasping clearly. Here are four that can make a big difference.
These are not black and white, either/or issues. They are all a matter of degree, of relative emphasis. Our work with clients has shown us time and again that these distinctions can boost satisfaction and fulfilment at work no matter what the situation. By swinging your attention towards the left column, you can boost your sense of progress in your work right now.
But why should you bother? Why not just bear the pain or boredom, take the money and enjoy the other parts of your life?
Certainly, that’s an option, and many take it. But the fact remains that work is a huge portion of your life, and if you have a sense that your work is useful, has purpose and makes a difference, you are more likely to have higher work satisfaction, greater mental wellbeing and be more effective in your work. You can also feel the satisfaction of having achieved something that really matters – today.
Below, we outline five tools that can immediately sharpen your sense of purpose and generate meaningfulness and energy in your work, even in times like these. Each tool addresses one or more of the four distinctions above and helps move you towards the juice of highly engaging work – rather than just getting through the day.
1. The now tool
The simplest of the tools. Its effectiveness lies in its ability to keep your attention on what is right in front of you, to give meaning to your work right now. This is how, for example, listening attentively to a colleague or client (and there is nothing more ‘now’ than this) can often be a gift, resulting in numerous mutual benefits.
If you are feeling negative or down, try being thankful for or appreciative of someone or something specific, right under your nose. This is a direct behavioural way to boost the meaningfulness of the work in front of you.
A client recently told us about their “10 Appreciations Project”. Each day, they made a practice of coming up with 10 things they appreciated about their work and colleagues. You can make your own “now tools” – the possibilities are endless.
Because now is the only time you actually have, focussing on your very next step can boost meaningfulness and satisfaction. (For some of the finer points of focussing, see our earlier post).
2. The structures tool
Establish structures to guide your focus towards those four left-column priorities. Structures come in all shapes and sizes. Some relate to time, others to spaces, agreements with others, templates and activities.
Create boundaries (spatial and temporal), set up time-boxes, track your time use and plan every day before you switch on your computer or phone. Previously, many of us had just one main boundary in place – that between arriving at and leaving work. But for most, this has broken down not just because of working from home but also because of the digital intrusions that cross the traditional work/non-work boundary.
The key, especially these days, is to set up time and space boundaries that you fine-tune and monitor throughout the day. Use different boundaries for different purposes. Currently, we have a “distance boundary”, which is to walk or run 5 km each day before 1:00 p.m., come rain or shine.
3. The giving/getting tool
Think about the balance you have (or don’t have) between giving and getting in the present moment. Here “giving” means adding value to others at work, assisting them in what they need in the moment. Research shows that those who give like this are more likely to feel that work is meaningful and more likely to be engaged and energised at work.
This tool is about nudging your dial to the left on the giving–getting scale. It’s not about dropping everything to help someone else regardless of the cost to yourself or your own work objectives. It’s about doing what you need to do not only to advance your work but to do it in ways that support others’ work. It is about going a bit further to add a little value to their efforts and being willing to help. Often, it’s about how you work and can be as simple as acknowledging others, even smiling more!
4. The support tool
Enlist support – human support. Organise to have a mutual check-in with a workmate or colleague (it must be a real person, not a software tool!) once a day or as fits your work programme. At the moment, we’d encourage more than once a week, but you can flex this up and down as you find useful.
This tool is especially effective for maintaining momentum through tough times. It’s not easy because some feel this is like “asking for help”, which many professionals shy away from. But this tool is so much more than that. It works best as a mutual structure, seen as a team-building technique (even if it’s just a team of two!).
5. The news of difference tool
In many ways, this is the tool that rules all the others. This is your tool for staying true to yourself and on track with the rest of the tools in your kit.
Every day, as the last thing you do “at work”, take your work diary and think back over the day, noting the times and places when you did something different by applying the tools.
This is not just a log of what you did or a project milestone record. It’s a log of what you did differently as a result of using these tools that moved you towards a sense of meaning and fulfilment in your work at that moment. Doing this will keep you on track.
And please be in touch if we can help. You could call this the Sixth Tool. If it gets too hard, reach out.
Cheers to sharpening the tools!
All the best,
Max and Frances