Recently I have been thinking a lot about what makes our work lives feel meaningful and valuable. I currently have a job where I am not continuously busy. I’m not flooded with emails all day long, I don’t have a lot of pressure from a multitude of reports to complete, and I don’t have an endless string of asks from a supervisor. A lot of my friends seem to be a bit jealous of me, but the truth is that I would switch jobs with most of them.
Cal Newport in his book Deep Work explains how deep focus can be a lot more meaningful than shallow work which doesn’t thoroughly engage the mind and doesn’t provide much value. Newport writes, “To increase the time you spend in a state of depth is to leverage the complex machinery of the human brain in a way that for several different neurological reasons maximizes the meaning and satisfaction you’ll associate with your working life.”
I wouldn’t necessarily want a job where I was running around like crazy, putting out fires, never getting to focus on any deep work, but I would prefer to have a job where real concentration and focus was necessary in order for me to get important things done. Most of my friends probably want a job where they have less stress and fewer time crunches, and as I described in a previous post, this could probably be achieved in their busy jobs by cutting out email and focusing their schedule around their deep and important work.
What is interesting in the quote from Newport is that our minds feel best and find meaning when they are engaged with important work that requires focus. It is not when our minds get to kick back, follow a twitter stream, and check up on sports celebrities that we are the most happy. It is having meaningful work to contribute to and a chance to focus deeply that makes work meaningful and worthwhile. We shouldn’t set out to have cushiony job that doesn’t place many demands on us. Instead, the research seems to suggest, we should set out to find a job that allows us to build good habits of focused work and contribute toward a meaningful cause. This will help our brains feel fulfilled, and will give us a chance to leverage the complex machinery of our brains, rather than allow that machinery to atrophy.