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How to Make Tasks Matter and Find Meaning in Your Work

By Kathleen McAuliffe · August 17, 2017
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"What’s the point?" "Why does this matter?"

When your alarm clock starts buzzing, and your inbox is already packed with pressing requests, what pulls you out of bed and into your 8x10 cubicle? Paying the bills is a powerful motivator, but ultimately, it comes down to personal meaning.

Although we often associate finding meaning with finding happiness, the two aren’t synonymous. In fact, a meaningful life requires struggle, stress, and substantial effort, according to psychology professors Emily Esfahani Smith and Jennifer Aaker. But personal investment is what pushes you through the aspects of your job that don’t make you happy—the marathon conference calls, the passive-aggressive cubicle partners, and the endless email exchanges.

So especially when you don’t particularly enjoy what you do—but you can’t quit—here's how to create meaning in the monotony.

Why It Matters

You probably have noticed that you’re more likely to show up to work—and do your best work—when your personal motivation goes beyond making your monthly rent. And for most, meaning matters even more than money. Sure, you still need to pay your bills—but 68% of professionals would accept a pay cut for a more personally fulfilling career—and 23% would slash their salaries by 25 percent or more, according to a survey by Phillips North America. When they’re in more personally worthwhile roles, employees are 1.7 times more satisfied and 1.4 times more engaged at work.

That personal satisfaction pays off for their companies, too. In a 2012 Gallup meta-analysis of 263 studies in 34 countries, employee engagement predicts several metrics of business performance, including productivity, turnover, attendance—and of special interest to managers—profitability.

So how do you do it? First, you need to figure out what makes things meaningful to you. Then, you have to refocus your work so it feels meaningful for you.

Here's how:

Find What Gives Your Work Meaning

Start by interrogating yourself

You probably didn’t enter the workforce with dreams of contributing nothing of value to society. But we start on the bottom rung, realize we need to pay the bills—and as time passes by, we can become so disconnected from our values that we forget what they are.

If you’re seeking a more personally fulfilling career, where do you start? You’re not a magician—you can’t just pull meaning out of a spreadsheet like a rabbit out of a hat. But you can still create meaning at work without quitting your job to travel the world. Strike a realistic yet personally gratifying compromise by following our best research-based strategies for finding meaning in your tasks.

But first, you need to figure out what exactly will give your work meaning. Is it a connection to a certain cause? Is it engaging one of your skills or personal passions? Is it serving a specific population? Everyone has their own causes, the things that give their life meaning. Without knowing what you’re chasing, your quest for meaning will turn into a wild goose chase. So it’s worth reflecting on your "why" before you pursue any major changes.

Here's how:

1. Cultivate Self Awareness

To create meaning, you need to figure out what moves you, besides baseless platitudes like "following my dreams" and "exploring my passions." Ask yourself concrete questions to reveal your truth. What are you working for? What impact do you want to create in your job? What skills do you want to develop and leverage?

On Fast Company, Allison Jones suggests five useful questions to kickstart the self-reflection process.

- Why Do I Care About Finding My Passion? - What Role Does Work Play In the Kind of Life I Want? - What Opportunities Excite Me and How Come? - What Do I Want to Get Really Good at Doing? - What Am I Willing To Give Up?

2. Write a Career Mantra

It’s not just for hippies. Once you’ve thought about what makes you tick, articulate it with a personal career mantra. Think of it as a company mission statement without the incomprehensible buzzwords and business jargon. Sound corny? People who wrote their goals on paper where significantly more likely to achieve them than controls, according to a Dominican University study.

Keep it short and simple—just focus on what gets you out the door every day. Your mantra should encompass who you are, where you want to go, and the impact you want to make during your 9-to-5. Consider these three questions from Career Contessa as you write your own:

- What are my values? - What problem can I solve? - How can I transform this into action?

Write it down and whenever you’re refreshing YouTube videos at your desk, refer back to that mantra to reconnect to your meaning.

Recraft Your Job

Time to rethink how you work.

Once you compare your answers to the previous sets of questions with your current job, work on closing the gap between the two.

Unless you’re the CEO, your position will limit your ability to immediately change your job. But through some simple tweaks, you can create more impact in your position. The first step? Shifting your perception. Stop viewing your job description as a static, unchanging list of responsibilities. Even if that list completely reflected your career aspirations when you applied, you and your role probably evolved since then. Instead, approach your job title as fluid set of activities—which you can change to fit your skillset and personal passions.

In a white paper for the American Psychological Association, Justin Berg of the Wharton School, Jane E. Dutton of the Ross School of Business, and Amy Wrzesniewski of the Yale School of Management terms this more flexible approach "job crafting." There, they recommend three main ways to recraft your job for deeper meaning, either by acting on your external conditions or on your own thoughts:

1. Change Your Tasks

The most direct, immediately obvious way to inject meaning in your job? Change what you do. If you have the autonomy to do so, modify your actual tasks to more closely match your goals and desired skills. In their white paper, Berg, Dutton, and Wrzesniewski give an example:

"For example, an experienced salesperson could bring a new colleague along on sales calls, so this task becomes not just about selling to clients, but also about training the colleague. This might invigorate the salesperson by making a mundane task more meaningful by helping the new colleague forge important connections and learn this part of the job."

If you can’t significantly alter what you do at work, you still change the workflow processes that undermine your satisfaction and sense of meaning. Even streamlining one process can alleviate the associated stress, thus allowing you to realize the potentially fulfilling elements of your work.

An instantly actionable way to save time? Automate your tedious time-wasters with a tool like Zapier to transfer client data between apps or combine notifications from ten different apps. If automation’s not an option, delegate them out to carve out more time and mental bandwidth for creatively enriching projects.

More importantly, eliminate multitasking. More than anything else, multitasking prevents you from creating meaning. Spreading yourself too thin not only stresses you out, it keeps you from focusing enough time and energy on any one thing to perform well, much less reveal any significant meaning.

As California State University sports psychology professor David D. Chen writes, "Rather than getting more done during such frenzies of multiple activities, you end up compromising the pleasure and ultimate quality of the experience."

Simply put, you need to give yourself enough time to recognize and experience fulfillment when you find it. When you’re pulling 60 hour weeks just to keep up, simply finishing everything—let alone finding fulfillment in any of it—might feel impossible. So consider of some of these time management apps or other actionable ways to protect your time, like combining several one-on-one meetings into "1:many situations" or consciously choosing to dial back in one area.

In addition to prioritizing your time, prioritize your personal and professional development. Everything you do at work—netting $5 million in revenue or just securing a reference from a coworker—impacts your professional future somehow or another. So here’s your permission to be selfish: Set daily and longer-term process goals to emphasize your personal development. We’re more motivated by personal growth than external indicators—which usually benefits someone else more than you.

To ensure that your mindless work at least advances your career, look at your typical tasks and ask what’s in it for you. Then forecast to the next five or ten years. Where do you want to be? Schedule regular performance meetings with your manager to set your development goals and ensure that your work activities adhere as closely to your goals as possible. Even if your manager can’t completely meet those needs, your communication will plant the seed in her mind. When something that seems just right for you comes along, she’ll be more likely to send it your way.

To advocate for yourself without distracting from team efforts, follow HubSpot’s tips on how to approach these "career path" conversations

Don’t schedule the sitdown until you can clearly and concretely state your goals and desired skillsets. No need to map out every intermediate point on your 10-year plan, but do come prepared with a vision of your general destination and steps necessary to reach it.

Also wait until a calm time to bring up your career development. Your personal trajectory is too important to bring up at the end of a call or when your manager’s too distracted by another project.

2. Change relationships

Whether you’re refilling coffees or scheduling meetings, entry-level employees often aren’t creating a measurable impact beyond easing their manager’s load of busywork. But those seemingly thankless tasks still benefit their manager—whether by saving their time or sanity—and by extension, advances the company’s profit and mission. By shifting your focus from doing busywork to building a relationship, you can transform mindless drudgery into more inherently fulfilling act of service.

And although the promise of a good reference can certainly motivate us, we actually consider our work most meaningful when it creates a positive impact for others. According to research by Adam Grant, some of the most glamorous, interesting jobs—like fashion design and graphic animation—are also the most meaningless, while adult literacy teachers and child life specialists rated their careers as much more meaningful.

As Grant explains on Psychology Today, workers across all cultures are more motivated by personal relationships than isolated projects and key performance indicators—and decades of workplace research have confirmed this pattern across all industries and cultures.

So when you’re dragging yourself through a dull task, visualize the end product of your work—identify how your effort might positively impact another person. For example, a customer service specialist might reframe their work from "answering calls and fielding complaints" to a more holistic, outwardly focused "serving others and advancing the business by streamlining the customer experience."

If you can’t readily identify the end user of your project—or if there really isn’t a point—leverage your relationships with your coworkers. For example, as you’re formatting your fourth spreadsheet for your manager, consider how the saved time will ease his day personally and professionally. Maybe your busy work saves him time to prepare a major pitch—or just gives him an extra 20 minutes to call his kids. Your manager’s convenience may not be not your primary concern, particularly if they always pile their undesirable projects on you, so consider the golden rule—or the potential political advantages of appeasing him now.

3. Change perceptions

Obviously, the first two strategies require some cooperation from managers and coworkers. But some employees don’t enjoy such supportive workplaces—and junior employees may not have the autonomy to change anything about their circumstances. They still have power over their perceptions, through. By acting on your cognitions, they can alter your view of your job without even leaving your cubicle.

Selectively focus on preferred tasks

Berg, Dutton, and Wrzesniewski suggest focusing on specific tasks at the expense of less satisfying ones. "By taking frequent steps back and mentally focusing on the creative aspects of the job that are most meaningful to them, they may be able to more effectively leverage the meaningful components of their jobs in order to bear the parts that seem less meaningful," they suggest.

Unlock your golden handcuffs

From aspiring novelists who move to marketing roles, to financial analysts who switch from nonprofits to big banks, many professionals face the "passion versus paycheck" dilemma. And once they take the more lucrative job, and increase their spending to match their higher income, they might consider it impossible to downscale for a lower-paying, but more personally meaningful position later on. The situation’s common enough to have a name: Golden handcuffs syndrome.

But you can free yourself from those golden handcuffs. With more disposable income, you enjoy more flexibility to pursue your passions and express your personal values outside the office. So although money can’t buy happiness, you can use it to buy the experiences, take the courses, and make the charitable donations necessary to manufacture personal meaning after-hours.

For instance, someone who chose a corporate career over a non-profit could contribute part of their extra earnings to a charity that aligns with those personal values. Or with their higher salary, someone who values sustainability could invest more money toward local food and ethically sourced materials than they would have with their non-profit paycheck.

Finally, you can connect the boring aspects of your jobs to your personal passions—or merge your personal meaning with your work in more unconventional ways. A consultant who moonlights as a performer might reframe his constant travel as practice for his concert tour, or a fitness enthusiast stuck in a desk job can spearhead a corporate wellness program in their workplace.

Wrapping Up

If you’re staring down major student loan debt, or your bills are piling up, personal meaning might need to take a backseat to money by any means necessary. But most days, you’ll spend more time at work than home, and more time with your coworkers than your immediate family. So a sense of personal meaning more than a "nice to have"—it’s the personal motivator we need to overcome obstacles, withstand setbacks, and truly thrive at work.

How do you find—and create—meaning in your work? We'd love to hear your experiences in the comments below.

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