Don’t enjoy what you do? You might be missing some of these essential elements

“You don’t get handed a “happy” job. Happiness comes as a by-product of finding meaningful work” Farrah Storr, Editor of Cosmpolitan Magazine (November 2018)

In his book, Flow: The classic work on how to achieve happiness, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi looks at what makes for a happy life. He suggests a happy life is one which successfully blends work and leisure, where we challenge ourselves and where we nurture relationships with others. In one of the chapters he goes into some depth on what it means to enjoy what we’re doing and suggests there are eight elements to enjoyment.

The eight elements of enjoyment

Element 1: We have a sense that we can complete the task

This starts with a belief that we can achieve the thing we’ve been asked to do. Watch out if you’re a perfectionist, or you work for one, however. As Karol Wasylyshyn and Frank Masterpasqua state in a research article about self-compassion and leadership,

“Lofty standards that border on quests for perfection can be either adaptive or maladaptive, depending in large part on whether they occur with self-criticism or self-compassion”

And be careful to avoid going down the rabbit hole of thinking about everything that could go wrong. Research published in the journal of Psychology and Marketing found action crisis thoughts (seeing a series of setbacks) can lead us to start devaluing our goal and increases the likelihood that we’ll lose commitment. However, if we (or our colleagues) were to know ahead of time that an action crisis may be imminent, we’re more likely to stick to the task.

Element 2: We are able to focus on the task

With the rise of technology and social media, we are constantly being bombarded with distractions For many workers, this means the constant lure of email. Those who maintain high levels of productivity are able to discern between the important and the inane. Chris Bailey talks about this in his book, The Productivity Project, and says,

“Multitasking makes you less productive because it makes you more prone to errors, adds stress to your work, takes longer because it costs you time and atttention to switch between tasks, and even affects your memory”

Melina R Uncapher and Anthony D Wagner reviewed over 10 years of research on the relationship between media multitasking and various aspects of cognition, including working memory and attention. They found that people who frequently use several types of media at once, or “heavy media multitaskers,” performed significantly worse on simple memory tasks. So, as Brendon Burchard says in his book, High Performance Habits,

“…the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing”

Element 3: The task has a clear goal

One of the things I often find when working with teams who are under-performing is the lack of a clear, unambiguous goal. This then translates at an individual level, with team members working to fuzzy goals with no clear measurement or, in some instances, an endpoint.

Research  by Peter M Gollwitzer found that simply vowing to do something, even intense vowing is useless. What works is making a vivid, concrete plan e.g. “Tomorrow, during my morning break, I’ll get a cup of coffee, close the door to my office, and call my boss”. Therefore, the more concrete you can make a goal or a task, and as part of that make clear the conditions in which you’ll work on the task, the more likely you are to succeed.

Element 4: We can get instant feedback

We need to know that we’re heading in the right direction. There is nothing more demotivating for an employee than working hard on something, with no feedback along the way, only to get a big thumbs down on the end result. Breaking a big goal or task up into small parts and getting regular feedback along the way are essential for us to feel a sense of achievement and enjoyment. Bob Sutton in his book, Good Boss, Bad Boss, calls these small wins and says,

“Great big goals set direction and energize people, but if goals are all you’ve got you are doomed. The path to success is paved with small wins”

For feedback to help and motivate us, we need to be open to it. In 2009, Heike Heidemeier and Klaus Moser found people tend to overrate their job performance, which may be why they tend to have trouble receiving negative feedback. This is even the case if the person has a manager who gives them honest and constructive feedback. Therefore, try and see feedback as a means to an end, rather than an end in its own right.

Element 5: We can concentrate fully

A good task is one that we can see through to the end. Whether that’s in one go, or over a series of weeks, months or even years. Cal Newport talks about the power of concentration and focus in his book, Deep Work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world, and suggests that the ability to do deep work will be a differentiator in the 21st century,

“The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive”

When we work in a way that means we’re constantly interrupted, we’re unable to get into the flow state that deep work requires. This can lead to fragmented thinking and subsequently impact performance. The Zeigarnik Effect, named after Bluma Zeigarnik, states that incomplete or interrupted tasks weight on our mind much more than completed tasks. This is why tactics such as task-batching and finding somewhere quiet to work, with no email, can really help.

In 2011, EJ Masciampo and Roy Baumeister replicated the Zeigarnik Effect by assigning participants a task and then interrupting them mid-flow. The researchers found they could significantly reduce the effect’s impact by asking people, soon after interruption, to make a plan for how they would later complete the incomplete task. As the researchers stated, “Committing to a specific plan for a goal may therefore not only facilitate attainment of the goal but may also free cognitive resources for other pursuits.”

Element 6: We have a sense of control over what we’re doing

In organisational life there are those with power, typically those in positions of hierarchical authority, and those without. With power comes control, and with control comes an increased ability to manage competing demands.

Research published in the British Journal of Social Psychology examined whether the level of power someone holds impacted their ability to multi-task or switch between tasks. The researchers found that those in management felt more in control and were more easily able to balance attention between multiple tasks. Non-managers struggled to focus when required to work on many different tasks and had a higher error rate due to task-switching.

If you are a manager, therefore, it’s important you create clear parameters for your staff when setting goals and tasks. These parameters are a way to give people a sense of control. For example, this might be approving someone working from home and not answering email one day a week, to focus purely on a project they’re working on for you.

Caroline Webb, in her book How to have a good day at work, puts it best when she says,

“…autonomy is one of the fundamental motivating forces in life. Give someone space and responsibility, and they feel competent and respected; take it away and their enthusiasm collapses”

Element 7: We become less self-conscious

Researchers from the University of Virginia found that people would rather get electrocuted than simply be alone with their thoughts. Deep work, which in most instances means we’re alone, is one way to increase our comfort with being with ourselves and our own thoughts. And by becoming more comfortable with ourselves and less self-conscious, we’re more likely to be happy according to Csikszentmihalyi,

“People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy”

Element 8: We lose track of time

When we’re enjoying what we’re doing, time can seem to fly. Key is to put enough pressure on ourselves to get the task done. This means allocating not too much time, nor too little time. If you allocate too little, you’re likely to go into high stress mode which may impact your ability to focus. Likewise, allocate too much and you may fall victim to Parkinson’s Law, where work expands to fill time voids.

Judith Bryan and Edwin Locke examined the phenomena of Parkinson’s Law by asking college students to complete a fixed set of very simple math problems. Some participants were given excess time and others were given just the ‘right’ amount of time for the problems.Those in the excess time condition took significantly longer to complete the problems. This suggests that people who have more time than they need expend less effort and feel less urgency to complete their tasks quickly.

What helps you to enjoy the work you do? I’d love to know, so Tweet me, or drop me a note on LinkedIn. If you have any colleagues that you feel should read this, too, please share it with them. I’d really appreciate it. Thank you!

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