3 Shortcuts to Immediately Improve Your Work Life

9 minute read

Rucker, PhD, is an organizational psychologist and charter member of the International Positive Psychology Association. He currently serves as a senior leader at Active Wellness, and is the author of The Fun Habit: How the Pursuit of Joy and Wonder Can Change Your Life

To those of you who are still thinking, “Playing at work may be possible for some people and some jobs, but not mine,” I want to introduce you to Judy Cornelison. Judy works in a place widely considered to be where fun goes to die. She works in a dentist’s office. She’s a dental hygienist. In fact, she’s my dental hygienist.

Judy didn’t grow up dreaming of being a hygienist. She chose the work pragmatically, when she found herself needing a career after raising children and going through a divorce. A career counselor suggested it, and a four-day-work-week job with decent pay and free dental, sounded pretty good to someone who had spent most of her life as a mom and a volunteer at her kids’ schools. And she, personally, had never had a negative experience at the dentist. So, she busted her butt to put in the necessary training and started a new career. But pretty soon she discovered something a little depressing: Most people hate going to the dentist. They didn’t want to be in her chair. She hadn’t really thought about the fact that her new line of work made her what clients perceived as the worst part of their day. Judy was an extrovert and enjoyed connecting with people, so all these unsatisfying interactions were cumulatively draining. Work was tolerable, but it wasn’t fun.

Read More: How Perfectionism Leads to Burnout—and What You Can Do About it

So, Judy found a solution. She stumbled into it, really. A patient gifted her one late December day with funny “Happy New Year” glasses. After he left, she had the impulse to keep wearing the glasses. Why not? When her next client walked in, Judy looked up, prepared for the familiar “Ugh, I’m at the dentist,” expression. Instead, the patient saw the glasses, had a moment of confused surprise, and then flashed a giant grin. The glasses had broken the ice. So, the rest of the day, Judy kept wearing them, except when she was actually cleaning patients’ teeth. And the rest of the day, she was the recipient of smiles and laughter.

That evening, she decided she would wear something special every day. Sometimes it would be an accessory, sometimes a full costume. There was a flamingo hat and glasses; a shark hat; blinking Christmas lights; a head-to-toe, one-eyed, one-horned flying purple people-eater costume. You name it, Judy has worn it. 28 years—and thousands of outfits later—she hasn’t missed a day, and her decision has transformed not just her job, but the experience of everyone she treats. Because of Judy, visiting the dentist isn’t just the highlight of my day, it’s the highlight of my week. From a distance, maybe it sounds corny. But it goes beyond the outfits themselves. It’s the pleasure of meeting someone who’s decided to embrace something a bit wacky, solely to help people relax and smile in a stuffy, clinical medical office. Her performance art has real impact. Judy tells me that she has patients from before her costumed days who asked for nitrous before they’d let her clean their teeth. Now, they don’t need it. “Because I was willing to do something that put them at ease,” she explains.

You probably wouldn’t have put dental hygienist on a list of “passion projects”—but that’s what Judy made it. You have to be passionate to persist as long as she has, and to create as much joy as she has. And in there is an important takeaway, one that you may need to hear if you still believe there’s no possibility of fun in your workday: We hamstring ourselves when we think of passion at work as being about what we do instead of how we do it. Bringing passion to work is a choice you can make today, a choice that has the power to turn drudgery into fun.

High-performance psychologist Dr. Michael Gervais has taught me and others about the dangers of the “passion trap,” the idea that there’s some singular passion you must discover and achieve in order to become happy. It’s another facet of the happiness trap—the hedonic treadmill. Once again, you’re pinning your enjoyment on some improved future state. So, what’s the here and now? Chopped liver? An inevitable disappointment? If life is what happens while you’re making plans, bam!—you just determined your fate.

We can get much better results, immediately, by refocusing on how we are experiencing our now. Stop thinking that professional gratification will come someday, with X career move or Y milestone. Leave that BS for the Joneses. Instead, ask yourselves the more immediate question: “How can I increase my enjoyment in the work I am doing today?”

In short, I’m asking you to give striving a break. Is that easy? No way! Hustle culture and our own cognitive bias have us relentlessly focused on future states—and, worse, on outliers whose outcomes are very likely never going to be ours. Let me burst your bubble: Whatever Nike might have said about it, you are not going to be Tiger Woods. Or Elon Musk. Or whoever sits at the tippy top of your professional skyscraper. No amount of hard work or hustle is likely to produce that outcome—and yet our biases warp reality. Our minds seize upon the outliers and disregard the average cases. We grossly underestimate the amount of work it will take to get from point A to point B. The time and energy some people pour into their careers is the equivalent of spending your entire paycheck on Mega Millions lotto tickets, an asinine strategy that essentially does not improve your odds of winning. Most of us would never throw away that much money on such slim chances, but the uninformed among us are more than willing to throw away something much more valuable: their time.

We all have times when we’re more focused on the future we want than the present we have. But if you find yourself stuck, here are three ways to reawaken your “Fun Habit” at work right now:

1) Ask yourself often: “How can I have more fun at work today?”

This is not a rhetorical question. This is you, whipping out a piece of paper, and coming up with three ideas to bring passion and fun into your next workday or week. If you feel stuck, evaluate your work calendar event by event. For example: Meeting with a couple fun colleagues? Take it out of the conference room and bundle it with something more interesting.

2) Don’t work when you’re not working.

Sounds easy, but in practice, it’s so hard, for all the reasons we’ve already discussed. But it’s worth being deliberate about shutting down: Studies show that people who detach from work and pursue deliberate leisure in the evenings come to work the next day in better spirits than those who fail to detach from work.

3) Passion is not limited by what you do—but how you do it.

Repeat after me, when needed: Passion (and fun!) is not limited by what I do, but how I do it. If your job is so devoid of joy you feel it’s killing you, by all means, find another job. But, while your looking, there are likely opportunities to improve your immediate outlook (like Judy found) hiding in plain sight.

And I’m not saying that there aren’t jobs for which it’s worth trading short-term happiness for long-term outcomes, or that pursuing a professional passion is meaningless. If your dream is to be a doctor, go for it. The world needs more good doctors, and unless medical training goes through a radical overhaul, there’s really no other way. But many of us are working with abandon without carefully considering what we really need and want out of life. Many of us are following a script someone else has written, only to take notice when it’s too late to create a meaningful story line for ourselves.

I’m also not making a pitch for professional mediocrity. You can pursue professional excellence without having work define and subsume your entire life. Remember the research on elite violinists that Malcolm Gladwell made famous? Suddenly everyone became focused on the idea that becoming great at anything was a pure function of time, and a lot of it—10,000 hours. The trouble is, the study wasn’t looking at what it took to become a great violinist or even an excellent one, but one of the world’s best violinists.

How many of us really need or want to hit that high a watermark in our own careers? The other trouble with the study is that many people focused on the number of hours and missed the more important point, that how the time was spent was the real distinguishing factor. The elite performers were extremely disciplined, consistent, and deliberate, and when they weren’t practicing, they left it behind. They relaxed. Their success resulted from focused effort over time—deliberate practice—not from cramming practice into every waking hour. So, it turns out, fun and leisure is not a distraction from professional mastery. On the contrary, it’s likely a key component.

Adapted Excerpt from The Fun Habit by Mike Rucker, published by Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2023 by Michael Rucker. All rights reserved.

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