Humans thrive when we get stuff done. But not just any old stuff, stuff that matters. People are born to create. And to accumulate results into a body of work they can be proud of. Conversely, we get depressed when we are simply “going through the motions” with repetitive or mundane tasks that just keep us busy. You’ve probably heard of “make work” which describes pointless tasks that keep someone busy but do not result in any progress towards something valuable. While keeping busy appears a lot like working, the lack of progress on anything meaningful is dispiriting.
Progress is the single most important event leading to positive inner work life, according to the Progress Principle by Teresa Amabile of the Harvard Business School. She describes a positive “inner work life” as the continuous stream of emotions, perceptions, and motivations that people experience throughout their workdays. And we all know that a positive attitude leads to better efforts and better results.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there who get paid for being busy, meaning their output is measured by activity not by value created. Busy people come in earlier, stay later, and never have time for chit-chat in the company kitchen. They are often admired for their work ethic, and praised for their heroic commitment to the company.
But being busy is a trap… as you put more and more effort into something you steadily get less and less out of it. And as you get less out of work you get bored, overwhelmed, sick, and tired. Working a 70-hour week is an amazing feat, but it doesn’t signify any sort of progress. This is a problem that is plaguing American businesses according to a recent study by Mercer consulting that noted, “Diminished loyalty and widespread apathy can undermine business performance, particularly as companies increasingly look to their workforces to drive productivity gains and spur innovation.”
Funny, I just realized the term business, is actually busy-ness.
Business is often managed with policies that force people to work during certain hours and count their vacation days, yet don’t acknowledge the evening or weekend when the employee has dedicated “extra hours” to complete a project or prepare for a big presentation. Business requires such policies because people don’t like to perform make-work.
But much of the work businesses accomplish is not make-work; it’s real work, just not that interesting or challenging. It’s routine, mundane, and predictable. And there’s not a lot of autonomy provided in routine jobs, which is another source of frustration. So are we supposed to submit to “the man” and punch the clock, work for the weekend, and find our joy outside of work? That’s not what successful people do.
A quality frame of mind comes from vision and focus
In order to get meaning out of work, you must have vision and focus. With vision and focus, every moment becomes a quest for quality. A quality frame of mind sparks your energy to engage in the difficulties of real work. As observed by Robert M. Pirsig, in his novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, A person who sees quality and feels it as he works, is a person who cares.
The quality frame of mind is approached from another angle by Victor Frankel, who illustrates the power of personal choice in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. If a prisoner of war can find joy in a daily routine despite his most terrible circumstances, then I believe it’s possible for anyone to avoid the busy trap or become a victim of a bad job.
But how do you “see quality” as Pirsig suggests? First you have to know what you want from your work. Is it to pay bills? To learn something? To prove something? To fulfill an ambition or desire?
Simply “being present” in a work setting will not result in real work being accomplished. Answer this question and you will have an end in mind, which is habit #2 of Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. But with the end in mind, you still must have the discipline to focus on only the things that carry you toward that vision.
Despite the value I find in Covey’s Seven Habits, I think for most people there’s still something missing. Vision and focus are necessary to meaningful work, but they are not sufficient to sustain long efforts or overcome difficult circumstances. There’s another more fundamental trait involved here called grit, which I’ve described before. And Jonah Leher of Wired magazine has a similar post.
In reading that post, I discovered a point I hadn’t noticed before in the U.Penn study, which is that many people find deliberate practice not fun. They have a hard time sticking to their planned routine and suddenly find themselves bored or tired, and ready to quit.
So even with a clear vision of what they want to accomplish, and despite great focus on doing the right things to get there, most people still end up in busy mode, going through the motions of routine tasks, but not making any progress (sigh).
Play it out!
According to play expert Brian Sutton-Smith, “Play (is) a kind of transcendence. Play is not just fun, not just pleasurable for its own sake. Play makes it possible to live more fully in the world, no matter how boring or painful or even dangerous ordinary reality might seem. Play is not the opposite of work it’s essential to work.
The successful people I know always say not to do things unless you are having fun doing them. And if you look closely at successful people, they do a lot of stuff that doesn’t seem very fun. So the secret here is not in picking fun work, it’s about making work fun. A grand vision is important to spark greatness, but for many people it’s too far away, too big, and too abstract to keep them energized through routine, repetitive or physically draining activity. A playful heart to go along with your quality mindset brings fun into any routine.
Playing while working is about having small goals built into routine tasks that lift your energies and light your soul. Craftspeople take pride in the precision of a cut, the straightness of an edge, or the smoothness of a surface. This is vision and focus at work. But having the grit to complete a huge floor with hundreds of cuts and thousands of repetitive arm swings takes playful energy.
Play can simply be about practicing fundamental skills that will help you be a better person. Or it can be more like a game you play with yourself or a work mate to see who can “one up” the other. With a quality mindset and a playful heart, you can dig a hole for no other reason than to dig straighter walls and move bigger shovel loads at a faster pace. When you set parameters and add constraints to challenge yourself, boring work feels like fun a game.
Personal growth is a natural result of meaningful work
When you zoom in to the moment with a quality mindset and play it out during deliberate practice, even the dullest of activities becomes fully engaging, as every new cycle is slightly better than the previous one. You feel real progress and get better results. As I learned through my experience at IDEO, working in this way is a form of prototyping. And prototyping is a great method for discovering breakthrough ideas.
Prototyping yourself leads you to discover things about yourself you’ve never noticed before. These new discoveries are what I learned to call “Blinding Flashes of the Obvious” (BFO’s ) when I worked the ropes course circuit. In these unexpected moments, you catch yourself being yourself, which is the first step in personal growth.
This is an added bonus to avoiding the busy trap. You get better results in your work, but you also get a better self. And it’s fun along the way? What are you waiting for?!
English Wircan “to operate and to function.” Action involving effort or exertion…negative connotation has stuck with the word throughout the history of the word.
Also: a noun describing good deeds, a literary or musical composition.
Dutch Pleien “to dance, leap for joy, rejoice”… English plegian, “to exercise/frolic”
Amuse or divert. Carry out or practice, perform or execute a movement.
Middle English fonnen “befool”… trick, cheat, hoax
Main point: Focus + Vision + Play = Meaningful Work