Majoring in Minor Activities

end the constant churn of workI recently read this great phrase in the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown and I loved it. I spend my time trying to figure out why people aren’t happy in their careers and how to help them change that. What I see is that most people aren’t deeply engaged in something meaningful and fulfilling at work. Even traditional “serious” professionals are becoming bogged down with the day to day churning of being busy to check things off the to do list instead of doing thoughtful work that lights up their brains and makes them feel accomplished.

So, what’s the danger in majoring in minor activities? There are many. Here are just five. Can you think of others? Leave them in the comments below

1. You won’t be able to share your value with future employers or your network

Part of my work is helping people present themselves to future employers in a way that reflects their past work so that it aligns with the future vision for their career. When my clients have spent most of their career simply responding to other people’s requests, my work is challenging (though not impossible). Why? Because no one wants their next job to look like that! No one wants to be an email hamster or have their days constantly interrupted with other people’s requests. AND no employer is willing to pay for a person that simply replaces an email inbox.

What people want is strategic, thoughtful work that gives them some sense of control of their days, makes them feel accomplished when they complete a project, and allows them to use their unique brain to make a difference in their company or their work. It is very challenging to show that candidates have an ability to do this thoughtful, strategic work if they haven’t spent much time doing it in their past job.

2. You aren’t engaged in your work because it’s not important

The fact is, the churn of emails, meetings and group calls, is generally not that important. That’s why you hate it. You feel like nothing got accomplished and you get that dreaded “What’s the point?” sensation as you walk into a meeting. It’s because there often isn’t much of a point.

Meetings and emails are absolutely necessary when they have a specific, defined purpose and are led well. Corporate America has become a culture of meetings in the spirit of collaboration and communication,even if they aren’t generally received well or impactful to the bottom line. And don’t even get me started on most emails. They feel important because they’re meant to feel important, but when you sit back and look at all of the emails you send and receive throughout a day, consider which emails were actually essential to doing your job. My guess is, it will be very few.

too much work

3. There will never be a time you don’t have something to do or when you feel like you can slow down or stop

When you become the reactor to everyone else’s requests, there is no end in sight. If you prove to someone that you will respond to every email they send and attend every meeting they invite you to, you will keep on getting those emails and meeting requests – I can nearly guarantee it. And though that may sound ok and it may make you feel important, you are setting yourself up for a lifetime (or at least a career) of minor activities.

With every interaction you have with others, you are training them how to interact with you. So, when you become someone’s go-to email responder or meeting attendee, you’re telling them that’s how you want to be treated – you are giving them positive reinforcement to treat you that way again, and it leaves you in a trap that you are never able to get out of unless and until you change your behavior.

4. It imposes on your life outside of work

This never-ending spiral of busy-ness is just plain bad for your health. The brain needs rest and closure. And when you always have a long list of to dos, with no clear priorities (often other than the time the requests came in), you always feel like you should be working. That feeling keeps your mind going, never giving you a break, and keeps you constantly “on.”

We’ve all been there. It used to happen to me all the time when my husband and I would go see plays in Chicago. I enjoyed my job and wanted to do well, but I hadn’t figured out how to take control. We had season tickets to the Goodman Theater – in my opinion one of the best theaters in the country – and the plays were always thought-provoking and star-studded. But every time we were there, it was inevitable that I would remember an unanswered email or undone task that I had promised someone I’d complete during the day, and then I couldn’t concentrate on the play. It didn’t ruin my evening, but definitely made it less enjoyable than it could have been, and ultimately didn’t improve my work product or help me get things done.

5. It won’t put you on a long term path and won’t leave you proud of your career

Finally – and most important in my opinion – it doesn’t do anything to advance your career in a strategic way. As discussed above, it puts you in a challenging place to get a promotion or a new job that aligns better with your long term goals. But more importantly, it’s just lazy and not thoughtful. It’s easy to spend your days reacting to everyone’s whims, emails and meeting requests. It doesn’t require thought and that’s the path we’re most likely to take when it’s available.

But if you want a career that leaves you fulfilled and that you can look back on and say you’re proud of, minor activities won’t get you there. You have to actually get involved with your career path to have a successful, long term, fulfilling career, and that requires taking control of not just your plan for your career, but your day to day activities too. It will leave you more satisfied with your work and on a path that promises to fulfill in the long run.

Stay tuned next week for tips on how to get off of the hamster wheel and start majoring in MAJOR activities that leave you satisfied and fulfilled at the end of your days and weeks.

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