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Why it is important to know the purpose of your job and what to do with this knowledge.
This is being a tough year. Tough times make us grow and improve, and as this is the time for a Great Reset as a society, it is also the right time for a Great Reset as a person. I don’t know about you, but for me the lockdown has been the perfect time for introspection and thinking about my life: where I’m coming from, where I am right now and where I would like to go.
One of the most important parts of our lives is our job. For some, it may be only that boring thing you need to do to get paid and be able to pay the bills, but it is also where we spend a big part of our time and energy, and for many of us it can be the source of status, self-realization, dignity, recognition, purpose and many other positive things.
Purpose is an important one. We can and should find purpose outside work, but a job in itself can give some sense of purpose to our lives. For that to happen first we need to realize the purpose the job itself has. What does my job exist for? How does it create value? What would happen if it didn’t exist?
I think these are questions we all should be regularly asking about our jobs, but in my experience, this doesn’t happen so often.
The purpose of your job
Asking these questions is important for several reasons:
1. Value alignment.
Knowing the purpose of your job allows you to align your job with your personal values. For example, I am an HR Director, so the purpose of my job is to build an effective team that will make the company successful. I do that by recruiting and promoting the best talent, by training, coaching, and mentoring them and by helping create the right team atmosphere and dynamics. This purpose is aligned with some of my personal values, like caring for others and helping them grow, which makes me enjoy my work and value it.
2. Engagement and job satisfaction.
This is linked to the previous point. If you realize that the purpose of your job and your values are aligned, you will be more engaged and motivated to perform well. It is actually the only way to be really engaged, and dare I say it, happy at work. Extrinsic motivators like free food, a high salary, and other perks may work for a short period of time, but if what you are doing is not aligned with your values, you will be miserable. Coming back to my previous example, there are different ways in which you can be an HR Director, and not all of them have a purpose I can relate to (let’s face it, we HR folks aren’t the most admired people in a company), so I feel engaged for being able to work in a role in which I can help develop people.
3. Effectiveness and Productivity.
Knowing the purpose of your job makes you much more effective and productive at it. It is very simple and logical: when you understand well the purpose of your job, you know what is important and what isn’t, so you can prioritize better and focus on what will have a real impact. If I know that the purpose of my job is to build a great team and not to answer my emails or attend meetings, I will organize my workload and priorities accordingly, and I will focus my time on what really matters: talking to people, both internally and externally and understanding the business needs.
Stop running like a hamster
It is shocking how many people today don’t really know why they are doing what they are doing. Their job is shaped by the emails and the meeting requests they receive. They are going from meeting to meeting, like a headless chicken, without stopping one moment to think: how is this meeting helping me to achieve my goals? If the purpose of my job is X, is this meeting helping me achieve it?
I must admit that it often happens to me too. The deluge of emails and meeting requests I receive often makes me forget what my real purpose is and where I should focus on. These are moments in which you have to stop for a second, breathe, and consider what you are doing and how this adds value and helps achieve your purpose.
If you are an employee of a company, it helps to think that the company you work for is spending some money on having you working for them because they expect you to add value in some way, be it by increasing sales, reducing costs, enhancing brand awareness, fostering innovation or enforcing compliance and avoiding fines. Nobody pays you to attend meetings or respond to emails. If those emails or meetings don’t help you achieve your ultimate purpose, ignore them.
These days many people seem to be running on a hamster wheel, just keeping busy, with the wrong assumption that they are getting paid for being busy. The busier they are, the more they justify them being there, until someday someone will realize they are busy but not adding much. It is time to stop behaving like a hamster, come off that wheel.
Pareto Principle or the 80/20 rule
Everybody has heard the Pareto Principle or the 80/20 rule, which can be applied to most areas of our lives. Applied to work, it means that 80% of the impact on your job will be created by the 20% of effort, or if you flip it around, 80% of your effort will only bring 20% of results. Usually, most of those emails and innumerable meetings will be included in this 80% effort that brings so little value.
If you could focus on that 20% of high added value tasks you would achieve your goals much faster and with less effort, or you could even overachieve your results. For example, is it possible to dedicate 30% of your time to those tasks, and achieve 120% of results, thus increasing the scope of your work?
This is not always possible, and it will depend on the nature of the job itself, but it is worth stopping once in a while, evaluating what we are doing and defining which tasks are high value and which ones aren’t.
If you haven’t read Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, I recommend you do. It explains how we are living in a distracted world; our attention being continuously disrupted by social media, emails, meetings, and constant interruptions. This makes it difficult to conduct “deep work”, which is the quality work for which we need high levels of concentration.
Newport works in academia, so he needs to conduct deep work to conduct his research and write his papers, but anybody in the knowledge economy needs to dedicate some of his or her work time to deep work, be it to prepare a client presentation, write a report or conduct an analysis of an important document.
Writing this article supposes deep work for me, and for that, I need to switch off my email notifications and leave my phones on airplane mode. Like many others, my attention span is not what it used to be, and I get easily distracted, but thanks to this book I’m paying more attention to this and improving here, slowly but firmly.
Instead of focusing more on deep work for important tasks, we are increasingly condemned to conduct shallow work, jumping from small task to small task, feeling fulfilled because we have cleared our inbox of emails and we have attended four back to back meetings, but without stopping to think how these tasks have helped us to fulfill our purpose.
We should focus on what is important to achieve our goals, then organize our calendars to achieve them, leaving time for deep work every day (you should also leave time to respond to emails and have meetings; despite everything I said above, they often need to be done too!). When you have blocked one or two hours for deep work in a morning (it is difficult to be fully concentrated for more than an hour, and Newport thinks we can at most dedicate 4.5 hours to fully-dedicated deep work in a day), you should avoid any distractions during that time, even if that implies switching your phone off. When you are conducting that task, you should be fully dedicated to it.
It is the opposite approach to multitasking, which has been put in the highest altar of deities in the modern management religion. I’m agnostic to this religion and I would like to commend the virtues of monotasking: do one thing at a time but do it with your full attention. Your results will improve.
The purposeful company
As I have already written here, companies do not exist only to make money for their shareholders, they have a societal purpose to fulfill beyond the maximization of profits. Some companies are clearer than others about this, and this will allow them to connect better with their consumers, but also with their employees.
As Simon Sinek explained in his famous book “Start with Why” (link to book and TED Talk), consumers and employees connect with the WHY or purpose of a company and this is what builds their loyalty to the brand, not its products or the price. They connect with the WHY, not with the WHAT or HOW.
If you are working for a company, I would suggest you stop for a moment to think about your purpose in that company and the overall purpose of the company itself. Is your job’s purpose aligned with your values? Does it make you happy and motivated? Is it a purpose worth getting up from bed for every day?
And what about the purpose of the company? Is it aligned with your values? Is the purpose of your job aligned with it? Do you see you have an impact on achieving its goals?
Maybe I am asking too many questions, but they are important. If you answered YES to all or most of these questions, you are lucky and you are probably content and engaged in your current job.
If on the other hand, you have answered NO to any or several of these questions, chances are you will be miserable in your job.
We are in the middle of a global pandemic and an unprecedented economic crisis, so probably it isn’t the best time to jump ship and change jobs if you feel secure in yours, but think about it and start planning on how you can change to a job and company in which the purpose of the job and the company motivate you and are aligned with your values.
You will not regret it.