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Have you ever seen those college career center posters that suggest you “Find meaning at work!”? Some showed happy people sitting at nondescript desks; others may feature a single professional in a stance of triumph, having apparently achieved something great. These posters were conveying a message that “meaning” was a single thing to behold, and we would only be happy in our career if we had it. These posters were making a good point, it was just poorly delivered.
What they got right was conveying the importance of finding meaning in work. It doesn’t just make us feel happier; we’re also healthier and more resilient. Employers benefit, too, when their teams find meaning. Employees stay in their jobs longer, put forth more effort, and perform better over time.
What the posters got wrong was conveying that meaning as a destination or success to be achieved, and that it’s an all or nothing deal—either you have it, or you don’t. In reality, “meaning” is far more fluid, and it doesn’t have to be present all the time. In this study, researchers found that doctors who spent just 20% of their time on meaningful tasks were at less risk for burnout than those who didn’t. They also found a “ceiling effect,” which meant that spending more than 20% didn’t yield any greater effects.
It reasonable to believe this applies to non-physician folks too. If you work a 40-hour week, just eight hours of them need to be dedicated to work that is meaningful to get some benefits. It’s not a lot.
If you struggle to find meaning in your work, begin by defining it for yourself. You can’t find it unless you know what it is. What inspires you? What gives you energy? Who do you prefer interacting with, and what about those interactions is interesting, exciting, or thought-provoking? The answers to those questions don’t have to reside in your current job either. Just define it for yourself.
Then, seek it out by exploring something different and new. Here are three suggestions.
Use a coworking space
Mixing up our surroundings can help us see our circumstances differently. It’s more important than ever given our remote and hybrid environments that cause us to stare at the same walls all day. More importantly, loneliness is a real risk of working in these contexts. Try finding meaning when you’re in a stagnant environment and feeling alone. It won’t be easy.
Using a co-working space can remedy both challenges. Not only is the space different, but the people are too. Benefits to using a coworking space include a greater sense of wellbeing in addition to an escape from coworkers and more control over with whom we interact. This means to shake-up your surroundings so that meaning can emerge.
Take a news hiatus
Just about any day of the week, it can feel like the world is on fire. It’s reasonable to ask, “How can I possibly find meaning in my work when there is so many terrible things happening all around me?”
When we are bombarded by negative news all day, it effects the way we feel about things and thus impacts what we do and the choices we make. In fact, Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan write in Harvard Business Review that, “Just a few minutes spent consuming negative news in the morning can affect the entire emotional trajectory of your day.”
So, take a news hiatus. Shut off the notifications or hide the apps, even for just a week. Intercept the distractions that day-to-day news creates to open space to recognize what’s meaningful.
Seek out meaningful moments (instead of expecting it out of the entire job)
Meaningful work is not something you either have or don’t have. Rather, it comes and goes. Seek out moments. It might look like the small interactions with a respected coworker, a hard-earned agreement after a lengthy debate, or the satisfaction in a clean, concise, and accurate report. You might even see it in the beauty of blooming flowers outside your window. Meaning can emerge from anywhere if you look for it.
The point here is to narrow your focus and expectations around meaningful work. It’s fluid and, for many, there is likely not one single career that will create it. Rather, it is a culmination of instances that are found when the conditions are right, and our focus is present.