Ever sat at your desk suddenly being washed over by this “I don’t know what I’m doing with my life” feeling?
Some people think this is a struggle only “the millennials” face. But I’ve met people in very senior leadership positions who asked themselves the same question: “What am I doing here?”
When you ask your family and friends, you’re likely to get a lot of definitions for what’s purpose: “core values”; “the things that actually mean something”; “priorities”; “alignment” and “something else than profit”. They may be quick to add that “those who know their personal and professional mission are happier”.
No matter how you define it for yourself – the bigger question is how you can find meaning and a sense of purpose at work in everyday, ordinary life?
Meaning Fuels Our Happiness, Well-Being and Performance
At work, when we know what we’re working for and what our impact is, we are more persistent. But not only that, people who find more meaning in their work are more motivated, more satisfied with their job, feel empowered, are more engaged and perform better. And yes, they actually are more fulfilled personally.
Studies show that people are happier, healthier, more engaged, more committed, and better-performing when their work is meaningful to them.
Here are some 10 actions you can take to boost your sense of meaning at work.
1. Uncover What You Care About and What Drives You at Work
There are some things all of us are passionate about at work and willing to take some risks. Willing to go outside our comfort zone. Use the following questions to tap more into what fills your work life with meaning:
- What am I good at?
- What have I done that gave me a skill I can use to add value at work?
- What do I care about how we work together?
- What topics do I have really strong opinions about?
- What could I talk about for 15 minutes without taking a breath?
- What are the things I read or listen to and say YES!! THAT!!
Now you have a list of things that matter to you. Tweak your work life so that you can incorporate small actions that pay into that purpose every day.
(PS: Questions are a great way to get to know yourself and understand what you might want out of life and your career. Here’s another list you might find useful.)
2. Identify Your Values and How You Express Them
Clarity about your values is important. Because knowing yourself helps you to better understand why you react the way you do in certain situations and it can guide how you show up at work each day.
Take a moment to reflect: What do these values say about as a person? How do they influence your daily life at work? How might they relate to what you will do with the rest of your career? How do you act each day to truly express these values?
3. Use Your Strengths and Talents in Varied Ways
Over the past years you developed a huge set of strengths and skills and honed your unique talents. Compile a list of all of those – what they are and where you most use them. Are there some that only show up in your private life that you could also use more at work? Let’s say you’re a scientist and at work mainly use your strengths of logic and judgement. At home you enjoy painting portraits tapping into your strengths of creativity, empathy and appreciation for beauty. How might these help you at work?
If it’s difficult for you to come up with a list of strengths, don’t worry. We’re typically not trained to see the good things about ourselves and often miss the vocabulary to talk about strengths. You can ask friends, family and colleagues: What do you think I’m good at? When do you see me most in my element? How am I making a difference in the world? Take on board what resonates and feel free to ignore what doesn’t.
4. Envision Who You Would Be in Your Best Career
Paint a picture for yourself: Five years from now and everything has gone as well as it possibly could – what are you now doing for a living/ at work? What does that day look like? What’s important for you? What do you care most about and why and how does that influence how you behave and go about your work?
You could also look back five to ten years. What have you always wanted to do but didn’t because of other commitments? What is a dream, something you truly want for yourself and the world? Pay special attention to the people and experiences in those stories. You can also use the ‘spiral staircase’ metaphor I described in this article.
5. Help Others and Make a Difference Together
Find opportunities to give to others at work. Who might need your help? This could be information they are missing, an introduction to someone that can support their project or simply someone who listens and brainstorms with them.
Using your skills to make a difference for others connects you with people who share a similar passion or mission as well. From there and with the support of those allies it’s easier to have a sense of meaning at work. That way you also build a network which introduces you to further opportunities.
6. Use the Power of Positive Emotions
There’s plenty of research showing that positive emotions are tied to well-being, caring about others and finding meaning in life. All of this helps you focus on how you can contribute to your community and your workplace.
To tap deliberately into positive emotions, you may wish to start with gratitude. It has been found to point us towards purpose and you can cultivate it by regularly reflecting on what’s good at work. You can even take it up a notch by expressing gratitude to your colleagues and partners at work.
Another positive emotion to help you increase your emotional well-being, have more energy and motivation to pursue purposeful goals at work is awe. That is being inspired by excellence around you, good team work or impressive role models.
7. Find Meaning in Routine Tasks
Do you have some small tasks that feel very routine and mundane for you? Not sure why you are even doing this? Write them down in a list. For each one keep asking “Why am I doing this? What is it good for? What will it accomplish?” and note down the answers. Keep going until the value of this small task becomes clearer to you.
Example: Writing a monthly report → is important to give transparency about my work → my boss has a better understanding of my contributions → plus it’s shared, so more people know the value I add → now they know what I’m capable of → this’ll give me more opportunities in the future.
8. Seek Inspiration From Your Customers
Find those people who use the output of your work to do theirs. Have a chat with them to learn about all the ways how your work is benefiting them. You can also do this exercise for your whole team. Simply invite someone to a team meeting to share how your team’s work helps them.
9. Create a ‘That’s-Why Bank Account’
Keep a folder with “thank you” emails in your inbox, so you can go back to them regularly. Write down your own accomplishments that show you the meaningful impact of your work. And while you’re doing this – why not email a colleague explaining how their work helped you?
10. Identify Your Role Models
As you explore how you might want to contribute, look around you. Who do you consider a good leader or renowned expert? Observing them and how they conduct their work can uplift you and serve as a motivation for becoming such a person. You might even start embodying some of their traits right now.
And you can relax, no need to be intimidated even if they sometimes might seem larger than life. Do they lead a whole department in a way that inspires you? Start by taking the lead in meetings in a way that it brings out the best in others. You can always find ways to do the things you find aspirational right now in a smaller version. Start taking small steps.