A couple of weeks ago, someone asked me if I was happy at work. I considered the question for a moment and I replied that, for the most part, I was. At the time, it wasn’t a lie: I’m fortunate to have a good job that challenges me, smart and enjoyable colleagues, and make a decent living. Why shouldn’t I be happy at work?
But in the days that followed, I continued to consider the question and wondered if I had offered a disingenuous response. While I stood by the fact that I wasn’t unhappy, I began to wonder: does the absence of unhappiness equate to happiness?
In order to answer that question, I needed to better understand happiness. If you’re like me, you hear the word thrown around a lot – it’s becoming a catchall. In Tal Ben-Shahar’s book Happier, he defines happiness as “the overall experience of pleasure and meaning.” He discusses the following definitions:
- Pleasure – a feeling of happy satisfaction and enjoyment (present benefit)
- Meaning – comes from a sense of purpose related to the future benefit of one’s actions (future benefit)
I thought about how I felt each day. I noted that I wasn’t running out the door in the morning to get to work and that I often felt drained at the end of the day. I concluded that work didn’t make me miserable, but it also wasn’t making me happy – why wasn’t I finding more pleasure and meaning in each day?
It would have been easy for me to point the finger at the system, to say work isn’t engaging me or my boss isn’t motivating me or consulting (and the associated long hours) just isn’t for me. That would have been easier, but it would have masked the truth: it was all my fault.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve considered myself an athlete. I played three sports growing up until middle school when soccer stuck and I focused there. I learned many lessons from soccer, but one in particular stuck: “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” So, with my bit of talent and an incredible amount of hard work, I turned myself into a collegiate athlete and put together a pretty good career.
My modus operandi as an athlete turned into my M.O. as a professional when I transitioned from college athlete to college coach. Six months into my career I moved with the head coach of one school to a different program; she said this about me on the team website, “Mariel’s reputation as a player is quickly becoming her reputation as a coach – a tireless worker that is always improving herself and everyone around her.” I was proud of that, but now understand I was on a slippery slope: at some point I began equating hard work with the amount of things I was doing rather than the quality with which I was doing them. That was exacerbated when I enrolled full time in an MBA program and was technically a “full time” coach AND a “full time” student.
So here I was, eight years after I began my professional career taking on a lot, working long hours, and being seemingly productive … yet recognizing I wasn’t as happy as I wanted to be in my work life. Something needed to change.
To figure out what that something was, I considered what pleasure and meaning mean to me and how I’ve been experiencing them lately:
- I find pleasure in solving difficult problems. Lately, I wasn’t finding enough time to thoughtfully address tough issues nor was I experiencing joy in the way I should when I did.
- Once a coach, always a coach: I find meaning in making those around me better, whether it be colleagues or clients. Lately, I haven’t been able to pick my head out of my to-do list long enough to consider what I can do today that will reap benefits for those around me in the future.
I blamed busyness: I was allowing packed days to crowd out my ability to feel pleasure and find meaning. That’s when I found a great post by Janet Choi called Busyness is Not a Virtue. She suggests that if you’re using “busy” as an excuse – which I was – “it’s probably time to slow down and pay attention … [to] what is keeping you so busy compared to what you really should and want to be doing.”
I heeded the advice. I considered what was making me so busy and realized it was my doing: it had almost nothing to do with my workload and everything to do with how I was working. I was using “being busy” as an excuse for not devoting the time and energy I desired to the tough stuff. Choi, referencing the Phantom of the Toolbooth, reminds us that “if you only do the easy … jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time.” With my focus on the easy jobs – running between meetings, multitasking, immediately responding to emails, constantly answering questions on Skype – I was so tied up in reacting that I wasn’t allowing myself the time or space to accomplish anything significant.
I thought back to when I was a goalkeeper. My athletic career was built on discipline – I was almost always singularly focused on how I spent each day, wanting to ensure that I prepared myself for success when I stepped on the field. However, in my work life, I’d lost the discipline. I was saying “yes” without discernment, packing my days without really thinking how I was doing so. The big “aha” moment for me was when I realized I was operating that way not because I didn’t care, but because I was too exhausted to act differently. It was a vicious cycle: being busy was making me exhausted, when I was exhausted I wasn’t disciplined, and a lack of discipline ensured that I stayed busy. As a result, not only was a sub-optimizing my contributions, but I wasn’t finding the pleasure and meaning I sought.
So last week, I ran an experiment: Each day when I got to work, I made the choice not to do everything. Instead, I identified the things on my to-do list that I thought were critical and significant, and stashed the rest of my to-do list away. I organized my schedule so I was spending more of my mornings thinking (it’s when I think best) and less of my mornings trying to get to Inbox Zero. I spent less time toggling between Email and the Internet and PowerPoint and more time problem solving, creating, and engaging with those around me.
As I expected, not only did I feel better at my job, but I left each work day energized and excited about the contributions I’d made that day, both in the near-term and toward the future.
I now understand that this is how I should be consistently working. But it’s hard! In our always-on world with constant demands, it’s difficult to be disciplined about how you spend your time, to say “no” or “not right now” to the things that push you past your reasonable (not superhuman) limits, and to create the opportunity to focus intentionally on the things in which we think we should be invested. It’s difficult, but if you can pull it off it’s incredibly rewarding because, as Jimmy Dugan so eloquently put it in A League of Their Own, “it’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard … is what makes it great.”