How to make a boring job better

January 31, 2014

Stuck Moment: Once upon a time, your job was shiny and exciting and new. Lately, however, you’re a little bored, a little unchallenged, and maybe feeling a little underappreciated. You fantasize about working someplace where you feel a bigger sense of purpose and achievement… But, in the meantime, you’ve got eight hours to get through. Is it time to check Facebook again?

“Do what you love,” a very successful CEO once said, in praise of going wherever your heart takes you. It’s a stirring philosophy that calls on us to live the lives we imagine, no matter how bold, no matter the cost.

On the other hand, there’s something just as inspiring about flipping that equation, about finding ways to love the job you’re already in — right here and right now. Yes, one day we might explore what’s over the rainbow, but in the meantime, it’s always possible to take the raw material of our present lives and shape it into something that better matches our hearts and minds. 

But don’t take our word for it. Your fellow Unstuck readers shared 20 ways that have helped them make their work more fulfilling without having to leave their jobs.

Invest in yourself
“Try to do things that strengthen who you are,” says Unstuck reader Laurel Miller. A blogger, graphic designer, and entrepreneur, Laurel is confident that her strengths and passion lie in her creativity. She has big dreams and never stops working on them. But to ensure a steady income, she’s done whatever it takes: waitress, work retail, blend smoothies, and pay her dues at offices where everyone was twice her age. And at every gig, she looks for ways to benefit from the experience, “whether it be financially or idealistically.”

Here’s how she does that:

• Set goals. Laurel has a meeting with herself every Monday morning to establish objectives, and figure out how to leverage her work assignments in a way that’s more fulfilling for her.

• Look for opportunities to increase your skills. Remember when you swore you’d never need math in the real world? Same goes for knowing how to change toner and use Excel.

• When you have downtime on the job, don’t use the web as a time and energy waster: “Try to go on the internet for a purpose!”

• Help others by volunteering your skills. You’ll stay engaged and build relationships.

• Connect with people who can help you, either with moral support, mentorship, or networking (but be genuine about it).

• “Don’t act like a know-it-all,” she says. You can always learn something, even when you least expect to.

• Avoid negative situations that cloud your focus. When Laurel feels drained by pessimistic energy around her, she takes a “five minute,” which might be a walk around the block or a few moments on her own to reset her mood.

• Keep a positive perspective. “Don’t let your eight hours define you. It’s not you,” Laurel says. Remember instead that, whatever the work your job requires, its ultimate benefit is to yourself.

Be your best with others — and let them be theirs
“People are what makes life interesting,” reader Kathy Andrews tells us. A children’s music teacher for 35 years, she says, “You would think I’d be totally bored with the subject. Same songs, same singing games, same everything year after year. Well, yes… but not really.”

Positive interactions with the people in your work life add color and warmth to your day. See these moments as opportunities to keep learning, growing, and challenging yourself. As Kathy says, “People are three dimensional, with different voices and a multitude of characteristics. You can’t program them, turn them off, or update them. You have to interact with them.” And when you do, she suggests:

• Be responsive and demonstrate patience: “I have to listen, to watch, to react, to motivate, to praise, to redirect so together we can reach the goal I’ve set.”

• Whenever possible: “Don’t direct or guide. Let people find their own way.” Your nerves will thank you, and your working relationship will be better.

• “Look for a new discovery emerging. People are fonts of creativity. Watch them as they overflow when given the time and breathing space.”

(Here are 21 more ways to connect at work.)

Make it fun
“In a perfect world we’d all have jobs we love,” Unstuck reader Sandra Fisher says. “But to pay the bills, one often must settle for a steady income.” Still, in her 46 years, Sandra has discovered, “You can have fun outside of work, and at work too.” For instance:

• “Engulf yourself in your work and the day flies by,” Sandra says. Avoiding or putting off tasks only makes the day harder in the long run. But getting things done creates a sense of accomplishment, which boosts energy and confidence.

• Find the fun in your work. If there’s an opportunity to show what you can do, do it.

• “Most employers appreciate someone who keeps morale high,” Sandra says. “Helping others laugh helps everyone. Share a funny story!”

• Make work more festive by celebrating birthdays or other special days. Bring in treats now or then. Give out cards.

• Make your workspace feel like it’s yours. Listen to music at your desk. Put up personal photos. Stock up on your preferred office supplies, like your favorite ink pen or that perfect notebook.

• Dress well. Your confidence will be contagious.

• Meet with friends for lunch.

• “Take your well-earned breaks,” Sandra says. Also try taking a personal or vacation day in the middle of the workweek.

• “Get out for a walk, several times a day if possible,” Sandra says. “It will not only give you fresh air, sunshine, and exercise, it reminds you that life outside of work is right there.”

Next week: How to nurture all the relationships in your life
Last week: Your guide to good office relationships

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