Find meaningful work now (without changing your job)

“I just want to feel like I’m making a difference.”

Sound familiar? I hear this all the time from my clients and they’re certainly not unique. Finding meaningful work is an ideal worth pursuing. Employees that feel connected to their work are more engaged, and engaged employees are better employees.

But meaningful work isn’t always possible. Changing jobs or careers is a big deal, so I’m always an advocate for changing yourself before changing your circumstances. The real trick is to make your work meaningful – no matter the greater purpose or cause – in any situation.

When work isn’t giving you what you want, take these steps to take more of what you want out of work before you cut and run.

Remember how you got there

If you’ve been deliberate about your career, you’ve thought about what makes work meaningful to you before. If not, there’s no better time to start!

Start by remembering what got you to where you are. Don’t just sit and think about this – write it down. Write about why you got into your field or wanted to work for your company. Think back to what you thought you’d do with your work and how you thought you’d feel. And beyond that, why was that important to you?

If you just kind of “fell” into where you are or never really thought about doing anything different, consider what you think having meaningful work will feel like. What will it take to get there?

Of course, most of us work for a paycheck. But what if money wasn’t an issue? How would you spend your time? What would keep you connected to the world? How would you stay engaged and challenged? All of that is just work, so knowing the answers to those questions will help define what you’re looking for in your work.

Knowing – specifically – what you want out of work will give direction and help focus your efforts to achieve that otherwise nebulous idea of “meaningful work.”

Track the good stuff

When you know what’s important to you, you can track the wins. If you don’t have one already, start a work journal. You don’t have to write daily, but when you do have wins – those moments when you really feel connected to your work or lost in the moment for whatever reason – writing it down will make that feeling last longer and force you to articulate what made it a great moment.

It’s easy – especially for the heady, intellectual type – to think that just “thinking” about your work is the same as writing it down, but it’s not. Tracking your progress can be as simple as marking your days as red (bad) or green (good!) on a calendar or as complex as a detailed, “Dear Diary” style narrative journal that expresses how you felt in detail about your work on that day, week, or project.

The beauty of tracking is that it commits your feelings to tangible form, allowing you to go back and review how you felt about your work at that fresh-baked moment.

You might think you can remember how you felt about your days, but most people don’t. 

Try this: Was last Wednesday a good day or a bad day at work? Were there any positive moments? Try to be quick!

My guess is you don’t remember. Or if you do, you don’t remember why.

Your memory is not simply a set of facts and events as they happened. It’s shaped by your current perspective. So if you can’t find any positive feelings about your work today, chances are looking back at your days in the same situation will look pretty negative to you, too, even if there were small wins you just didn’t remember.

Know the value of your work

All work has intrinsic value or no one would pay you to do it. So – you tell me! – why is your work important to others? Why does anyone pay you to do what you do?

Think of your role from a management perspective. If you were starting a company (whether similar to yours or not), at what point would you hire someone like you? What purpose or need would you be fulfilling in your company? Why would you pay someone to do what you’re doing now?

And – not to sound like a broken record, but – write it down! If you’re having a hard time, start with these questions:

  • How would my organization be different without my role? Would someone have to pick up the slack? How hard would that be?
  • What company goals would not be achieved without my role? How would that matter to the bottom line?
  • What results do I have to achieve for my boss and organization to think I’m successful? Why are those important to my team or organization?

Articulating the value your work brings to others will connect you back to the impact you’re making and – you guessed it – make your work more meaningful to you!

Define your expectations

I’ve written on this before, and it’s worth coming back to, given that Gallup has identified having clear expectations as the top contributor to whether you’re engaged in your work or not. Most jobs these days don’t have clear expectations or performance metrics, so it’s up to you to define them. I won’t belabor this, but if you’re having a hard time understanding what your job is, read this to take control and define it on your own.

And, oh yeah – it will help you feel better about your work!

Do the important stuff

A huge contributor to feeling like your work has no meaning these days is that most people aren’t doing important work. Responding to emails, sitting in pointless meetings and checking the easy stuff off your to do list is not important.

Stephen Covey’s time management grid is still one of the best tools to ensure you’re managing your time well. Start with the important and urgent stuff. Then move down the quadrant. If it’s not important, why are you doing it?

The trick here is that defining what’s important and what’s urgent can be a challenge. If you’re having a hard time with that, go back to defining your expectations and understanding the intrinsic value of your work.

Then, the equation is simple: If the task furthers the overall purpose of your work, it’s important. If the consequences are dire if it’s not achieved, it’s urgent.

Responding to an email quickly just because it popped up in your inbox is not urgent. And, generally, not that important.

Go above and beyond

Sometimes, just deciding to go the extra mile at work can create more meaning in your work. Engagement at work is a positive feedback loop – the more you put into your work, the more it gives back to you, and the more it gives back to you, the more you want to contribute. Most relationships are this way, and often, being unhappy at your job requires a change in your relationship with work.

So, try just deciding that you want to give more! See what happens. Try your best, pursue excellence in your work, and you might just find you enjoy it more!

Take back control

Take these steps now and see how it goes. When you can’t change your external circumstances – or it’s too costly to do so – you ALWAYS have the option to take control and change yourself.


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