THE BIG IDEA
Productivity isn’t about hacks, it’s about intentional and systematic approaches that both challenge and uplift you through some of life’s most difficult moments.
FIRST, A RECAP
We’ve looked at how to be more productive each day and each week. Today, we lay out some of what we consider the most productive approaches to your professional life.
LET’S DIVE IN
Today we’re talking how to:
- Build a meaningful career
- Beat burnout
- Negotiate better conditions
- Write a life thesis
BUILD A MEANINGFUL CAREER
“Nothing provides more opportunities than the workplace for us to feel discouraged, disappointed, bored, overwhelmed, envious, embarrassed, anxious, irritated, outraged, and afraid to say what we really feel.”—Stanford Graduate School of Business lecturer Leah Weiss, who advises a practice of mindfulness to help us reconnect with our purpose at work.
The question: How do I view my career more productively?
Our attempt at an answer, from Quartz reporter Cassie Werber, involves zookeepers and treasure-hunts…
Writes Cassie: “In 2009, two US professors set out to study zookeepers and aquarium workers in an effort to discover what kept them motivated at work. The results pointed to an overwhelming similarity: The keepers gained a deep sense of meaning from their jobs. It didn’t matter that caring for animals was extremely badly paid and offered little career advancement, or that many of the actual tasks involved could be classified as “dirty work”—cleaning up feces, chopping vegetables, scrubbing floors. The zookeepers, most of whom were highly educated, felt that they were fulfilling a calling, and in doing so were extremely dedicated, often volunteering for months before even beginning to be paid, and rarely quitting.
But the fact that the keepers had found and followed a calling was a double-edged sword. Doing what they did for love also meant putting up with poor conditions and potentially being exploited.
Some of us, like the zookeepers, get a lot of fulfillment out of what we do for a living. In many jobs, however, the connection between our work and the meaning we derive from it is much less obvious, or has been completely severed—as in what anthropologist David Graeber has dubbed ‘bullshit jobs.’ At the same time, we’re brought up to believe that work—not the church, the state, or even the family—is the fountainhead from which our sense of meaning should spring.
But when we talk about ‘meaningful work,’ what do we actually mean? Negotiating peace treaties, growing food, making spectacular amounts of money—all of these can be framed as meaningful, depending on who is doing the framing, and what it is they truly want. Meaning isn’t something to be found, and it can’t be uncovered by heartfelt commitment, long hours, and self-sacrifice. Meaning is something we make.
Accepting that fact can transform what you choose to do with your life, but it can also transform the way you feel about what it is you already do. Your career is a treasure-hunt, except you are not the person seeking the ultimate prize. You are writing the map.”
Question: How do I avoid burnout?
We start with finding your “because,” and end with work chunking.
Cassie’s advice is that mapping meaning in your career can help you get a better handle on your relationship with work, which can help reduce burnout. She advises that you start by reconnecting with the “because” of your work—why you do what you do, whether it’s to try change the world, or to pay the bills.
Then, you’ll need to start becoming disciplined about disconnecting (log off at a reasonable time, take holiday, maximize your leave) and changing your working environment (work somewhere different, use tools to separate work and life). Sharing with your colleagues how those changes helped you can help.
Kyle Hegarty, the managing director at Leadership Nomad, also advises that you be as open as possible with your colleagues and managers about your stress levels. 2020 was after all, the year when not being ok at work was ok.
He urges managers to lead by example by sharing some of the challenges they are facing, and to watch out for signs of burnout (after all, happy employees are more productive).
Finally, everything is manageable in small chunks. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, break down large projects into small and manageable chunks and celebrate successful milestones each step along the way.
Already burnt out? Here’s advice from London-based psychologist Elena Touroni on how to recognize and deal with the symptoms
NEGOTIATE BETTER CONDITIONS
Question: How can I ask for something that I need?
We start with the temptation of a tantrum and end with a plan.
“One way to ask for a raise is to stomp into your boss’s office, knock over a vase, toss a handful of Skittles in the air, and yell, ‘I need more smackeroos!'” But reporter Sarah Todd also has some more productive approaches. Sarah examines this particular task holistically, looking at the work you can do in advance—both introspective and logistical—to how you can prepare the person you’re meeting with, the most productive ways to frame your request, and how to follow up on it.
This approach could be applied to any request for a better deal—even if you don’t get it. “The process of asking for [a raise] is usually enlightening. You may get useful feedback that helps you identify an area where you need to improve. You may realize you’re being undervalued, and decide to start looking for a new job that will pay you what you’re worth.
No matter what, you’ll have learned something, says Karen Coffey, a career advisor who’s worked with employees at companies like Bank of America and Walt Disney and is the co-founder and CEO of Karen Coffey Coaching. “Don’t be fearful of these conversations.”
If you’re a fan of this approach and supercharge it with an even more ambitious approach, you can work on crafting a “strategic mindset,” where you not only develop multiple strategies, but habitually keep track of whether they are working for you.
We hope this course has left you with a few ideas to try to be more productive, in a healthy way. We’d like to leave you with two tasks that we hope we will be the scaffolding for your productivity attempts in the year ahead.
The first: create a mantra. No one is perfectly productive. Much like any human endeavor, trying to do more with the time we have is an art that we can spend a lifetime practicing. So when you find your efforts thwarted, or simply abandoned, be kind to yourself. Create a mantra that you can repeat when you are trying. For reporter Ephrat Livni it was, “Right now, it’s like this.” Here’s her advice for crafting your own comforting phrase
The second: Make a life thesis statement. Sounds intense, but a simple, one-sentence life thesis is less punishing than a goal, kinder than a resolution. It’s the credo that guides your efforts, decisions and choices. Reporter Rosie Spinks chose “Do what feels good.” Her advice when setting your own statement: “Try to banish thoughts of goals and outcomes, and focus instead on process and feeling.”