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How To Create Purpose In Your Work

How To Create Purpose In Your Work

Jerome is desperate. He drags himself to his office job every day, the one he’s had for 4 years now. He clocks in at 9 and starts doing client calls until 12. He then takes a half-hour lunch break, followed by a team meeting, and then more client calls until 5. The same old job, the same routine, and an overwhelming feeling of emptiness deep inside. He doesn’t know why he’s doing what he’s doing, he just feels no sense of meaning to it all. It’s a good job, pays the bills, but he’s just so unhappy. He increasingly finds himself zoning out instead of doing his work, and his performance reviews suffer. He is worried about being laid off! So, he decides to research strategies for bringing a sense of meaning and purpose to the workplace. He learns about science-based strategies for doing so, and starts applying them to his workplace. So, what are these strategies?

Build community spirit and social bonds through your work.

Plenty of studies indicate that community and social bonds contribute strongly to a sense of meaning and purpose in life. The scientific literature shows this applies to work as to any other sphere of life.

I will use myself as an example. In my own role at Intentional Insights (InIn), I strive to create opportunities to engage with fellow participants on projects together and to collaborate in a positive and supportive manner. Collaborating around mutually exciting projects in a positive manner is one way to build social bonds in the workplace.

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Moreover, I make sure to regularly meet with InIn participants to talk about topics not directly related to our mutual work, but to other things going on in our lives. Doing so helps enrich the professional relationship and turn it into a deeper and more meaningful one, where both people feel supported by the other. Likewise, I occasionally organize social events where all InIn participants can gather to socialize, especially to celebrate important organizational accomplishments.

You can do some of the same in your own work. Most types of work provide opportunities to work with others on mutual projects, and you can do your part to be a great team player who supports and encourages others.

Likewise, set up meetings with coworkers and talk about things related not only to work, but also to life as a whole. While an increasing number of people work from home, video-conference calls can provide an opportunity to both collaborate on work projects and talk about non-work topics.

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Serve others through your work.

Social service to others is one of the keystones of greater meaning and purpose in life, as numerous studies reveal. Research specifically on the workplace has found that the same concept applies to work as well as to anything else. So I and my fellow InIn participants are lucky ducks, as the organization by its very nature is oriented toward helping our audience have better lives. Furthermore, one of our key principles is to coach and mentor each other, which both builds social bonds and serves others.

It is important, however, to reflect occasionally on how I specifically help others have a better life. To do so, I and other Intentional Insights participants collect quotes from emails, blog comments, and other sources where people express gratitude to the organization for helping them, and share these with each other. I encourage a work culture where we highlight and celebrate mutual accomplishments in helping our audience members improve their lives.

Let’s say you have a 9-5 job that does not explicitly serve others, what then? No worries! Every job helps somebody somehow. Think about the social value you provide. What is it about what you do that helps others have better lives? Journal about it and collect any positive feedback provided from others about your work. Take steps to solicit such feedback, since some workplaces don’t have optimal systems to provide it. Don’t ask for direct compliments, but ask people for their frank assessment of how you are doing, both your strengths and your weaknesses. Look for both formal and informal opportunities to support and coach others in your workplace.

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Likewise, see if your workplace has service projects, like building homes through Habitat for Humanity or volunteering in a soup kitchen. Also, remember that the salary you earn at your work can be donated to charity, and many employers offer matching contributions. Effective Altruism identifies the most effective charities by using well-reasoned, evidence-based evaluations. Such civic engagement can help you find greater meaning and purpose in your work  by serving others outside the direct context of your work. Again, to cultivate the deepest sense of life purpose, keep a journal and reflect on the positive impact you’ve had on others.

How do I know if these strategies are working for me?

Great question! Use the Meaning and Purpose Questionnaire (MPQ), a research-informed tool used to quantify your own sense of purpose in every area. Take that questionnaire with a focus on your work activities, and work on any areas that you might find are lacking.

What if my supervisor doesn’t want me to do meaning-making activities at work?

I hear you. Some supervisors don’t yet realize the benefits for employee mental and physical health and wellbeing that come from a greater sense of meaning and purpose in their work. First off, I’d suggest you talk to them about the research on this topic. If the argument about the mental and physical wellbeing of employees doesn’t satisfy them, I suggest you bring up research about how creating a meaningful workplace contributes to the bottom line of well-known companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Southwest Airlines, Tom’s of Maine, Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, and many others. Also consider bringing this research to the attention of the HR department and upper-level administrators if your direct supervisor is not flexible.

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Still, regardless of what your supervisor might think, a great deal of these activities are under your own control. Remember, you’re working for yourself, not for anyone else. Always remember that and be intentional. Show agency in getting what you want from your work, including a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Consult resources such as this science-based free workbook about meaningful work, and this web app to measure your sense of meaning and purpose.

Consider sharing this article with your co-workers and/or supervisor if you think they would benefit from reading it, and also if you would benefit from them having read it.

Questions to Consider:

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  • Do you already practice any of the meaning-making workplace activities described above? If so, what do you do, and how have they worked out for you in gaining a greater sense of meaning and purpose? If not, which of these do you think are the lowest-hanging fruits for you?
  • How has reading this article caused you to think differently about finding meaning and purpose in the workplace? What’s your main takeaway?
  • Do you intend to take specific steps to gain greater meaning and purpose from your work after reading this article? If so, what do you intend to do?
  • What kind of benefit have you gained from reading this article, and how might this information improve your life?

Featured photo credit: Happy businesswoman via flickr.com

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Dr. Gleb Tsipursky

Cognitive neuroscientist and behavioral economist; CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts; multiple best-selling author

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

More on Building Habits

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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