When you want to find joy at work: 6 tips to feed your “joy-meter”

Finding your purpose in life seems to be what everyone is writing about today. I personally have no fewer than 30 books on my shelves (yes…I still have paper books) about that very topic written by philosophers, like Paul Coehlo, survivors, like Victor Frankl, coaches, like Martha Beck, and pragmatists, like Jen Sincero.

I have been wrapped up in finding my purpose for at least 15 years. What am I here to do? What does the universe have in store for me? Should I be contributing more than I do? What is my calling? Or, my favorite mid-life one: Is this it? These and many more questions have gone through my brain for a while now.

Some people truly feel “called” to something early in life. Others, like myself, aren’t really sure what that “should” be. One thing I have learned through all of my book reading and reflecting is that pondering this question over and over can drive you nuts.

There may not be a clear answer to this question. There may not be “I should do this” purpose statement written in the clouds. Perhaps what we should focus on is deriving as much joy and fulfillment out of what we chose to do as possible. So, this has led me to think about how to do that.

Here are my six tips to find joy at work:

  1. Exercise gratitude – How easy is it to get wrapped up in the day to day? This person stepped on my toes; my boss wasn’t clear about what he wanted; I don’t want to do that project her way; that customer is driving me crazy. But, honestly, there are plenty of things to be grateful for in and out of work, if we just take a minute to think about it. I find listing them helps me. I have a Gratitude app on my phone that I used to list what I am grateful for on my train rides into the city. Now, I start my day at my home office this way. You may ask if I am in a job I don’t particularly care for right now, what is there to grateful for? First, let’s start with having a job. Not everyone does. I realize not everyone feels this way but I feel lucky to be employed doing something I can derive some joy from. How about you?
  2. Identify what I can control – I have written about this before but in a situation where you report to a boss or are accountable to customers, identify what you can control and then manage that area the way you see fit. This can be as small as organizing your own schedule or drafting emails to customers to as large as leading project or managing a department. This is my go-to thought when I feel smothered or micro-managed. I think about what is in my control and I focus my energies there. This not only helps me be productive but feeds my “joy-meter”.
  3. Do the have-tos first – Every professional I have ever met has things they must do that they would rather not. I have mentored a few younger professionals and they all complain about reserving conference rooms or being the help desk. They have often shared that their boss gets to do all the “fun stuff”. I sincerely doubt it. Maybe at some level, we stop making room reservations (although, I still do this!) or being the customer service rep (I do this too at a higher level) but there are plenty of other non-sexy things to be done at all levels. I get these out of the way first in my day. Any time management professional will tell you to get the hard stuff out of the way first. For me, the hard stuff are the tasks I don’t really want to do. The challenging items I love to do, I leave for my peak productivity time, which is 10 am for me, after two cups of coffee.
  4. Determine what I can start that may be a little different than my day-to-day – Similar to tip #2, identify what I can start or offer to start that is currently not in my control but could be. Can I identify something that should be fixed, changed or started that is low risk? There are plenty of these opportunities laying around that people don’t have time for. If you want to do more facilitating or speaking, then offer to do that on something that is in your control. Ask to speak at the next team meeting about a process you execute or a project you manage. Make the opportunity you want to feed your “joy-meter”.
  5. Work cannot be our entire life – This is the most important lesson I have learned in my life thus far. I used to look to my career to fill up my entire cup. This only set me up for disappointment. My career was never going to be enough for me as I had tall standards and many things I wanted to accomplish in my life. I couldn’t possibly get this all from work. That was unfair. I left job and after job in search of this only to find that I was disappointed every time. You can feel called to your career, you can derive great joy from your job but life is more than work. Life can have purpose but purpose is not defined as a single item.
  6. Do something on the side/volunteer – If you simply cannot find enough joy at work, do something on the side whether that be for money or as a volunteer. Some people want to do more of what they do for charity, like accounting or writing; others prefer to do something completely different like packing lunches for hungry children or painting schools that cannot afford to hire contractors to do so. Whatever aligns with your values and interests, pick that something and get involved. If you prefer not to be hands on, then do something administrative or creative. I have never been turned down by a non-profit to help in whatever capacity I offered.


I could write more on this subject, and may, as finding joy is critical to one’s own sense of fulfillment and accomplishment. There are ways of feeling joy at work even when we feel frustrated. We need to think about our lives holistically and not just focus on our job or career.

We need to proactively, not passively, find ways to feel joy at work. If we wait for someone to make us happy or give us what we want, we will be waiting a long time. We must be the ones to reflect and take action. This has become an everyday habit for me to feed my “joy-meter”. I hope you find what works for you.

When you strive for perfection

I grew up in a house where things were done a certain way. Nothing was really out of place, mess wasn’t tolerated and doing things to just barely meet the goal wasn’t good enough. I learned at a very young age that being organized and exacting was the way to be. That overachieving was the only way to be. I ended up translating this into: everything has to be perfect.

This is not an indictment of my parents. I also learned an amazing work ethic, how to organize just about anything from a sock drawer to a multi-million dollar IT project, and how to be self-sufficient.

Early in my career, striving for perfection was the ultimate goal for me. I worked for bosses that also believed in getting things perfect before rolling them out to others. They would rather spend years on getting it right than rolling it out quicker with room for improvement. Collecting feedback was not appropriate; we needed to show that we were experts and could do things the right way, the first time.

It took me years to realize that perfection was indeed the enemy of good — an old cliche but one that rings true. In a world of being agile, there isn’t time for perfection. In a world of rampant stress and anxiety, there is no capacity for perfection. In a world of changing technology and circumstances, there simply isn’t room to be perfect.

I once gave a talk to a group of Knowledge Management professionals. I talked about my realization that “best practices” may be too hard to strive for. That “good” is good enough and we should define what “good” means to us in our own contexts. Several people stood up and chastised me for such a notion. I had just annihilated their entire philosophy of success. To be successful, you had to be perfect.

Then, I had a younger generation of participants way in the back of the room approach me afterwards thanking me for dispelling the notion that everything had to be perfect. That trying out new things and iterating was what they believed we should be doing in business to move faster and have more relevance.

We should all strive for quality, but perfection will drive a person crazy. Here are five things I do to be successful without striving for perfection.

  1. Define “good”. What does “good” look like? This is a question of quality. I have put many proposals in front of executives that provide good-better-best options to choose from. Nine times out of ten, the good option is selected. Today, we can’t afford to take the time or maybe even spend the money for “best” or “perfect”. But, this depends on your culture and industry.
  2. Time box. My favorite corporate bingo phrase. If you time box your efforts, that is put a quick end date to your efforts, like 60 or 90 days (or less), you can only get done a certain number of activities that matter most. This action forces you to focus on good enough instead of perfect. I find this very effective to push good ideas out quickly. There is always room to continuously improve.
  3. Carve out places for feedback. If you move quick and focus on good enough, you must provide time and places for feedback collection. Back to our commitment to quality, getting feedback to make changes is critical to ensuring we meet that commitment. There is nothing more useful than asking the end user or customer to tell you what they think of your product, process or service.
  4. Pitch your approach. To avoid perfectionism, your approach may include getting something out quickly or completing 80% of a new process. Work with your sponsor/manager on why moving quicker to roll something out, collect feedback and iterate proves to be a more successful approach than a long timeframe for the perfect process.
  5. Breathe or find a mantra. You may be asking yourself what this has to do with business. Perfectionism is a not-so-distant cousin to anxiety. I speak from experience. There are usually deep seeded reasons behind why we must be perfect. Take a breath, recite a mantra, meditate…whatever works for you, and, honestly, one minute of deep breathing can go a long way. This is something I have learned to do. Ask yourself: Why must I be perfect? What will happen if I am not? Do I really think I will lose my job? Of course not. I suppose if that does happen, then ask yourself if this organization was right for you.

Some may argue achieving perfection should always be the goal, and in certain arenas, that may be true. Anything involving safety, health or money management needs to be pretty perfect. So, building a new car, constructing the next airplane or a even managing someone else’s money, anything less than perfect won’t do.

As a knowledge worker, we manage and participate in many projects that help us with efficiency, customer service and competitive advantages. In these areas, defining good and taking a quicker, more iterative approach will strengthen our efforts.

As a manager, think about how striving for perfection may affect your employees’ engagement levels and stress. Trying to please a boss that only wants perfection is a tough expectation to meet. Have you ever worked for someone like this? Reflect and remember how you felt in that relationship. I imagine those bosses may have lost a few good team members along the way.

When you want to influence up

Being in the middle has its challenges. You have responsibilities to listen, coach and manage performance of your team who reports to you. You also have expectations from your manager of you and your team. Sometimes, these become out of alignment. Sometimes, what your boss wants is not what your team agrees with (or yourself) and you’re stuck in the middle.

When your boss directs the team to move in a certain direction but the team doesn’t want to go, what do you do?

First, examine your own thoughts about the situation. How do you feel about it? If you agree with your manager, present the “why” behind the decision. Your team deserves more than a “because he said so” answer. Oftentimes, there could be politics or other initiatives that the team may not be aware of and it can be appropriate to share some of this context with them.

If you do not agree with your manager, this can sometimes feel awkward. If your organization is hierarchical in nature, it can feel even more awkward. It is much easier to say nothing — to just agree with your manager and execute what you feel is wrong. I have always felt that I am on the payroll for my expert opinion and experience. I could be wrong but voicing what I think should be a part of my expectations.

The problem with not saying anything is bad feelings can develop and fester. Your relationship can suffer with your manager. If you don’t speak up, will you do the best job you can if you disagree with the direction? There are ways to politely and professionally disagree to influence up.

  1. Is this a hill you want to die on? This is my mother’s go-to question for me when I present a conflict I am having at work. Not everything you disagree with needs to be challenged. If it is small, consider letting it go. If it is more about tactics (how) and not about strategy (what and why), definitely consider letting it go. There is usually more than one way to accomplish something.
  2. Gauge how important this is to your manager. If this is a “hill” for your manager, consider letting it go. I have found over my career that when I ask questions and a manager becomes a little frustrated, usually that person will express the importance or significance to her. In that case, I usually try it their way and reserve judgment.
  3. Ask questions; don’t make statements. While this may seem like Psychology 101, I am always amazed by people who come out guns blazing with statement after statement. “You, you, you” or “We don’t agree…” If you ask questions to understand, both parties can walk away with a different understanding. Asking questions can be disarming and lead to a dialogue. If it is an emotional topic, I pose these questions: “May I offer a suggestion?” “I have a different way I have been thinking about it. Can I share it with you?”
  4. Remove emotion. Some situations can be emotional. Especially now, I find that people are even more tied to their work. It can be the one place they derive some fulfillment if they are not able to help their parents, coach little league or volunteer as they used to. Back to Psychology class, a simple “I understand” or “I hear what you are saying”, goes a long way to make someone feel better. Staying calm while someone is railing is essential. It is okay to get out of the situation and say you have another meeting but you’d be happy to pick this up later. Time to cool off can help.
  5. Communicate how important this is to you. If this is a “hill” for you, share why this approach or idea is so significant for you…and the business! For you to persuade a manager to change his thinking, share the benefit beyond just yourself.
  6. Paint a picture. Portray a vision of what your idea will do for the team, company, community, and/or your manager. What will the outcome look like? Paint visual pictures instead of speaking in abstract thoughts. Use data. Nothing speaks the truth and can get people’s attention like data. Data can be used to paint a bad current state or a rosy future state depending on your objectives. A bad current state makes the case for what will happen if we don’t act. A solid future state communicates the opposite — the positive impact if we take action.
  7. Ask for a trial run. If you are not convincing your manager of your point of view, ask for a trial run. One time in my career, I strongly believed we needed a new team to look at internal communications and I wanted to head it up. I went to the COO and asked for “seed money” to try this out. If after 6 months, we didn’t yield some value, I would go back to my original position. This may sound like a bad infomercial where we will give you your money back, but I enjoyed great success as a result of this negotiation.

There are many ways to influence. The first is to determine if it is worth it to make the case. If it is important to you, proceed with facts, leave out emotion and make your case professionally.

When you start to take things personally

One of the most difficult lessons I have learned in my career is how not to take every comment, action or criticism personally. I am a strong person who has confidence but there have been times when some feedback has felt unfair or I beat up on myself because I was not perfect. (More on the love/hate with perfectionism in a future post!)

“Work and personal don’t mix. Feedback is a gift. A businessperson should have thick skin. Leave your emotions at the door. Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve. And, don’t take things too personally!”

Words of wisdom we have all heard and they sound logical. Yes! This is how we should act! However, most of us are committed to quality work. We take pride in what we do and we are invested in the outcome, which includes what people think about us.

When I was younger, one of my mentors told me it was a waste of time to spend too much energy on how others feel about us because we can’t control how they feel; we can only control how we feel.

Intellectually, this makes sense. Practically, it is tough to not think about how did someone take what I said? Did that leader like what I did? How am I performing? Am I liked or just tolerated? And, my personal favorite, how do I compare to my peers? Is he better than me?

All of these thoughts are normal human behavior but they can become all-consuming and translate into a “I am having a bad day” all the way to “I need to find another job.” We can carry these feelings to our homes especially in these times when our offices are mere steps from our personal interactions in the kitchen.

Here are my tips for taking a breath and not taking comments, actions and criticism as a personal attack.

1: Focus on You. Instead of focusing on what someone tells you or how you may be treated unfairly, focus on what you think of yourself and your efforts. Do you feel good about what you achieved? If not, then examine what you could have done better and do that the next time. Are you satisfied with the results? Do you like what you are doing? How can you find joy in your work? Instead of seeking approval from others, we should strive for self-fulfillment and work on how we feel about our performance first. When we feel good, that self-confidence shines through to others.

2: Walk in another skin. In one of my favorite books, To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus tells his daughter that we don’t really know someone until we have jumped in their skin and walked around in it for a while. If someone criticizes you or even snaps at you, just remember it may not be about you at all. If we realize that people react based on the many things happening in their lives, we save ourselves lots of time spent on complaining or getting upset. Some people can compartmentalize and some cannot. Think about how you react to things. Is it all about the person or is it just a tiny bit about the argument you had this morning with your significant other, the fact that you can’t see your family now or the dog is driving you nuts?

3: Show compassion. I truly believe this is a skill that can be learned because I am living proof. I have spent the last year focused on compassion. I have it posted on my bulletin board and I have mantras I recite every morning saved as reminders in my phone. It has saved my mood, my family life, and my overall well-being. Instead of thinking the worst, have compassion for what the other person may be going through. There could be other motivations for why they may appear critical. Maybe they are afraid of losing their job or maybe they are experiencing health issues. Keeping compassion front and center has helped me let things go and not take certain actions personally, which only helps me (and everyone around me)!

4: Breathe. Simple and effective. When we hear something that we think is personal, stop and don’t react for five seconds. Take a quick, deep breath. Remember you, what it’s like to walk in their skin and practice compassion. Trust me. This will help you focus on what matters and not take things personally.