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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 II: Letting Your Environment Help You

Strategies and goals


On Monday, I talked about how especially well-thought-out tools can make work more enjoyable and productive. Today I’ll be moving on to the topic of work environments and how subtle differences in your surroundings can attract you to your work and help you work better. I won’t go into great detail with each item: I think you’ll get enough of the idea to be able to apply it to your own workspace from just visiting each piece of the puzzle.

The essential question is this: what could you do to the space where you work that would

  • make you happier or remind you of things that make you happy
  • make it easier to concentrate
  • put things more easily to hand or more conveniently out of the way
  • attract you to your work
  • remind you of why you do the work you do, or
  • put you in a good mood or frame of mind to focus?

In answer, here are eight elements you can look at improving to make your work environment work harder for you.

Light: Is there enough of it? Is it prevented from glaring in your eyes and reflecting off screens? Is there a way you could get more natural light, or a lamp with a quality of light that is more comfortable for you?

Space: Does your workspace feel open and uncrowded? Can you easily move in it without bumping into things? Can you see and get to things without being obstructed?

Music: If music helps you work, do you know what kinds of music fit your working habits the best? Have you experimented with different kinds? Do you have a convenient way to play music? If you don’t have a library of music available to you where you work (or even if you do), I highly recommend Pandora, a free sort of jukebox where you steer the music selections by naming artists and songs you like. In case your musical tastes turn out to be anything like mine (which are a little unusual sometimes, I admit), you can hear my Pandora stations at .

Comfort and ergonomics: Of course it’s more expensive and takes more trouble to get a good office chair or a drawing table that you can set to exactly the right height, but if you spend long hours in a particular workspace, problems like back pain or a crick in your neck can tend to make your work unenjoyable or cut your work sessions short, so some extra effort and expense might be worth it in the long run.

Neatness and organization: Your workspace only has to be neat and organized enough that you can easily get to everything you need to use, nothing’s in your way, and you’re happy. For me, having a place for everything and everything in its place is an ongoing process, but one that makes me noticeably happier to sit down to work whenever I make progress at it; for you, a little more disorder might be joyful–or like many people, you might find a little time spent on organization goes a long way in lifting your spirits.

Beauty and personality: Photographs, objects that make you feel at home, artwork that puts you in a good mood, or anything that makes your workspace more comfortable or beautiful is likely to make you more eager to get things done, as long as it isn’t distracting.

Refuge: Both in commercial buildings and home work areas, it might be an option to have privacy and peace or it might not, depending on the way things are arranged.

If you have some say about your workspace, you might consider whether you would be happier and more productive in a more peaceful setting than you have now–or in a setting where you get to interact with others more. If you would prefer peace but need to work in the midst of chaos, remember that it is possible to adapt. I used to be nearly unable to write in a room where I could hear anyone talking; after a couple of years of writing, by necessity, in a room that was also a playroom for two young children, I grew nearly immune to distraction. One large writing project was finished in the midst of a bunch of writers having a half-convention, half-party–and it was a lot of fun to work in that context. We’re adaptable creatures.

The directions of things: Though I was skeptical at first, I learned some valuable techniques from a feng shui expert who came in to talk to a group of us at a former job. Not all of the teachings of feng shui necessarily struck me as constructive for offices (though admittedly, I know only a little about it), but the ones I like are:

  • Avoid having things (corners of tables, pens, etc.) pointing at you while you work, as it can set you on edge.
  • Try to work in a position where you can easily see the door. This prevents having to wonder who might be behind you.
  • Arrange your workspace so that things meet in curves or open angles rather than corners. For instance, turn one piece of furniture 45 degrees where it meets another to create a more harmonious line.
  • Add plants to your workspace; some easy ones to maintain that are tolerant of offices include ficus and jade plant

I’d be interested to hear your suggestions on creating more inviting and productive work spaces. What do you do to make your work environment work better for you?

Photo by my friend, Diana Rowland, of her Writing Lair. Diana is the author of Mark of the Demon, which just came out in June from Bantam Dell

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Where to Find Motivation After Losing a Job

Handling negative emotions


After losing a job, motivation can be a little hard to come by. A lost job usually serves up a double whammy: a massive blow to self-respect in being fired, forced to resign, or laid off, and a goodly serving of uncertainty about where the next job is going to come from. The combination of sadness about the past and anxiety about the future can be pernicious, because just when you get one side of the problem under control, the other can sneak up and wallop you.

I was forwarded this useful article from the New York Times Web site today, and it has some good points to make: “Accentuating the Positive After a Layoff“. While reading it, however, I realized there are some basic elements of motivation that apply to job loss: here those are.

If You’re Beating Yourself Up, Here’s How to Stop
It’s hard to be kind to yourself after losing a job. You may blame yourself, for good reasons or silly reasons, or be unable to let go of anger, or feel hopeless about the future. These kinds of feelings almost always are the result of broken ideas, things we tell ourselves that sound true but are actually bunk. Some common ones follow, along with some good ways to repair them. For a much more in-depth treatment of broken ideas (under their more proper psychological name of “cognitive distortions”), read Albert Ellis and Robert A. Harper’s A Guide to Rational Living or David Burns’ Feeling Good.

I should have _____
“Should” is almost always a red flag word. Looking back at the past, it helps to know how we would handle a similar situation in the future, but since there is no way at all ever to change what we’ve done in time gone by, it can be a lot more constructive to say “I did ____. If the situation came up again, I would do ____. I’m going to accept that I made a bad choice. What can I do in the future to help turn things around?”

I’m such a ____
Labeling means taking one or more incidents in the past and concluding that they add up to an unchangeable tendency to fail. Yet our brains are amazingly adaptable; we can change virtually anything we want about our behavior or even our skills. A bad choice or a failure is nothing more than a specific bad choice or failure. It doesn’t decree how we will act in future.

My boss/coworkers/clients/etc. should have _____
“Should” again, and again it points to something we can’t change. We can influence others, but we generally can’t force them to act a particular way. It can help in these situations to remind ourselves that we have no control over other people, only control over how we respond to them. We can then turn our attention to the areas of our lives where we actually do have some control.

I’m not going to find a job/decent job/job around here/job in my field
This one is called “fortune telling.” We can’t predict the future, and there’s no point in pretending we can. It can help in these situations to map out all of the possibilities we’re hoping to avoid and say to ourselves “OK, that might happen, even if I don’t want it to. If so, what’s going to be the best thing for me to do?”

This is awful!
Watching a child die is awful. Being imprisoned in  a tiny cell in a Southeast Asian country for eight years is awful. But having to sell your beloved late-model car and move to a second-floor walkup in a town you don’t like is merely unpleasant. If you look at your future and see things you don’t like, remind yourself that they’re just things you don’t like, and that your job is just to make good decisions. Very few things we don’t like will last through our entire lives. Generally they’re just something to be gotten through as well as can be managed until they’re gone.

Make goals, not wishes
It’s tempting in these situations to make goals like “I will get a new job right here in the city within three months, for at least as much as I used to make.” The problem is that something like that is not a goal, because it’s not under your direct control. It’s more of a wish: it depends on other people doing things, and we’ve already established that other people are (inconveniently) not under our control. Goals are motivating and worth pursuing, as long as they’re entirely under your control. A real goal might be something like “I will apply for at least 15 jobs a week,” or “I will study a new job skill for at least two hours a day until I have a new job,” or “Every morning, I will come up with one new thing I haven’t tried yet to help me in my job search.” As mentioned in the S.M.A.R.T. post, good goals are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. The “attainable” part needs to include being under your direct control.

There is an up side
Any change, even a very messy one, has the potential for positive side effects, sometimes substantial ones. For instance, many people who have lost their ability to walk, see, or hear through an accident literally refer to their experience as the best thing that has ever happened to them. As strange as it may sound, it can make sense, because a major life problem is a wake-up call: it slaps us in the face and forces us to look around. What do we really have going for us, when it comes right down to it–what skills, what passions, what resources? What do we truly want to do with our lives? Is making a living enough, or do we want something more? If so, what is that thing? Are the choices we’ve been making really making us happy? It’s possible to be happy without a lot of things, including sight, hearing, and the ability to walk. A happy life with less is better than an unhappy life with more.

And almost any change also has little benefits, things that you’re probably more than happy to leave behind–a cramped office or an over-controlling manager or a long commute. Don’t hesitate to take pleasure in the improvements in your situation, even if they’re small compared to the problems that have arisen.

You don’t have to be happy about losing a job (though it’s possible, and it can help). And you don’t have to pretend that everything is going to come out the way you want it to just because you wish it (which doesn’t help). But taking a calm look at what has happened and where you are now can at worst help you put to rest anxieties you don’t really need, and at best help you see opportunities you hadn’t previously imagined.

Photo by Rhett Sutphin; it may or may not actually depict a lost job


Looking for and offering guest posts on willpower and self-motivation

About the site

I’m interested in connecting with more people who are interested in self-motivation and willpower, so I’ve begun to make a more concerted search on the Web for people who write personal blogs on subjects like organization, changing habits, weight loss, writing, difficult personal projects, better working habits, addiction, quitting smoking, exercise, improving personal relationship skills, and anything else where self-motivation or willpower play a big part, so that I can invite people to guest blog here and/or offer guest blog posts for their sites.

Any suggestions for me of people I should approach, blogs I should read, or places where a guest post from me (whether on a particular requested subject or not) would be welcome? One thing that I’d particularly love to be able to have here from time to time is posts from people who have achieved goals or made changes in habits, describing what they did, what challenges they faced, and how things went–but I’m also interested in many other kinds of posts.

You can contact me through the contact form on the right (just scroll down to find it) or by commenting here.

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