Career Psychology is copyright © Dan Joseph Cavicchio. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be republished, reproduced, or transmitted in any form without the prior written permission of the author. The material in this book is provided solely for informational and educational purposes. It does not substitute for professional counseling or therapy. Information in this book does not represent clinical advice for treatment of psychological disorders.
Increasing Your Happiness at Work
When I opened my counseling practice, I expected to spend my time helping people find new careers.
To my surprise, it turned out that many of my clients decided to stay at their current jobs in the end. And why? Because as we explored their work lives, my clients discovered positive changes that could be made. They found ways to improve their job satisfaction.
In this chapter, I'll share five simple work-life improvement techniques that I use in my sessions. Even if you are seeking a new career, you can experiment with these five approaches in your present role. You may be able to increase your sense of fulfillment even while you explore new paths.
Before I begin, I want to acknowledge that the pace of work at many companies has become unsustainable. A large number of organizations have fallen into a pattern of laying-off employees and then increasing the workload of everyone who remains.
This has led to enormous stress, burnout, and a split in our economy. We have a group of people who are increasingly being worked to a breaking point. We have another group of people who are struggling to find sustainable employment.
Because of this trend, I want to state plainly that you will be walking a new path if you try the approaches in this chapter. You will be modifying an unsustainable pattern. You will be a trailblazer of sorts.
In this chapter, I will give a basic overview of five approaches I use with my clients. Then I will take a deeper look at these techniques through a series of questions.
Prioritize a Personal Goal
The first approach is simple.
Every morning, before you start your work for the day, you move a personal goal ahead of your professional goals.
Has your company hired you to make a sale, complete a task, or manage a team? If so, those are secondary goals. We're going to jump the line and move a primary goal ahead of that.
Your top goal is to do your work in a way that is enjoyable to you. That goal jumps ahead of all others. Everything else comes after.
Some people stop me at this point and say, "Dan, I'll get fired if I try to do my work in an enjoyable way. My company doesn't care about my happiness at all."
I certainly respect your choices, and don't want you to risk losing your job. However, many companies are quickly learning that unhappy employees are eventually going to jump ship for more fulfilling jobs.
When employees leave, companies have to hire recruiters to find new people—often at higher salaries than before. It is an enormous expense in time and money.
By setting the goal of working in an enjoyable way, you are actually helping your company. You are increasing your clarity of mind, reducing your chance of burnout, and maximizing the positive emotional impact that you'll have on your coworkers and customers.
Perhaps you are already working for an employer that values employee happiness. If so, that's wonderful. However, even in that case, it can still take some effort to prioritize work enjoyment.
Let me share how this dynamic plays out in my life.
Often when I wake up in the morning, my first thought is, "I have to respond to all these emails!"
Or, "I have to get going on those projects!"
Or, "I have to return my phone calls from yesterday!"
Those goals rush in immediately, often when I'm still half asleep.
At that point I pause and say, "No. Those are not my primary goals for today. My primary goal is to do my work in a way that is enjoyable and emotionally healthy."
Throughout the day, my goals jockey back and forth for priority in my mind. Work in a way that's enjoyable? Or get as many projects done as quickly as possible? Which is most important?
I have to continually keep things aligned in the proper order. The top goal is to do my work in an enjoyable and healthy way. The secondary goal is anything else.
This draws on a fundamental principle in cognitive behavioral therapy. Our thoughts about our work—including the dominant goals we hold throughout the day—shape our emotional experience.
The mind will follow whatever goal we choose. If we want to find happiness in our work, we need to begin by setting that as a top priority. The mind is a faithful follower. It will travel along the path we set for it.
Now, to be clear: A goal is an aim. It is not a rigid rule. Your aim—your intention—is to approach your work in a way that is enjoyable and emotionally healthy. There's no pressure for you to "hit" that goal, and you may have many days when your work is anything but enjoyable. That is OK. You're simply setting the goal of finding happiness in your work, and making that a priority. The mind will follow your decision as you practice holding that direction.
Some of my clients say, "Dan, this all sounds unethical. My company is paying for my time. I have to do what they want me to do, even if it makes me miserable."
I say to them, "If you sacrifice your happiness for your company, you're going to eventually burn out, and then you won't be able to help your company or anyone else. In the long run, it helps your company if you work in a way that's enjoyable to you. It doesn't help them if you exhaust yourself, get fed up, and quit."
Let me give a real life example about this dynamic, so you don't think that I'm simply tossing out self-help platitudes. I recently conducted several recruiting searches for a company that lost numerous employees due to exhaustion, overwork, and unhappiness.
In addition to my recruiting costs, the company ended up having to pay thousands of dollars in higher salaries for the new employees. While I was recruiting new people, other employees at the company had to shoulder the departed folks' work, which created even more stress.
Over the coming months, the new people will have to be trained. Work will slow. Plus the former employees were very well-liked. They are already missed by their coworkers, some of whom are considering resigning themselves.
This is an incredible loss to the company in money, morale, and momentum. That company is now establishing a retention committee and working with a consultant to improve employee happiness at work. They learned the cost of not valuing their employees' fulfillment as a top goal.
You deserve to be happy in your work. Your company will benefit if you are happy. Burnout and misery doesn't help you or your company.
To support this new prioritization of goals, I often share "reminders" with my counseling clients. These reminders are thoughts that you can repeat throughout the day to help keep the mind on track.
Here are a few reminders that can help with the prioritization of work fulfillment:
"I'll be able to come up with creative solutions more easily if I'm enjoying my work."
"If I'm burned out, I won't be able to help anyone."
"I'll be more helpful to my customers if I'm enjoying what I do."
"It's OK to not give 100% every single minute of the day."
And so on. In my sessions, we come up with dozens of messages like these. All of them are designed for one simple purpose: to place the goal of happiness at the top.
"But Dan," some people say, "you don't know my boss. He doesn't care if I'm happy. All he cares about is getting the work done. He's perfectly fine if I'm miserable."
There are thousands of bosses like that out there. Perhaps millions. That is why I opened this chapter by acknowledging that we're blazing a new path with this approach.
If your company doesn't care about your long-term health, and simply wants to squeeze as much work out of you before you collapse in exhaustion—well, you'll have to decide whether that's a company you want to work for.
I have seen enough people collapse. I myself have collapsed enough times. There is no benefit to have workers collapsing. That is when mistakes are made that risk lives and money. I have seen errors made by exhausted workers that cost companies fortunes.
A work culture of burnout and misery doesn't serve anyone. Company success is built on employee health and happiness. A company and its people rise and fall together.
Training the Mind
Now, I'm sure that you've heard ideas like these before. Here's what makes the approach I'm describing different: I'm not recommending that you simply read through these ideas. I'm recommending that you train your mind through repeated practice to hold this new direction.
That is the essence of cognitive therapy. We're not going to engage in a few stray moments of positive thinking. Instead, we're going to form a disciplined practice of reorienting the mind over and over throughout the day, until a new habit is formed.
I encourage you to set aside a minute before you start your work day and say to yourself, "Today, my top goal is to do my work in a way that's enjoyable. Every other goal comes after that." Try to focus on that commitment for a minute or so.
Then, as you go through your day, notice when you lose a sense of peace. That might happen in the first five minutes of your workday!
When that happens, stop for a few seconds and say, "My primary goal is to do this work in an enjoyable, healthy way."
The first day, you might have to stop twenty or thirty times to remind yourself of your new priority. It might feel like a chore. You might not feel any big boost in happiness. But you're carving out a new path to follow with your practice.
The next day, you might find that it's a little easier to remember—and adhere to—your new goal.
After a week, you might find that a habitual response kicks in. A client is upset about something, and your mind remembers, "My top goal isn't to soothe this client. I will do that as best as I can, but my top goal is to do my work in an enjoyable way."
Paradoxically, that will very likely allow you to address your client's needs more effectively. It will calm your mind and allow you to access creative solutions more easily. By valuing your own happiness, you will be able to bring happiness to others—including your customers, your coworkers, and even your boss.
"Dan, this all sounds fine in theory," some people say to me. "But I have no idea how to do my work in a way that's enjoyable. It's not enough to just set a goal."
Let me turn to the next approach, which ties in with the first.
Seek Mutually Beneficial Solutions
Setting the top goal of work enjoyment isn't meant to create a conflict between you and your company. Quite the opposite. It places things in a correct order, so both you and your company can benefit.
Once the new priority is set, you can then focus on applying your goal. How can you do your work in an enjoyable way? What is the strategy to accomplish that?
My answer to that is the second of my five approaches. It is a technique I covered earlier. The second practice is this:
You can spend your days seeking, asking for, and proposing solutions that benefit both you and your company.
I call these "win-win solutions." However, if the term win-win sounds like corporate jargon, you can simply call them "mutually beneficial arrangements" or "solutions that work for everyone" or something similar.
As an example, here is a scenario that many of my clients have faced at times.
Imagine that your supervisor asks you to take on a new responsibility. You're already extremely busy, and this added work feels as though it will put you over an edge.
Your manager says to you, "I need you to set aside whatever you're doing and get right on this!"
You know that if you do that, your other responsibilities will stack up. You might even get blamed for falling behind on your other work.
Many people do one of two things at this point:
Neither of those approaches are very enjoyable. The first option usually leads to exhaustion and resentment. The second option typically leads to debates and conflicts.
A third alternative is to ask for—and propose—solutions that work for both you and your company.
As an example, you might say to your supervisor:
"I'd be happy to handle this new project. However, can you help me figure out who may be able to help with the other projects on my plate? If no one can help, perhaps we can bump a few of them to next week. Can you help me find a solution?"
You're asking for help to find a win-win arrangement. You'll do the immediate project, but you'll need help to address your other responsibilities.
Let's imagine that your supervisor isn't having any of that. She says, "No! We don't have anyone else who can help you! And this all needs to get done! You'll have to find a way to do it all."
That's not a win-win solution. It might be a "win" for the company, but it's not a "win" for you.
So you make one more attempt at a mutually beneficial solution:
"I'd love to be able to take care of everything," you say, "but there simply aren't enough hours in the day. Let me suggest a couple of options. We can ask Bethany to help out with the paperwork which will free up some time. Or we can tell that new customer that we need to delay the shipment by a day. Or we can see if Merrill can come in to help us this afternoon, even though she's not scheduled. You might have some even better ideas. I'm open to your thoughts."
By taking this approach, you are proposing creative, specific, win-win solutions. In my experience, the majority of managers (not all, but the majority) appreciate this type of problem solving attempt.
Of course, there are some managers that will say, "I told you no! You can look for another job if you can't handle everything yourself!"
When clients report to me that their managers are in that mindset, I generally try to help them find a new job. (Usually I hear later that the insensitive manager was fired because she was making everyone miserable.)
However, quite frequently, many managers will say something like, "Those are good ideas. Let's choose the first option."
Or, "I'm not sure those will work, but how about we try this other option that's similar…"
By suggesting win-win solutions, you are helping yourself and the company. You're also showing your manager an excellent management technique.
Now, let me admit that this is not always easy. There is no quick script for cooperative problem-solving. Finding these arrangements can take effort and creativity.
I have spent countless hours with my counseling clients in attempts to find win-win solutions. I have helped them analyze their work situations in detail, make lists of specific proposals, and role-play the communication of those proposals.
Many of these clients were employees who felt micromanaged and controlled by their supervisors. But others were executives and managers who genuinely wanted to bring happiness to their employees. These executives were exhausted and overwhelmed themselves, and they needed help to find win-win arrangements.
If you can propose mutually beneficial solutions, it's a gift. Hopefully your supervisor will appreciate your efforts, and join you in cooperative problem-solving. If not, she will likely lose some very good employees.
Combining the first and second techniques, here is how your work day looks:
For a minute at the start of your day, you say to yourself, "My top goal is to do my work in a way that is enjoyable."
During the day, when you feel your stress levels increasing, you take a moment to remind yourself that your goal is to work in an enjoyable, emotionally healthy way. Then you examine the project or task in front of you, and consider mutually beneficial ways of accomplishing the work.
You propose win-win solutions to your manager, client, or customer. You also invite win-win proposals from them. There may be some creative brainstorming that's required in this process. However, you might be surprised at how quickly solutions emerge once two people are cooperatively aiming for them.
As you seek solutions, you can make statements like:
"I'd love to find a solution here that makes everyone happy."
"I'm confident that we can find a way to do this that everyone feels good about."
"Let's see if we can put our heads together and figure out an arrangement that works."
"I love finding solutions. Here are a few options to consider."
"I want to make sure that we do this in a way that benefits everyone."
I use statements like these quite often throughout my own day.
When I have a hiring manager with unrealistic expectations, or a therapy client who is resistant to change, I lean on these type of statements over and over. In the majority of cases, the other person appreciates my attempts to find solutions, and eventually joins me in the process.
Again, I do want to acknowledge that there are managers out there who will say, "Stop complaining! Do what I tell you to do!"
I have known plenty of people like that. Those people usually end up alienating their employees, their customers, and sometimes even their friends and family.
If you are working for someone like that, you may want to draw on all the other chapters of this book to find a new employment situation with wiser leaders who value your happiness.
So far, I've been focusing primarily on reducing burnout and exhaustion. However, what if you're not overwhelmed, but bored? This same win-win seeking approach can be used if you're under-stimulated as well.
If you're feeling unchallenged or under-utilized at work, you can propose new projects, responsibilities, and initiatives that are win-win arrangements. Choose things that are interesting to you. Then help your employer see how the company will benefit by you taking on these new initiatives.
Almost every "rising star" employee I've met is very skilled at this type of win-win proposal practice. These people frequently suggest new, interesting projects for themselves—often as a "trade" for less-interesting work. They show the company how it will benefit from the new projects.
They tackle their new responsibilities in an enjoyable way, show the company the beneficial results, and are often compensated more highly for their contributions. It can be a powerful way to advance a career. I encourage you to think about "trades" like this, where you propose interesting new projects in exchange for less-impactful work.
Now, what if your boss and your specific work responsibilities aren't the problem? What if you experience stress no matter where you are working, or what you are doing?
In that case, let me share a third approach to increase your happiness at work.
Alter Your Locus of Control
As you may recall from a previous chapter, "locus of control" is a psychological concept that involves your view of the world.
People with a very large locus of control see themselves as being in control of almost everything in their lives.
While this fosters a sense of empowerment, it also creates an enormous amount of pressure. After all, if you're in control of thousands of things—well, you better get to work taking care of all of them!
By contrast, people with a very small locus of control see themselves as being in control of very little in their lives.
This worldview leads to feelings of powerlessness. However, it also reduces a sense of pressure. If you are not in control of very much, then there's really no urgency to expend effort. You can just float along and roll with whatever shows up.
The majority of clients I've worked with have a large locus of control. These people feel responsible for excelling at their work, building their businesses, retaining their employees, keeping their families happy, contributing to their communities, and many other things.
While those goals are admirable, an overly-large locus of control can create debilitating stress, anxiety, pressure, and exhaustion.
In the workplace, many companies encourage an extremely large locus of control.
A manager might say to you, "I have faith that you can get all of these projects done on-time and under-budget!"
Or, "I'm sure that you can double our sales this year!"
On the surface, those sound like great votes of confidence. Most people don't question those type of statements. They simply internalize the "positive" messages, and expand their locus of control.
"Thanks, you bet I can!" they say.
However, you might be in a situation where it's impossible to get your ever-growing list of responsibilities done on-time and under-budget. It might be impossible to double sales in the current economy. There might be factors beyond your control that are in play.
In that case, you will probably become consumed with a sense of pressure and overwhelm as you try desperately to control things that are beyond your scope.
I have seen many examples of this in counseling. Employees are told that they can control things. They struggle to achieve things that are un-achievable. They become overwhelmed with a sense of exhaustion and failure as they are unable to meet expectations. Finally they give up and quit. This doesn't help anyone.
Just a Thought
The good news is that the locus of control is simply a set of beliefs. As such, it can be changed with a thought. Even though the mind often clings to its beliefs, you can make healthy changes in gradual steps.
I have had conversations with many high-achieving clients that went like this:
"Dan," says my client, "I'm ready to quit my job. I'm just completely burned out. I can't take it much longer."
"Tell me what's going on."
"Well, I'm trying to get all my projects done, but I can't hit my deadlines. I don't know what my problem is."
"What if it's impossible to get all your projects done in the time you've been given?" I ask.
"Impossible? I refuse to think that way. That sounds like a cop-out."
"Surely there's a limit to what you can get done in a day."
"If these are my projects, then they're my responsibilities. I have to get them all done."
"But what will happen if your company keeps adding even more projects to your plate?"
"Well, I guess I'll have to figure out how to handle them all somehow."
And the conversation goes from there. You can see that my client firmly believes that she can—and should—get all of her projects done, no matter how large a stack the company places on her desk.
But what if she's at, or beyond, her limit? What if the deadlines are too tight? What if she needs help or resources? What if there simply aren't enough hours in the day to get these projects done?
It can be far more healthy for my client to adjust her locus of control downward.
I will try to help her see that perhaps she can't make everything happen by the deadline—and that she's still a wonderful person and a wonderful teammate, regardless of that.
I will try to help her accept that there are some things beyond her ability to control, and that she doesn't need to pressure or criticize herself because of that. As she reduces her locus of control in a healthy way, she will very likely begin to feel a greater sense of peace.
Will this feel like a "cop-out" to her? Perhaps at first.
But recall our first two techniques:
We want to do our work in an enjoyable way. Unrelenting self-pressure isn't enjoyable.
We also want to find win-win solutions that benefit both us and our companies. Struggling and failing to meet unrealistic expectations doesn't benefit either party.
I encourage you to reset your locus of control in a way that is empowering on the one hand, and de-pressuring on the other.
As an example of this, here's the spiel I often give to corporate clients of mine when I begin working with them as a recruiter.
I say, "I am tenacious in my recruiting work. But recruiting often comes down to timing. If I call someone who just had a fight with her boss, she'll probably be delighted to hear about new jobs. If she just got a promotion, she probably won't talk to me at all. That's beyond my control. All I can do is continue my outreach patiently and persistently."
Most of my clients are fine with this. They see the wisdom in an accurate locus of control.
In the same way, I encourage you to examine the areas of your work life that are causing you overwhelm.
Do you believe that you have to control things that are not fully in your control—for example, other people's thoughts and feelings? Or the state of the economy? Or what your competition is doing? If so, you might want to examine and change those beliefs.
Most of my high-achieving clients are extremely resistant at first when I present these ideas. They say, "But I can change people's thoughts and feelings! And I'm not going to be stopped by the economy or my competition!"
While there's an admirable element of empowerment there, there's also a recipe for burnout. Some things are largely within our control, and others are not. Being humble about this can be the key to reducing pressure and exhaustion at work.
The Shovel and the Rock
Let me share how the locus of control concept applies to one of the most challenging dynamics in the work world.
Some companies set very high expectations for their employees. At the same time, the companies don't give their employees adequate resources to meet those expectations.
Instead, they simply try to increase their employees' loci of control through "pep talks." This creates an unhealthy dynamic.
Imagine, for example, that you've been asked to dig a ten foot hole. But you haven't been given any tools. You've simply been told, "You can do it! You can dig this hole! I have confidence in you. You can get it done!"
In that scenario, employees feel defeated and guilty when they can't dig the hole quickly, and end up hating their jobs. All the while, managers keep saying, "You can do it! Yes you can!"
In these situations, it can be helpful to accurately adjust your locus of control, and communicate that to your supervisor.
You can say, "Without a shovel, I might be able to use that rock over there to dig the hole. But it will probably take a week. If I have a shovel, I can probably do it in a day. Can we purchase a shovel so that I can do the work more quickly?"
In my experience, the majority of managers will appreciate an honest statement of your locus of control, especially if there are win-win solutions proposed.
One of the greatest mistakes I have made in my own work life has been to say, "Thanks for the confidence in me! I'll go ahead and get that hole dug with that rock! You bet I can do it!"
I wish I had instead said, "I really need a shovel."
If it feels as though you're being asked to control outcomes, but are not being given the tools to do so, please consider proposing solutions. Do not simply buy in to the expansion of your locus of control.
You deserve the resources you need to accomplish your tasks. It is not in your best interest—or your company's best interest—to have you feel defeated and disappointed when results aren't achieved.
Expanding a Small Circle
For some people, the locus of control is skewed in the opposite direction.
I've had clients who had very small loci of control. They felt that very little was within their power to change. This led to feelings of hopelessness and defeat.
When I work with clients like these, I help them to expand their locus of control—expand what they perceive as alterable.
We begin by looking for thoughts that say, "It's pointless to try to change this. Nothing will work. Why even bother."
We then substitute new thoughts like, "Perhaps I can try to make a small shift in just this one area." As a support for that new thought, we add in some small-step behaviors to try. Very frequently, these clients find that they can indeed effect changes and improvements.
If you feel disempowered in your work life, you may want to expand your locus of control. You can try on thoughts that say, "Perhaps I can make a slight change in this one situation," and then begin to experiment with small behavioral experiments.
It's very likely that—with help—you can change far more in your work life than you realize, even if changes happen one small step at a time.
Let me now move on to a technique for people who work in high-activity, fast-paced jobs. I use this fourth approach with my health care clients, as well as people who work in retail, customer service, operations, or other relentlessly busy environments.
Many of my clients experience chronic, extremely high levels of job-related stress. These people deal with insomnia, dreams about work, feelings of guilt about not accomplishing more, and damaging impacts on their personal and professional relationships.
When these people describe their work lives to me, it's clear that no amount of "positive thinking" is going to improve their situation. The pace of their work environments is truly overwhelming. They need concrete behavioral changes.
I usually begin my work with these people by drawing the following diagram:
I ask them if this looks like an accurate depiction of their stress levels throughout the day.
Most of them say, "Oh yeah. I'm usually OK first thing in the morning. But then one thing after another piles up, and by the end of the day I'm shaking with stress and exhaustion. I can't keep this up."
I say to them, "I'd like to have you try a simple practice. I call it breaking up with your work. Starting tomorrow, I'd like you to take a break every hour for at least a few seconds. At those times, I want you to put your work aside, and allow your mind to get a moment of rest. It's essential to let those stress circuits release for at least a few seconds every hour."
I then draw a diagram like this:
I say, "If you pause every hour to let your stress circuits release, you may find that your overall sense of exhaustion and overwhelm is less at the end of the day. Perhaps we can try that as an experiment, and see how things go."
You can see that this person's stress levels are still higher at 5:00 pm than they were at 8:00 am. However, the trajectory of increase is softer. By taking "break up" points every hour, this person has let her mind calm at regular intervals. For people in high-stress jobs, this can make a significant impact.
Like any other approach I've discussed, this needs to become an actual, practiced habit. It's not enough to say, "Sure, I should take a few breaks." It's essential to engage in the practice in a disciplined, repeated way.
We're retraining the mind to follow a new direction with this practice. We're forming a new pattern. Eventually that pattern can become a habit that mostly runs on its own. Getting to that point, however, requires committed behavioral practice.
To assist with the development of this habit, I often recommend that my clients purchase a lap counter for runners, and make a "click" each time they practice. I encourage them to write down the number of times they take breaks each day, and then bring their practice record to sessions for us to discuss. That can help in the formation of the habit.
Let me share a caveat about this practice: Even though it sounds simple, the mind is often extremely resistant to this type of practice.
One reason for the resistance is that our stress circuitry is essentially the same as our threat circuitry. When the mind is in a state of stress, it feels threatened by almost everything—including the act of stopping and quieting down. The stressed mind is actually frightened of rest.
Each time you engage in a break-up practice, you are saying to your mind, "I'm not going to feed this sense of threat, pressure, and stress. I am going to take a few moments and give myself a rest—even if it feels difficult."
I encourage you to actually try this tomorrow, and see how many breaks you get. If you are able to stop every hour for a brief rest, you are among a very small group of people!
If instead you find that you only remember to pause and rest a few times during the day—well, that's still a great start. Build on that with another day of practice, and another.
See if you can work up to eight or ten breaks throughout your work day, each lasting up to a minute or so.
What to Do?
Let's say that you are indeed able to pause and take a break to let your stress circuits relax. What should you do during these rest times?
One practice you can try is what I call the "waves technique." This is a mindfulness-style practice. In the waves technique, you stop, close your eyes if possible, and pretend that you're standing waist-deep in the ocean.
Your stressful feelings are like waves that are knocking up against you. For a few seconds, allow those feelings to flow up to you and past you as you hold your center. Try to feel the sense of calm that lies between the waves as you give permission for each of the feelings to pass through you.
In addition to feelings, you might find that there are stressful thoughts that knock against you as well. Thoughts like:
"I have to get this project done!"
"I really don't have time to stop."
"What if someone sees me not working?"
"This is a dumb practice! I hate it!"
Allow those thoughts to pass through your awareness, just like your feelings. Allow your mind to rest in a quiet center, even for just a second or two at a time, as you allow the stressful feelings and thoughts to rise up in your awareness, and then pass by.
This type of practice can be difficult at first. It might feel as though you're being barraged by an endless number of waves without a break in between. But as you practice letting those waves rise up in your awareness and then pass through, you will likely find a space emerge between each one.
That space is our goal. That space is the point at which the stress circuits relax and release. Even just a few seconds spent in that space can have a stress-lowering effect.
Let me state once again that this isn't simply a self-help technique; it is a disciplined practice. It is a mind-training process. It is a new habit.
You may need to engage in hundreds of these break-up moments before you begin to feel a change in your day-to-day stress levels. The effort and persistence is worth it.
If the waves technique doesn't appeal to you, you can use whatever approach brings you a sense of peace during your break times. The act of stopping is the important thing. You can use whatever restorative practice appeals to you during that time.
I know of people who take walks around the building, or up a flight of stairs. Some people open an inspirational book and read a paragraph or two. Others look at a calming photo of nature or their family.
I encourage you to experiment and see what you find.
Choosing a Purpose
The final practice is one that I introduced at the very beginning of this book: choosing a purpose for your work.
In my experience, very few people consider why they are doing the specific type of work that they do. Establishing a purpose can have a powerful emotional effect.
I often have conversations like this with my counseling clients:
"So Thom," I say, "it sounds as though you're not happy with your current career path. I'm curious if you've ever chosen a purpose—or mission—for your work life. Is that something you've thought about?"
"Not sure what you mean," says Thom.
"In addition to earning money, is there a personal reason that you do the type of work you do?"
"No real reason. It's just a job."
"If we can select a meaningful purpose that your work serves," I say, "your entire experience of your career might shift. Is that something that we can discuss?"
"Sure Dan, but I basically do what my boss tells me. There's no higher purpose."
This is where my conversations jump to a deeper place. Thom doesn't have to defer to his boss's purpose for his work. He can choose his own purpose or mission that brings him a sense of fulfillment.
I will ask Thom about his values. I'll ask about his world views. I'll try to learn about his personal philosophy of life. Hopefully, we'll be able to come up with a purpose for his work (in addition to making money) that places his activities in a new, meaningful context.
Here are a few purpose statements that I might explore with Thom:
"The purpose of my work is to bring happiness to the people around me."
"The purpose of my work is to practice being kind."
"The purpose of my work is to keep people safe."
"The purpose of my work is to develop my skills."
"The purpose of my work is to support my family."
That last one is a very common purpose, and it is a great one. You may already have a purpose like one of those.
However, based on my experience, many people don't have a purpose established for their work beyond, "Just pay the bills."
Earning money is a perfectly valid purpose. But you can earn money at any number of jobs. To bring a sense of meaning to your work, you might want to fill that purpose slot with a specific mission that supports your values.
Recall my stories at the beginning of this book. I felt extremely unfulfilled by my early jobs at the computer store, the road paving company, the urban planning organization, and the manufacturing firm.
Part of that was because they were unstimulating jobs in isolating environments. But I also had a complete lack of purpose beyond simply getting through the day.
These days, I understand how crucial it is to hold a well-defined purpose. I try to keep statements of purpose front and center in my mind. For example:
My purpose in my counseling work is to help people find a sense of happiness as quickly as possible, and to give them tools so that they can "be their own therapists."
My purpose in my recruiting work is to help build teams of people in a way that benefits both employees and employers.
My purpose in my writing is to share helpful information as widely and clearly as possible.
I enjoy all three facets of my work life because of the purposes I have set.
Of course, it's not enough to simply choose a purpose; we need to frequently remind ourselves of the purpose we've set, and realign our work with that purpose if it has drifted away. Keeping on track is an ongoing process.
Our emotional experience of our work will follow the direction we set for it. I encourage you to set a purpose or mission for your work that brings you a sense of fulfillment. The choice of purpose is up to you.
Before I move on to the Q&As for this topic, let me recap how you can use the five techniques we covered.
At the beginning of your work day, you can take a few moments to move a personal goal ahead of any professional goals. Your personal goal is to do your work in a way that is enjoyable to you. When you feel yourself becoming unhappy during the day, you can remind yourself what your top goal is, and reset the priorities.
To serve this goal, you can become a win-win solution seeker. You can propose mutually beneficial solutions that help you and your company. You can also ask for these solutions from others. You may want to use phrases like, "I'd like to find a solution that works for everyone."
If you feel overwhelmed and pressured by demands, you can adjust your locus of control downward and remind yourself that there are elements of life that are largely beyond your control—including things like the economy, your competitors' actions, and the number of hours in a day.
In areas where you feel powerless to make changes, you can expand your locus of control outward by reminding yourself that you can influence a number of things, at least in small ways. You can then try various experiments to make these incremental changes.
Throughout the day, you can pause and allow your stress circuits to relax. For best results, you can do this every hour.
During these "break up" times, which may only be a few seconds, you can use the waves technique to allow your feelings and thoughts to pass through your awareness. Or you can engage in any other stress-reduction technique that appeals to you. Simply forming the habit of taking regular breaks is the key.
Above all else, you can set a higher purpose or mission for your work.
You can ask yourself: What is the reason that I am doing this work? What purpose do I want it to serve? You are in control of that decision.
If you choose a purpose that supports your values, you may find that your work life takes on a new emotional tone. You may begin to feel a deeper sense of fulfillment as all your activities fall into alignment with your stated mission.
Let me now move on to some Q&As on this topic.