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6 Ways to Be Happy at a Job You Don’t Like

Handling negative emotions


There are two common kinds of advice I’ve heard given to people who don’t like their jobs. One is “suck it up,” which is pragmatic but not very inspiring. The other is “then get a different job,” which is inspiring but not always pragmatic. In this post, I won’t attempt to untangle the question of when it is or isn’t a good idea to leave your job, although sometimes that may be the best call. Instead, let’s say that you’ve decided you want to stay at your current job, and the only problem is, your job is a drag. Is it possible to be happy even if you’re spending 40 hours a week (or more) doing something you don’t like? Often it is. Other people are living happy lives despite lousy jobs. Why not you?

1. Remember Why You’re There
It’s nice to have a job, to be paid, and to have something to do. You might have other reasons for your job as well. Getting in touch with them dispels the false idea that we’re forced to be at work. Sure we need to work to get money to live (most of us, anyway). But there are people who don’t have the work or the money, and it’s nice not to be in that situation.

2. Know What You Don’t Like
As with most situations where we have negative emotions, one of the first and most important steps is mindfulness. When we find ourselves reacting negatively to a situation and want to change that reaction, it helps (a lot) to figure out where the reaction is coming from. Sometimes the answers are fairly obvious (“I don’t like it when my boss comes into my office every five minutes to ask about something”) and sometimes they’re may be something that you haven’t consciously considered before (“Come to think of it, it’s this depressing room that’s bothering me the most.”) If your job isn’t satisfying to you, there’s probably more than one reason. Pay attention to your thoughts whenever you’re feeling most unhappy: this leads you to the causes.

3. Change the Details
Improving your actual job situation–negotiating a raise, getting transferred to another group, trading some responsibilities, etc.–is too big a topic to go into in detail here, but it’s well worth thinking about. Would better tools help you enjoy your work more? Creating more social ties with coworkers? Making your work environment more welcoming? Taking on more responsibilities? Sharing certain jobs with coworkers?

It’s not unsual to feel as though certain kinds of situations are unchangeable, only to find out that a simple request or a new approach can change them in important ways. Look for these kinds of opportunities.

4. Fix Broken Ideas
As human beings, we have evolved amazingly sophisticated mental systems for making ourselves miserable. Very often, we tell ourselves false (though true-sounding) stories in an ongoing mental commentary. Some examples are things like “She should have done that last week,” “I’m completely miserable here,” “This project is doomed to fail,” and “They all think I’m an idiot for forgetting about the presentation.” These broken ideas can be repaired by restating them as factually as possible, for instance “It would have been easier for me if she had done that last week, but she’s not always going to do things the way I’d like.” Broken ideas create tension and stress. Repairing them allows us to let go of negative ideas that are dragging us down.

5. Get Into Flow
The ultimate way to enjoy your work is to learn to get into a state of flow with it as often as possible. Flow is a state in which you’re challenged, but within your abilities; you’re able to focus without distractions or interruptions on a task; and you’re getting moment-to-moment feedback of some kind on how well you’re doing. Being in flow means being absorbed in the work and losing track of time because you’re so interested and involved. Not everything can be done in flow, but while it may be easier to imagine it working for surfers and violinists, it also can work beautifully if you’re washing dishes, filling out paperwork, or repairing a lawnmower.

Some tips on getting into a flow state are here. The most useful thing I can say about flow in a single sentence is that it only happens when you’re focusing on one thing, not when you’re allowing yourself to be distracted, or when you’re stopping and starting different tasks. Having fun while working, surprisingly, turns out to be easiest when you are working hard and efficiently.

6. Find a Goal
Flow experiences and most other kinds of enjoyable activity require having a goal (or goals). Just responding to things as they come is not generally an effective way to seek happiness. Even if your goal is just to improve your turnaround time by 5 minutes or to find something positive to say in every customer interaction, it allows you to focus and think about it rather than about boring, distracting, or tedious details that might otherwise take up your attention.

If you’re not happy at work it may be that you should consider another kind of job, but whatever position you have, there will very likely be parts you don’t enjoy. By remembering your reasons, knowing what’s behind your dissatisfaction, making the most of your work environment, fixing broken ideas, aiming to get into flow, and finding goals, you’ll have the best chance of being happier with your work … and taking those positive feelings with you when you go home.

Photo by chinogypsie


How Tools and Environment Make Work into Play, Part I: The Example of Scrivener

Strategies and goals


Most of the articles on The Willpower Engine have to do with our mental state and not with outside things like rewards and assistance. There’s a good reason for this: in research, intrinsic motivation (motivation that comes from within ourselves) shows itself to be much more powerful than extrinsic motivation (anything that happens outside us) time and again. Carrots and sticks are nothing compared to ideas and desires.

But there are some ways we can change our environment that in turn make a big difference in our mental state, namely by setting things up invitingly. In this article I’ll talk about one specific tool (Scrivener) for one specific kind of goal (writing), but if you’re interested in how tools and environment change things, read on.

Scrivener is Macintosh-only (later edit: no longer Mac only! A Windows edition is now available) software for writing novels, non-fiction books, screenplays, and other large projects–I’m using it to write the Willpower Engine book, for example. It allows you to organize and switch around among a lot of different pieces of the same project; to add, delete, and move around these pieces; and to store research information (including pictures, videos, notes, Web pages, and so on).

So what’s so great about that? Well, nothing earth-shaking, but when you’re working on a writing project with lots of pieces–whether those pieces are chase scenes, eras of Roman history, or moments that change a character’s view of the world–one of the biggest problems is focusing on each piece intensely as you write it while still being able to keep the whole project in mind. I can be in the middle of writing a chapter when I think of something I need to include in a later chapter. Using Scrivener, I can click on the document that has the outline for that later chapter, stick in the the thought, and be back to writing within 10 seconds.

Before Scrivener, in order to prevent getting off track or distracted, those kinds of notes would tend to end up in a big document that would eventually have to be organized and re-organized, requiring me to write some, organize some, update my outline, and then go back to writing again. In a normal word processor, I have to impose organization. In Scrivener, organization is the whole idea, and in the normal course of using the program I automatically put things in their places.

It’s only a few clicks and a few seconds easier and faster than doing the same kind of thing with a couple of folders full of files, but because it’s so easy to do things in an organized way in Scrivener, I do much more more of it there than I would in any other context. This means that almost all of my time and attention when I use Scrivener is focused on what I’m writing or planning out at that moment, and it also means that as I finish one thing, the next thing to do is often sitting there, ready for me to plunge into it without having to go back and figure out where I’m going next.

If you’ve read many of my other posts, you might begin to recognize these pieces as being the kind of things that help a person get into a state of flow. Flow, briefly, is a state in which you’re highly focused on a task, working enthusiastically at your highest level of skill, to the point where the time just seems to fly by while you get things done. As you can imagine or may know from experience, it’s both very productive and a ton of fun.

I don’t mean this article to be an advertisement for Scrivener (although it’s a great tool, and I recommend it for writers who have Macs), but when we look at how for some writers using this program instead of even a very good word processor affects getting things done, it’s clear that the right tools can do a lot to create a productive and enthusiastic mental state.

Later addition –┬áIf you do happen to be interested in Scrivener, you can get 20%-50% off with this offer. There’s a 30-day free trial available on the Scrivener site.

So what kinds of tools help make work inviting, improve focus, and boost productivity? Search out tools that

  • keep your work organized with little or no effort, like tool trays for graphic artists
  • let you break your work up into smaller pieces, like a long workbench that offers room for a series of components to be spread out
  • are attractive or appealing, like a comfortable pen that makes a good line
  • work smoothly and effectively all the time, like a top-notch pair of hair cutting scissors
  • keep your tools or components in front of you (rather than hiding things you might need to remember or find), like pegboard
  • are intuitive, like an iPod

In Wednesday’s article, I’ll turn the discussion to work environment itself and what kinds of changes we can make to turn a space where we’re trying to get something done into a space that actually helps us get things done–and make the process more enjoyable. And I’m curious about tools that you’ve found help motivate you. What’s the most exceptional tool you own?

Multitool photo by 2:19


Why Organization Improves Motivation, and Some Organization Tips

Habits, Strategies and goals

Do you have to have an organizational system in order to motivate yourself? No. Does it help? Hell, yes.

In order to motivate ourselves toward specific goals, we can identify a set of factors that we either need or at least benefit a lot by. Among these are a few important ones that organization helps with in spades, specifically:

1. Setting and prioritizing goals
2. Understanding what needs to be done, and
3. Getting regular, meaningful feedback (in the form of checking things off)


If I’m pursuing a big goal (whether it’s completing a book proposal, renovating a house, or learning to speak Bantu), in many cases the most productive thing for me to do is to break that big task into steps, and the steps into smaller tasks, until I get down to the level of tasks that can be done in one pass. This is less important with goals that are more repetitive (for instance, speaking Bantu: if I set up regular lessons and study times, I should be fine) than with goals that are made up of a wide variety of little things (like cutting window glass, taking down cabinets, and painting for that house renovation) that may be hard to keep track of. If I’m doing one big task of the second kind, organization becomes important. If I’m doing several big tasks like that, or lots and lots of little tasks, organization becomes the difference between being productive and being driven profoundly, dramatically nutty. Anyone who forgets to do important things, does low-priority things when they would rather have been doing high-priority things, feels scattered or overwhelmed, or doesn’t know where to start on the mound of things ahead can probably benefit from better organization.

It’s important to realize that organization itself requires self-motivation to be trained into a habit. Since we’re motivated to do things that we feel happy about and tend to avoid things that we feel anxious about, it’s very helpful to consciously associate the organization you do with the relief it brings, whether that’s at the “Well, at least now I know everything I have in front of me” level or at the “Hooray, I’m finished!” level of achievement. If you find yourself avoiding your organizational system, try taking a step back and thinking of the benefits of your system, of anything it has helped you do in the past, or of people whose organizational skills you admire. Thinking positively about organization makes doing organization much more appealing.

Which organizational system you choose will also make a lot of difference. A paper system can work if you don’t have a lot of tasks or if you don’t mind writing and rewriting things a lot, but electronic systems make things much easier by helping group and prioritize tasks, dropping completed tasks from your list, and so on. Many electronic organization systems also allow you to keep different categories of tasks, which is important: ideally, you want to categorize your tasks so that at any given time, you’re only looking at the things you could conceivably get done right then. It can be anxiety-producing to look at a monumental list of tasks, 90% of which you can’t do now because you’re in the wrong place, have only a limited amount of time, etc.

Because of this, I tend to break out my own task lists in four ways: first, by where I do them, in that I use a completely different organizational tool for work compared to home, since it’s rare that I’ll have the choice of doing either of those things at the same time. Second, by theme: I have one task list of things to do with my son, another of strictly writing-related tasks, another of financial tasks, etc. Third, by task length: I tend to keep a separate list of very quick tasks that I can get done when I just have a few spare minutes. And fourth, by importance: I find it helpful to keep a list of top tasks so that they don’t get ignored in favor of easier but much less important ones.

Of course, this results in a lot of lists, but then, I don’t categorize every single task in all four ways. For instance, my most important tasks just go in the “top” list regardless of other concerns, and my “quick win” short task list contains both important and unimportant tasks (although it’s prioritized within that).

The goal of all this separation of tasks (which is probably overkill in that form for most people, as I tend to have a lot of complex things going on at any given time) is to have a set of task lists that I can choose from whenever I’m ready to do something productive. If I’ve blocked out time for writing, I look at the writing list. If I have a few spare minutes, I look at the “quick win” list. If I’m going out to run errands, I look at my errands list. And so on.

With any luck, your list of things to do is much shorter than mine, and you would need at most only a few categories.

Any task management system needs to be one you can access conveniently and often. A computer-based one is no good if you’re rarely at the computer, for instance. And any system that makes it hard to figure out what you should be doing (like a paper system where you have to sift through a pile of notes) or that takes too long for you to access (like a computerized system that takes a long time to start up) or that makes it hard to read or enter tasks (like a task list on your cell phone when you don’t have an alphanumeric keypad on your phone) is probably the wrong one.

In terms of my favorite tools, here’s what I’m using at the moment.

First and foremost, I use Todoist, a completely free, online system that offers one of the easiest, most natural, and most convenient user interfaces I’ve ever seen anywhere. While it does offer ways to prioritize and schedule due dates, generally speaking the main thing I care about is typing the task in as part of the right category. To do this takes me one double-click (to open the shortcut to the Todoist site on my desktop), one single click (to select the project I want), and one keystroke (“a” to staring adding a new task). Once I have the task in, it’s easy to edit, schedule, prioritize, move between projects, or move to a different place on the list with drag-and-drop.

Of course, fully using Todoist means I need to be at the computer, but when I’m not I print out my tasks if I need to consult the list, and write down a list of any that I need to add–which it’s then essential that I add as soon as possible, so that everything stays up to date. On top of that, though, since I have Web access on my phone, I can get to the mobile version of Todoist through that, which is very limited in terms of functionality, but where I can easily view my tasks and add new ones.

In terms of my calendar, to my own surprise this year I’ve adopted a simple, paper-based planner booklet. I find it much easier to see what I’ll be doing at a particular time by flipping to a page rather than by having to look something up on the computer, and writing things in a schedule doesn’t have the drawbacks of keeping tasks on paper, because old events are just ignored as you flip to the new page. One major limitation of this system, it should be noted, is that you don’t get reminders, but I address that by checking my planner often to keep myself aware of my schedule. If I really, really needed a reminder, I could enter alarms into my cell phone.


A good alternative for both of these systems is a PDA (personal digital assistant), like a Palm Pilot or a Blackberry. Older Palm Pilots that are still completely functional can often be gotten on eBay for $30 or less. The main reason I’ve stopped using my PDA in favor of these other systems is the niggling details of convenience. Since it’s much easier for me to enter tasks into Todoist or events into my planner than to enter either into my Palm Pilot, I find I’m more reliable about keeping information up to date when I use these methods. The benefits of “convenient” for things that we sometimes don’t feel like doing are hard to overstate.

Finally, a note about overcommitment, an issue I struggle with: if you have chosen to do more things in your life than you’re willing or able to find the time for, not only will you never feel caught up, but you’ll fail to do things you had wanted or promised to do. That is, if you choose to do more than you can realistically get done, you really won’t get it all done, and what you don’t get done will be chosen by circumstance instead of by you. The only completely sane solution to this is to take a hard look at your commitments and decide what you can do less of. The temptation is to promise yourself you’ll do less of the recreational stuff, and often this can be a good way to go for at least part of the problem–but it can also be hard, because every time we sit down to watch a television show or kill some time randomly surfing the Web, we’re acting not only on habit but in response to some internal desire, need, or gap. Tackling these kinds of issues takes mindfulness, self-examination, and willpower, and fortunately this blog is designed to help in all of those departments.

Of course, there are uncountable organizational systems, tools, programs, practices, and paraphernalia, and what works best depends a lot on the individual person. Do you have something that works very well for you? I’d love to hear more about it in comments.

“Drowning” photograph by Quinn.Anya.

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