Loving Your Job: Work Doesn’t Have to Suck

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "168 Hours" by Laura Vanderkam. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are you happy at your job? What are some things you can do to improve your job satisfaction?

Your job satisfaction inevitably affects the rest of your life. Being happy at work is linked to better physical and mental health—the lack of which may drain the energy you need both to enjoy your personal life and succeed at work.

Time management expert Laura Vanderkam explains why loving your job is so important and how you can increase your job satisfaction by creating your perfect position. 

Why You Should Do Work You Love

Vanderkam argues that if you want to have a meaningful life, you must intentionally choose work you love for two main reasons. First, you spend many hours at work, so your job satisfaction inevitably affects the rest of your life: If you like your job, you’ll have more energy to enjoy your personal life. If you hate your job, your dissatisfaction will lead to lower energy throughout the rest of the week. 

Second, Vanderkam argues that if you enjoy your job, you’re more likely to achieve more in your career. When your job involves your unique strengths, you enjoy it more. When you enjoy your job, you spend more hours working—and thus are more likely to become an expert in your field. That’s because research indicates that to excel at a skill, you must spend 10,000 hours of deliberate practice on it, meaning you concentrate and zero in on your weak spots so that you can improve. So to reach the highest level in your career, you must spend 10,000 hours deliberately practicing your work (and the related skills)—which you’ll only do if you genuinely adore your work. 

Create Your Perfect Position

Now that you’ve learned why loving your job is so important, how can you do so? Vanderkam suggests that you must create your perfect position, a job that has four main elements. First, you enjoy and are good at the work (because it involves your unique strengths), so you’re willing to do the work even without the prospect of external rewards. Second, you have some control over how you do the work; for example, you can decide what time you want to work. Third, the work is hard but not too hard—and so provides regular opportunities to enter “flow,” a mental state in which you’re so immersed in the activity that you lose track of time. Fourth, you work in a supportive environment; for example, you have great bosses. 

Vanderkam states that once you know your perfect position, you must create it. You’ll likely not be able to find it, since your perfect position is tailored to your strengths and preferences. You thus have two main options when creating this position. 

How Others Define a Good Job

In Nine Lies About Work, the authors make similar arguments regarding what constitutes a good job: They note that deliberately choosing work you love will give you a sense of purpose that leads to fulfillment. They add that employees who set their own goals perform better than those whose goals are imposed by the company. And they explain that being part of a supportive, collaborative team motivates employees more than perks do. 

Additionally, the authors say your work should provide regular opportunities to enter flow. However, they don’t specify that flow comes from work that’s hard but not too hard. Rather, they state that your work should involve your strengths, and regularly entering flow at work indicates that your work involves your strengths. Additional signs that your work involves your strengths are that you look forward to practicing your work skills and that you have a sense of contentment after you do your work. 

Unlike Vanderkam, the authors don’t recommend that you create a position that’s uniquely tailored to your strengths and preferences. Rather, they suggest adjusting how you do your current work so that you spend 20% of your time doing work you love, which will greatly decrease your risk of burnout. Twice a year, spend a week categorizing your tasks into a) tasks that energize you and b) tasks you tend to put off. Deliberately incorporate the tasks in the first group into your work so that they take up at least 20% of your time. Then, manage the tasks that you hate by avoiding them (if possible), combining them with something you enjoy, or working with someone to make a task less burdensome.

Start Your Own Company

The first option to create your perfect position is to start your own company. This might involve chasing a lifelong dream; for example, you might finally open the bakery you’ve always dreamed of having. Alternatively, this might involve starting a company that’s not necessarily aligned with your passions but increases the control and support you have in your life. For example, you might not love accounting but having your own accounting firm will give you the flexibility to work remotely. 

(Shortform note: In The $100 Startup, Chris Guillebeau also suggests that having your own company will increase the control you have over your schedule and thus your life. Guillebeau recommends that you start a microbusiness, which is typically run by one person, selling a single product that you love. You can start a microbusiness with just $100 and no loans, and if your dream is to sell a product, it can help you fulfill a lifelong dream. And once your business is up and running,  you’ll be able to outsource tasks so that you can focus more on what matters.) 

Adjust Your Current Position

The second option is to adjust your current position so it’s more closely aligned with your ideal. Vanderkam writes that most employers prioritize their bottom line—so they’re often not picky about exactly what you do, as long as it brings in profit. As such, they’ll likely be willing to adjust your position in the way you want, as long as you frame your desire in a way that prioritizes their profit margin. For example, say you spend half your time marketing a product and half your time selling it, but you’re the top salesperson in your company and hate marketing. If you say, “I could double my sales if I didn’t spend all this time marketing,” your company may be willing to let you reduce or eliminate your marketing responsibilities.

How to Adjust Your Current Position

Other experts agree with Vanderkam that your employer will likely be flexible about how you work as long as your efforts bring in profit. Before asking to adjust your position, make sure you’ve mastered your current responsibilities: Your boss will be more open to your requests if you’ve proven your worth to the company. 

When you do discuss a potential shift in your tasks, don’t jump immediately into your request, as this will put your boss on edge. Instead, get your boss onboard with your plan by first describing both your gratitude for your current role and your vision for the future, and then make your request. For example, you might say, “I love working here and love how selling our products helps improve others’ lives, and I want to do my best to make our customers happy. I would love to spend more time on sales instead of marketing.”

Schedule Your Perfect Position

Whether you’re starting a business or adjusting your current position, Vanderkam argues that you should schedule your time well using a three-step process:

1) Decide what you mean by ‘work.’ Vanderkam asserts that anything that involves your unique strengths and furthers your career is work; any other task, even if it’s required for your job, is not work because it’s not helping you. 

To discover what constitutes work, first review your bucket list and pull out your professional goals. Then, map out what you’d need to do over the next year, five years, and 10 years to achieve those goals. Break down your yearly goals into monthly and weekly steps, and decide how much time each step requires—either by researching or by reviewing your own experience. 

Once you have a clear idea of what work you should be doing, plot it in your schedule.  Vanderkam suggests that you work at least 30 hours per week—even if you’re working part time. If you work fewer than 30 hours, you won’t be productive enough to reach your career goals; if you work too many hours, you’ll grow tired and become unproductive. So you want to hit a sweet spot where you’re working enough to be productive without overexerting yourself.

Other Opinions on Redefining Work And Deciding How Much Time to Spend on It  

In Your Money or Your Life, Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin also suggest that you redefine work. However, they define work as any activity you do that aligns with your purposes and dreams. So finding the right work doesn’t involve mapping out a 10-year career plan, as Vanderkam recommends; it involves finding your purpose and dreams. To identify your purpose, try identifying your pain: If you’ve navigated a tough experience, you may have expertise to help others in similar situations. To identify your dreams, imagine that you only have one year left to live, and consider what you’d do during that time.

Once you identify what work you should be doing, how much time should you spend on it? Some experts agree with Vanderkam’s suggestion that 30 hours of work is ideal because your focus declines beyond that point. However, this ignores the economic reality of many people, who are financially incapable of devoting merely 30 hours a week to their work, especially if it includes both paid work and unpaid activities that further their career: A July 2022 report says that, due to inflation, more Americans than ever were taking on two full-time jobs and working over 70 hours weekly to support themselves. 

2) Focus on your work. When you’re scheduled to work, focus solely on activities that further your career. Your 30-hour minimum shouldn’t include any time that you spend distracted or doing tasks that help your company but not your career. And don’t allow yourself to get behind—make contingency plans for potential issues that might arise during your work time, like a back-up babysitter you can call if your nanny is sick. And if you aren’t able to work as planned, immediately readjust the rest of your schedule so that you still achieve your weekly work goal.

(Shortform note: Whatever hours you spend at work, maximize the chances that you’ll stay focused by tracking your attention, as Chris Bailey suggests in Hyperfocus. For a few days, set an alarm to go off every hour. Each time it goes off, note what you’re supposed to be doing and what you are doing instead. By doing so, you’ll discover what tends to distract you so that you can make contingency plans and readjust your schedule not just for emergencies but for regular time wasters. For example, if your five-minute Instagram breaks often stretch into 20 minutes, move your phone from your desk and take five-minute stretch breaks instead.)

3) Delete, diminish, or delegate any job tasks that don’t fit your definition of work. To delete tasks, remove yourself from projects that won’t further your career. To diminish tasks, devote most of your schedule to actual work and schedule small blocks of time for minor but necessary tasks such as returning phone calls. To delegate tasks, assign non-unique strength tasks to someone who can do them better than you can.  

Other Perspectives on Reducing Your Job Tasks

What if the supposed distractions from your work are job tasks that don’t fit in Vanderkam’s definition of work? Unlike Vanderkam, Your Money or Your Life authors Dominguez and Robin don’t recommend that you delete, delegate, or diminish these tasks. Rather, they note that your work can be paid or unpaid, and suggest that you reframe your point of view: Even if your paid work isn’t necessarily aligned with your purposes and dreams, choosing to see it as the avenue that allows you to pursue the unpaid work you care about will help you find meaning in unsatisfying tasks.

Dominguez and Robin’s recommendations may be more realistic than Vanderkam’s depending on your sex, your culture, and your title. In Invisible Women, Caroline Criado Perez points out that, if you’re a woman, refusing administrative work (like taking notes at meetings) makes you seem unlikable to your male colleagues and thus may harm your career. In The Culture Map, Erin Meyer points out that some cultures adhere to schedules only broadly, so you may be unable to devote several hours a day to actual work because you have no idea whether a phone call will take five minutes or two hours. And if you’re in a junior position at a company, you may lack the authority to delegate a non-unique strength task to someone else. 
Loving Your Job: Work Doesn’t Have to Suck

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  • How to fit a career, time with your loved ones, and leisure time into your schedule
  • How to be intentional with how you spend your time
  • Why you're spending too much time watching TV

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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