5 Ingredients that Spark Joy and Productivity at Work
I am a newlywed who has just returned from a glorious 2.5-week vacation for my wedding and honeymoon. The past few months leading up to my big day & honeymoon have been spent on wedding planning (no wedding planner) and moving into a new place as a couple (consolidating two people’s life belongings into a 600-sq ft apartment is not an overnight task), while working at a hyper-growth company called Anaplan (which I am not yet a full year into). So guess what I did right after I put up that “out of office” email: I physically shipped my laptop from Georgia (where I worked remotely before getting married) to California (where I work and live) in order to fully focus on becoming a “Mrs.” — and it was absolutely wonderful.
Then something so interesting happened the night before returning to work. I found myself feeling a gush of excitement about going back to work! Even for someone who’s heard the term “workaholic” many times in my career life, this was rather a new & refreshing feeling. I had thought I’d be feeling all kinds of stress. I mean, I hadn’t checked any of my Slack messages or work emails for the past few weeks, and I had left office in the middle of a huge project. How could this feeling be? Extremely thrown off by this feeling, I started tracing its root – and found very exciting evidence of growth in my not-so-long but also not-so-short 13-year career routines.
Here are the five ingredients that keep me at the intersection of joy and productivity at work:
1. Connect With the “Why”
I admit that I wasn’t always this way, especially during the beginning years of my career, but I have evolved into a person who seeks to empathize with the “why” of what I do. Working on something the purpose of which you empathize with is such empowerment for your own self; knowing why each strategic decision, initiative, project or program, or even each tactical task matters helps me understand the impact my job is making (direct and indirect), and it helps me deliver its intended outcome. Unless you run your own company, you probably don’t get to choose everything you get to work on. However, I believe you owe yourself to have clarity on why you are to work on the stuff on your "to-do" list. Stay curious and have the audacity to challenge the status quo if you’ve done your job seeking clarity yet questions remain. I had a task I was in charge of whose “why” I wasn’t clear on. My boss jumped in to help clarify its “why” — and eventually, we ended up kicking off an initiative that aims at solving a bigger “why” rather than focusing on tackling a localized problem in a siloed manner.
2. Own Your Craft
Have you ever heard of the phrases, “the ball is on their court,” “it’s their problem, not mine,” or something similar? We probably say these things because they are true statements. However, what if you flip your perspective and first ask yourself the following: “What have I done to help activate, accelerate, or elevate the thing that is not working or moving along at the moment?” What I have learned over the years is that being fully accountable for your own craft actually helps you feel engaged and motivated, as opposed to being a passive participant. This has been true both in a big corporation of 250,000+ employees, as well as in a 50-people startup. So in everything you do, no matter the complexity of your organization, keep yourself fully accountable for your job. If you’re like me, it may actually help reduce your stress level.
3. Manage Focus
Managing focus is how I got through the busiest seasons of life so far, and I intend to keep it up in this new season of life, as well as in the future if/when I become a working mother. Instead of “time management” or “task management,” shift your mindset to think about how you might manage your focus levels throughout each day. Don’t get me wrong; I do think about how much time I have between now and the due date of something, or how many things I need to get done between now and next week. But guess what, these thoughts have not always been helpful at figuring out the next steps. When I shift my thinking and ask myself, “What are my priorities that need my focus and attention?”, I often find productivity to naturally follow because I can now direct my attention to what needs my focus first – then move down the list as I check off my “to-do” items. I feel very fortunate to be working in a team that prioritizes – on a weekly basis – the list of both urgent and important things we should focus on, based on our strategic direction. Important but not urgent things, we schedule a time to do those once our current capacity opens up. Urgent but not important matters, we seek help from others. And we consciously seek to eliminate things that are neither important nor urgent. This way of working has helped me not only feel joyful at work but also has helped me integrate the fluid nature of work and life priorities.
4. Attitude of Gratitude; It's Everything
You are awesome, so your employer should be grateful to have you, right? Yes, it is true and you should be proud of how awesome you are. However, at the same time, shouldn’t you also be grateful for all the awesome things you get to work on? If you are fully connected with the purpose of what you do (my point #1), it should be easy to nurture the attitude of gratitude at work. Of course, not every day is going to be rosy and fun at work, and you’re bound to run into constraints and conflicts. As a program manager, these are my almost-daily encounters. However, I believe keeping an attitude of gratitude at your core is how one can sustain joy at work (I use the word “joy” instead of “happiness” because to me, joy is contentment you feel regardless of situations, whereas happiness is a temporary feeling of excitement, often based on a happening or situation). Weren’t you happy when you first got the job you have? Well, if you want that feeling to sustain regardless of the situations at your job (that you loved getting), I suggest that you choose joy through an attitude of gratitude.
5. Have a Sustaining Anchor
Even if you are super connected with the purpose of work, are fully accountable for everything you do, can prioritize and focus on the most urgent and important things first, and have a heart of gratitude, life has a way to throw a left-punch at you in the most unexpected ways sometimes. A thriving startup could run out of cash, a tech company could lose its stock value based on incidents, media reports, or purely street emotions which might impact your job, and you might find yourself agonizing over a crazy corporate policy. I have learned that having a solid foundation that guides and sustains the direction of your life – what you are aiming for, your north star – is critically important. I don’t know what that is for you, and I know that we all have different anchors: faith, family, fame, among many others. Mine is faith and that foundation is what guides me and my growth in life. Whatever yours is, have an anchor that sustains you, especially at times of difficulty.
My career has a long runway still, and I don’t claim that I have learned everything there is to know about how to grow in my career. I am just very fortunate that this transitional season of life has given me the opportunity to reflect on my journey to date, and I can’t wait for what I will get to reflect on at another inflection point of my career (and/or life) in the future.
P. S. The title of this blog was inspired by Marie Kondo whose method I've been following to organize our tiny yet cozy honeymoon apartment.