Chances are, you used to be excited about work. Work didn’t seem like a chore. You went to work because you wanted to work, not because you needed to.
Work wasn’t an ATM. It wasn’t where you punched in your time. And pulled out your money.
Where you feel like you’re being held against your will, doing something you don’t want to, or that doesn’t seem needed. Working without enthusiasm, can be soul-crushing.
Mind-numbing. Physically defeating. Are you feeling depressed about your work?
How do I know?
I was there. And I would hate for anyone else to have that experience of not having enthusiasm at work, dragging their feet to work, feeling like you are jailed to your work.
Like you are doing time at work. Like you are serving out a sentence.
You don’t need to.
Let’s get this clear. You’re not going to feel enthusiastic about work everyday.
There are days when you will do things that you dislike. There are days when someone gives you a bad day, whether it be a client or a nasty colleague.
There are things outside of your control. But there are ways that you can raise your level of excitement at work.
That starts with principles. Don’t look at this article as a series of quick tips.
Rather, look at it as a series of foundations that you can build in your perspectives to work to help yourself to build more fulfilling work.
Stop doing things you hate or are bad at
Growing up in Singapore, I tried to follow my parents’ perceptions of what a ‘safe’ path would be. In junior college, the two years of study that come before university in Singapore, I followed their advice. I picked the science subjects.
But I hated them.
And I was bad at them. It was not as if I didn’t know this. In high school, I did consistently well at subjects involving the English language. My strengths were in speaking and writing. But I chose to please my parents, rather than play to my strengths.
We were doing a Chemistry experiment once. We were supposed to use potassium permanganate, a purple reagent, to test for the presence of a substance in a beaker.
I added the purple reagent, and then some deionised water from a bottle you squeezed. There was a tube at the end of this bottle so that you could aim properly.
I accidentally let the tube down into the purple reagent, and promptly turned the whole bottle purple.
I started laughing uncontrollably. Another classmate snapped at me.
Stop playing! Don’t you realise how serious this is?
That left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. I knew I was bad at this. I didn’t need someone else to remind about that. That afternoon, I ended up writing an angry note directed at the classmate who had scolded me.
I hate you! Why can’t you just care about your own business and do your own work? Why do you have to stick your nose in everyone’s affairs?
Who do you think you are?
Fortunately, I didn’t send that to her. Thank God that my Blackberry still existed at that time.
Looking back, that was the moment I realised how much I lost my joy at the work I was doing.
You know this already. You’re not good at certain things. You detest certain work.
Why do you force yourself to do them?
Before even looking at finding enthusiasm at work, get rid of the things that don’t bring you enthusiasm at work.
You might say,
But I’m at a job! How can I possibly get rid of the things my boss tells me to do?
Here’s some ways.
Delegate it out.
Someone else might actually like what you hate. Why don’t you let them do it? Talk to your supervisor about how you can add value in other ways, and how this may not be the best route for your contribution to shine.
Get an intern to do it.
Don’t you love interns? They do the work you don’t want to do.
No, I’m just kidding.
But interns are there as an option to help you with the work that you hate doing or that you’re not good at. be clear about what the learning objective for them is.
Don’t force yourself to do something you don’t like, just because you’re told to do it. You probably haven’t explored enough about other things you can do.
Swap between the learning and performance zone
You’re not finding work more exciting because… chances are… you’re doing the same thing, at the same quality.
You’re not growing in your skill at what you do. That’s why things are becoming mind-numbing and boring. In any work you do, you want to know that you’re growing in your progress and achievement. You want to see yourself improving in the quality of your output. That’s what gives you the sense of achievement.
You look at your output from a year ago, and you compare it to today… and you see yourself having grown by leaps and bounds.
Actively switching between the learning and performance zone will help you to be more intentional about growing your base of skill. This concept was introduced by Eduardo Briceño in his great Ted talk – How to get better at the things you’re good at.
When you’re working, you’re performing. When you’re learning, you’re building the skills for better performance. Actively take efforts to grow your skill. Reflect on what you’ve done in both learning and performance.
Two simple questions you can ask yourself are:
- What did I do well?
- How can I do better?
Mix it up by volunteering for more tasks that fit your skillset
Enthusiasm at work comes from variety. It comes from knowing that each day, there’s something different to do.
If there isn’t, offer to do it. It’s not about being the chiong-sua, crazy, bootlicking colleague that volunteers to do everything for the boss. But it’s about building variety in your work so that you can find better joy in it.
Play to your skills
Every male Singaporean needs to serve two years in National Service. If you can imagine studying, you can imagine the shock of National Service. From books, you’re suddenly shaven bald, thrust onto an island, and trained to be a killing machine.
You learn to strip a rifle. You learn to throw a grenade. And you learn to do boring things. Like shine your boots. Clean your rifle for 3 hours. Exercise until you drop.
Being in the army failed to use many of the skills I had honed over the years. It was also in the army that I found out what could happen when you did not play to your skills.
I found out the hard way.
It’s October 2015. I’m lying awake in my bunk, unable to fall asleep. My mind has been churning and churning. I can’t sleep, because I don’t know what’s next for my life. All I know is that tomorrow, I have to go on another field exercise.
I’ve to go and set up the howitzer again. I’ve to put on that smelly vest and my sweat-soaked uniforms. All I know is that I’m horrible at doing that. I would force myself to run, to do my best, but somehow, I would be the burden to the team.
And I’m sick and tired of it. In fact, I’m so sick and tired of it that I’m ready to end my life. I didn’t know how to get my life back on track.
I go up to the rooftop. The block is only 5 storeys. The roof has been left open from my other bunkmates who regularly go up to steal a smoke.
I look down at the ground below.
It’s 5 storeys. Is it enough to die from?
That morning, I was saved by a call from a friend, who reminded of the skills I had…and still have.
Do you know what your skills are? In gaining enthusiasm at work, you may think that it’s doing more of what you like.
That’s true, but that’s not all.
It’s about doing things you’re good at. You’re unique at something. You can do something that not everyone else can do. But the question is, are you living that out through your work? Or is your work actively hampering your chances to use the skills you’re good at?
Don’t let it.
Push yourself just outside your skills
Finding enthusiasm at work is not about doing easy work. It’s about doing work that lies just outside your comfort zone, and where you feel like you’re growing. You’re challenged.
That’s what you’re looking for.
You’re not looking for comfort. You’re looking for challenge.
Improving your enthusiasm at work is about finding flow.
Introduced by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, this state of flow comes when you’re fully engaged in what you’re doing. When you’re in flow, you forget about time.
As you can see from the graph below, the flow zone rests between the state of boredom and anxiety. The task difficulty is just outside your comfort zone.
Here’s how. Set targets on your input. Very often, we focus on our output, the end-product, without focusing on the input. The input is what brings you to the output.
Therefore, focusing on the input can be a way to add challenge to your work.
For example, in pushing myself out of my own comfort zone, I set challenges for myself. I tell myself that I will write one article a day for 30 days, to improve the skill of writing.
Similarly, are there challenges you can set for yourself at work?
Some creative ideas may include:
- Finishing a task way ahead of schedule
- Bringing in a new idea to a task and executing it
Now, you may ask me – how do I do that when I have no control over the work that is given to me?
Here are some things to consider in the job you currently do.
Know why you’re in the job
You may be in a job for different reasons. Whatever your reason is, you need to know what that reason is. You can’t be expecting to find your passion in a job which you’re there for just a paycheck.
During this COVID pandemic, I’ve met many people who do jobs like Deliveroo, Foodpanda, or GrabFood. Ask them why they do it and it’s clear.
Its not because they have a passion for delivering food. It’s simply a means to get money to put food in their stomachs. Nothing more.
They aren’t expecting to find enthusiasm in their work.
Look at the list below, adapted from Bruce Tulgan’s great book – Not Everyone Gets a Trophy. Ask yourself what kind of reason fits you best, in your current role.
Of course, the best reason is the last, where you see your job as a self-building job. You want to grow your employer’s work, with your employer, doing the work that fits you.
Find work that fits
The next step is to find work that fits your skills. If you’re struggling to find enthusiasm doing a data entry job which you hate, you’re not good at, and which you’re not happy at, why are you doing more of it?
Jobs are essentially learning experiences. If you’re not learning anything you want on the job, forget it. Walk out and find a new one.
There’s only so many days in your life. Don’t waste your life working in a place which you know you can’t contribute your best work, and where you aren’t happy.
How do you find enthusiasm in your work? For all that’s said and done, it’s about looking within. Knowing that what’s within, makes up for everything you think you’re without. Like joy, passion, and enthusiasm.
Play from a base of skill and strength. Because it’s there where you find personal power, joy, and meaning.