How to build a bridge between your work and your purpose
As work and the rest of life blur together, we need to be increasingly intentional about how we spend our time and respectful of the fact that we bring our whole selves to everything we do. In her new book, How We Work, contemplative scholar Leah Weiss helps us to reframe the classic “work/life” dichotomy by using the power of intention and reflection to establish and pursue our purpose. Leah Weiss earned her master’s degree in social work and her doctorate in theology and education. She teaches compassionate leadership at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and is a principal teacher at Stanford’s Compassion Cultivation Program, conceived by the Dalai Lama. We spoke with Weiss about the problems with how we think about work/life balance.
What’s wrong with the work/life dichotomy?
The framing doesn’t actually make sense because, the fact is, there’s just life. We do move through various roles in our lives, but when we really try to separate who we are at work and who we are in the rest of our lives, we start to develop some destructive tendencies, such as suppressing emotions at work.
There’s not a version of me at work that doesn’t have three kids out in the world. It’s important that we recognize that we can’t compartmentalize our lives in that way. And with the reality of how we work today—where many of us work over 55 hours a week and have to check our emails at night—it’s even less possible to pretend like we have different versions of who we are at work and who we are at home.
But don’t you think boundaries are important? When people talk about “work/life balance” I think they’re pointing toward the fact that work has a way of taking over everything else in life.
It’s not that we don’t have boundaries, but we need to think about them in a different way. We need to be looking at our lives as a whole. How much am I getting done, workwise? Am I spending time with relationships that matter to me? Am I taking care of myself? It’s not just work and the rest of life, it’s all part of one life.
When the boundaries between work and the rest of life are so porous, how can a person even start to think about how to answer the questions about how they’re spending their time?
This is when mindfulness becomes so important. Mindfulness can give us this ability to have a meta- awareness of how we’re spending our time while we’re spending our time. We can be aware of how we’re spending our time and make choices about how we’re living.
For example, when my little boys come home from nursery school at 1 p.m., I don’t take a half-assed break. I take an actual break for maybe 20 or 30 minutes. I can plan my day so that I have a late lunch and then I can be actually engaging with my kids for that half-hour. Then I can intentionally end that exchange and go back and do some more work until everybody comes home at 4 p.m. At that point, I have to make a decision: Am I going to stop working for the moment and be with my kids? Or am I going to try to keep working? If I’m trying to work and be with my kids at the same time, I’m not going to be doing either effectively. They’ll be frustrated because they’re not getting my whole attention and I won’t be doing good work. Mindfulness can help us own the choices we’re making about where we place our attention and how we spend our time.
A common critique of the mindfulness boom in corporate America is that it basically helps workers to adjust their attitudes so that they can tolerate an oppressive environment. How you would respond to that critique?
You could make the same critique about any workplace well-being initiatives, whether they’re for our physical or mental health. You could say that the reason that some employees get a gym membership is so that they stay in better shape and we can work longer and more effectively. The same thing is true with mindfulness. This is a fair concern and it’s part of the reason why the definition of mindfulness that I favor includes attention and intention. You always have to think for yourself and make your own decisions.
Yes, if there’s a workplace program that a company is putting money into, they’re going want to see an upside for them. But that doesn’t have to be at cross-purposes of having an upside for you.
“Even within one job, there’s a whole diversity of mindsets that you can take to it.”
A lot of the stats that you cite in How We Work paint a grim picture of work in America. Two big takeaways are that a lot of the workforce is unengaged at work and that people are very stressed at work. I hear what you’re saying about people needing to think for themselves and own their decisions, but how much of dealing with work-related stress is the responsibility of individuals to self-regulate their emotions and how much is out of their hands due to social and economic systems?
That’s a great question. It raises other important questions about privilege and equity. Someone who has more flexibility in their job is going have more control over how they spend their time than someone who is in a more manual labor type of job, where you don’t usually get as much choice about where you’re spending your time. And so, you could argue that those with more privilege have more responsibility to self-regulate.
But an interesting thing, I think, is that mindset is really important to people in all kinds of different roles at work. Amy Wrzesniewski at the Yale School of Management has looked at this in her research involving hospital janitors. What she found is that there is a range of perspectives that hospital janitors use when framing their work. Some people said that they ended up in their job out of necessity, that they needed the paycheck. For them, the dignity of their work was that they were doing it for their family. But other people also in the same role saw their work as more of a calling. They framed their work by saying things like, “If I don’t do my job well, then patients will die because there will be infection. I’m an instrumental part of the care team.” People with this kind of orientation would be more likely to make relationships with patients that lasted even after patients left the hospital. All of this is to say that, even within one job, there’s a whole diversity of mindsets that you can take to it.
This research doesn’t negate questions about privilege, equity, access, and education. But it does suggest that when we find ourselves in positions where we can’t control the externals, there are things we can do to make ourselves healthier and better off.
Similar to what you were just saying about how some people see their work as a calling, you write a lot about purpose in How We Work. Purpose seems like such a lofty goal for many of us that it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the idea of pursuing it in our work. Why is it important to have a sense of purpose? And how can we begin to get a clear sense of our purpose?
Purpose is important because people who have a strong sense of purpose are healthier and more resilient. When we have purpose, it creates a whole underlying meaningful way of perceiving our day-to-day lives.
But, you’re right, purpose can be overwhelming and sometimes your purpose is simply to survive. You might need to just make it through the day, do a good enough job at work, and then figure out what the heck is for dinner tonight for your kids. The way many people experience their life, it’s not like they’re going to find a free hour on the calendar during which they’re going to contemplate their purpose.
The upshot then becomes: How can we reflect on our purpose without its becoming just another thing on the to-do list? It can be a quick reflection when you wake up in the morning. You can ask yourself, “What matters most today?” And you can ask yourself this question throughout the day so that you’re clear about your priorities. How can I live this day with the highest integrity, the best quality of attention, and build my relationships?
Do you think asking ourselves these kinds of questions throughout the day is the best strategy for staying connected to a sense of purpose?
I think that’s one good way to do it. Another way to start the conversation with ourselves about purpose is to ask, “What was I initially so excited to contribute to the world through my work?” Something might have changed after an initial spark sent you in a certain direction, but it can be helpful to remember how you got where you are. What was it that led me to go to social work school when I was 23 years old? Who did I want to be then? What did I want to contribute to the world? Once I can remember that version of myself, how would I update that today?
Another way to go about it is to look over your previous week. What activities for work and outside of work most lit you up? What did you feel most passionate about? What made the biggest difference to the people around you? We can identify those specific activities in our life now and home in on what gives us the most uplift.
We’ve talked a bit about the importance of setting intentions when working toward a purpose. You also encourage people to engage in practices of reflection after working on something. Why is the practice of reflection important?
Most of us are to-do list ninjas. We get one thing done and then we’re moving on to the next. But if we don’t pause to reflect after doing something, then we don’t have a chance to learn from what was working well. Or maybe we have a mistaken narrative about what we care about working on. Perhaps you say that you really want to do work on behalf of the environment, but then you don’t ever end up doing it. If you pause to reflect, you can ask, “Why didn’t I do it?” Or, if you did do the work, you can reflect on how it felt. What did you learn from that experiment? If we don’t stop and reflect, we can’t correct our course when we’re on the wrong path.
Top-Down and Bottom-Up Guide to FINDING YOUR PURPOSE
Understanding our drives and motivations enables us to invest in the things that help us live our purpose. If you’re not sure what your purpose is, you can help define it by doing both a “top- down” and a “bottom-up” assessment. The top-down assessment examines the big picture first. Then the bottom-up assessment examines the small, separate activities, observations, and exchanges that make up the big picture.
From the Top Down
Make a list of your top five to 10 values.
Inventory your work and personal calendar. First, look at whether the ways you spend your time offer an accurate expression of your values. For example, if giving is important to you, do you have time on your calendar to volunteer or give in other ways that are meaningful to you? Next, put a + or – next to each item on your calendar, indicating whether the activity energizes or drains you. Finally, looking at your time holistically, note how much of it is spent on activities that are invigorating and how much is spent on things that are depleting.
Look again at which values matter to you. If you’ve made note of values that apply only to a work context, expand your list to include your family, community, and spiritual beliefs.
Ask people you trust what they would say you care about or what brings you energy and excitement.
Identify gaps between what makes you tick and your current actions. For example, are there values that you care about deeply that you don’t spend any time enacting? What could you do differently to allocate more time or attention to the things that matter?
From the Bottom Up
Keep a journal for a week. During that time, note which activities, observations, and exchanges drain you and which ones make you feel good.
Set a calendar reminder to review your journal. When you do, look for patterns: Can you identify insights or make generalizations about cause-and-effect relationships?
Make a list of people you admire and mark down traits of theirs that you value. Ask yourself whether you embody any of these traits, and if not, think about why not.
After completing both the top-down and bottom-up assessments to identify your purpose, write down any revelations you’ve had. What has the exercise revealed? Which gaps between your purpose and your actions do you want to address?
Adapted from How We Work: Live Your Purpose, Reclaim Your Sanity, and Embrace the Daily Grind, published this March by HarperCollins.