Doing That Meaningful Work You Have Been Avoiding

Leo Babauta, creator of the blog Zen Habits, reminds us that we each invariably have one meaningful task, endeavour or initiative that we keep putting off.  We find excuses, maintain our busyness, visit the fridge, go out for coffee or adopt any number of tactics to avoid facing up to the challenge of doing the one meaningful thing that we know we ought to do.  Leo describes this process of procrastination as our “habituated avoidance.”

What meaningful work are you avoiding?

Your avoidance may relate to developing a solution to a seemingly intractable problem; doing that significant blog post about a controversial topic; engaging with a particular ethnic group; volunteering your services to a charity; offering a special service to a group in need; joining a Men’s Shed; or undertaking any other meaningful work. 

Factors that could contribute to your habituated avoidance of the meaningful work can be many and varied, e.g. the work takes you out of your comfort zone; there is a chance you could be embarrassed; you may “fail” in what you are setting out to do; it could require significant courage to undertake the work; you could be perceived to be an “upstart”; or you might be challenged because you lack specific professional qualifications.

One of the things that I have been putting off that would fall into this category of meaningful work is the development and conduct of guided meditations via an online conference platform.  The reality is that through this blog (with over 350 posts) and its numerous hyperlinks to resources, I have what I need to create these guided meditations.  I also have experience conducting online conferences and have access to an online conference platform.  But what is stopping me from developing these valuable events?  I know that part of the reason is my uncertainty about the reliability of the online conference platform (or is this just an excuse?).  I find that even in the downtime between meetings with clients, planning training activities, facilitating workshops and writing this blog, I do not embrace the challenge of creating these online guided meditations – even when I have surplus time in my life.  To me, an important first step is to revisit the reason why the avoided “work” is significant or meaningful.

Revisiting your intention

Why is the work/task/endeavour meaningful?  What group or individual (family member, friend or work colleague) will benefit from your undertaking this work?  What are their needs that you can meet or partially address? In what way would your activity make a difference or improve the quality of their life? 

For example, The process of online guided meditations would enable me to help people who are experiencing anxiety or depression, mental health conditions that have reached epidemic proportions.  It would provide a way for them to connect with other people, use mindfulness to address some aspect of their adverse mental health condition, become aware of resources and support that are available to them and learn techniques and mindfulness practices that they can use outside the guided meditation experience.

Revisiting your intention in doing the meaningful work is important to tap into the motivation and energy needed to take the necessary steps to make that meaningful endeavour happen.  Spending time meditating on this intention can help to energise you to take action – and overcome the internal objections, self-doubts and excuses for inaction.  Leo offers three easy ways to translate this intention into action.

A simple Three-Step Method for getting your meaningful work done

Leo offers a 3-step method that is simple, time efficient and workable (he uses it himself with great effect! – you don’t create a blog with 2 million readers without successfully pushing through the inertia or the procrastination barrier).

  1. Create a space (a brief period that you can free up) – Leo suggests that this can even be 15 minutes, but it  is important to start now (or very soon so you don’t put it off).
  2. Meditate on meaning and feelings – tap back into your intention and what gives the planned work meaning or significance.  Having captured this meaning in your mind, do a body scan to tap into any fear, resistance, tension, anxiety or worry that you may be experiencing as the meaningful work comes clearer into focus – in the process release the tightness, pain or soreness.  Then really focus your attention on the people you will be helping – tap into your feelings, sense of loving-kindness, towards them (and experience your own positive emotions that accompany compassionate action).
  3. Do the smallest next step – do something that will progress your meaningful work, no matter how small it seems to you.  Translating intention into action, however small, sets your momentum in the right direction.  Small actions build to larger steps which, in turn, increase energy; provide reinforcement; develop motivation; and offer personal reward.

As you adopt these techniques for advancing your meaningful work, you will grow in mindfulness (internal and external awareness) and build your capacity to pursue creative endeavours to make a real difference for individuals or a group.  The insights gained will help you overcome inertia in relation to other things that you need to get done and the experience of overcoming procrastination in relation to your meaningful work, will flow into other arenas of your life.

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Image by Anemone123 from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Depression and the Loss of Connection To Meaningful Work

Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, was concerned about the extraordinary rise in the use of antidepressant drugs in America and the associated total focus on biological causes of depression.  He set about doing worldwide research on the social factors contributing to depression.  He was particularly interested in precursor events or situations that led to a person experiencing depression.  His research led him to identify nine social factors that were contributing to the alarming rise in the incidence of depression and suicide.  As the title of his book indicates, each of these social factors related to a “lost connection.”  He describes the first of these causal factors as “disconnection from meaningful work”.

Loss of connection to meaningful work

Johann’s research (and that of his colleagues) covered a range of people engaged in different kinds of work, usually at lower levels in organisations.  They found that certain job characteristics contributed to a loss of meaning for the worker.  This disconnection with meaningful work resonates with the Job Characteristics Model developed by Hackman and Oldham in the 1970s as a basis for the design of jobs that generated positive psychological states such as the experience of meaningfulness and personal responsibility.

Johann, drawing on his own research and that of his colleagues, identified several job characteristics in different contexts that contributed to the loss of connection to meaningful work and resulted in people experiencing depression:

  • Lack of control over work – research into the high incidence of suicide amongst staff investigating tax returns in the Taxation Office in Britain found that a key contributing factor was the lack of control over their work.  No matter how hard they worked, the pile of work kept growing and they could never get on top of it.  The ability to control the work environment and how work is done, known as “agency”, has been the subject of much research into what constitutes a psychologically healthy work environment.
  • Lack of feedback – in the previous research, another factor identified as contributing to psychological illness was the lack of feedback about performance of the job.  No matter how well or how poorly the work was done, there was no feedback received from supervisors or managers.  This led to a sense of the work and the worker being devalued.  The disconnection between effort and “reward” in terms of positive feedback contributed to people feeling “irrelevant” – they felt that they were not important or relevant to what the organisation valued.
  • Lack of discretion – research into the experience of depression amongst typists in a typing pool demonstrated that a causal factor of depression was the lack of the ability to make decisions affecting the work and the typists’ output.  The typists were totally disempowered because work was given to them with instructions on how it was to be done by people they did not know; they lacked understanding of what the documents involved or meant; demand was endless; and they were unable to speak to each other.  The work was thus experienced as meaningless and “soul-destroying”.  This research, along with other studies, highlighted the fact that people lower in organisations experience greater stress than those at higher levels who have a lot of responsibility because the latter have more discretion over what they do and how they do it.
  • Lack of ability to make a difference – the example given by Johann related to a worker in a paint shop who spent all day adding tint to base paint and using a machine to mix the contents to provide paint with the colour requested by a customer.  The repetitious nature of this task and the associated boredom contributed to the worker experiencing a lack of meaning because he did not make a real difference in people’s lives.  Hackman and Oldham had previously identified “significance” of a job as a key element for a psychologically satisfying job.  Associated with that was the degree to which a job provided what they termed “task variety” and “skill variety”.  Work without variation and with no perceived impact, can be experienced as mind-numbing and deadening and lead to depression.

The loss of connection to meaningful work can be addressed at two levels.  Organisations can develop greater awareness about what constitutes unhealthy work design and remedy deficiencies in the design of jobs.  Action learning interventions can be helpful in this regard and, in the process, build employee’s self-awareness and sense of agency.

Workers, too, can develop inner awareness about what in their work is impacting their mental health and causing depression. They can explore this awareness through meditation and reflection and identify ways to remedy the situation.  As they grow in mindfulness, they may be able to identify why they are procrastinating and not removing themselves from a harmful work situation.  Johann found, for example, that the worker in the paint shop really wanted to change jobs and had already identified what job would give more meaning and joy for him.  However, he was held back by his perceived need to achieve the external rewards of life – better income and a good car.  Through meditation and reflection, it is possible to become more acutely aware of the cost of “staying’ versus changing and to be able to cope with the vulnerability involved in changing jobs.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

The Pillars of a Meaningful Life

In the previous post, I discussed how making meaning in our daily lives contributes to well-being. I also drew on what Dr. Paul Wong stated in terms of the need to align our lives with what we consider to be meaningful – in other words, to achieve congruence. Paul is the author of the book , The Human Quest for Meaning: Theories, Research, and Applications. Through his research, writings and presentations, he has developed the concept of the pillars of a meaningful life. He has identified seven of these pillars which I will discuss below.

The seven pillars of a meaningful life

  1. Believing that human life is inherently meaningful – this is foundational, because once you acknowledge that your life has meaning, you can pursue the realisation of meaning in your own life. You can begin to value your work, be grateful for the many things that you have and can do and explore meaningful relationships with people who are like-minded. This can lead to life-time friendships and collaboration. This fundamental belief also enables you to accept that suffering and pain are part of human existence and have a meaning in your life.
  2. A profound self-awareness – understanding at a deep level who you are and where you fit into the greater scheme of things. This understanding and acceptance provides the basis for recognising your potential for contributing positively to significant others in your life and those you interact with on an given day. This means avoiding delusion and being open to your potential.
  3. Exploring what is unique about your passion and mission – discovering your unique purpose. This involves capturing what inspires and energises you and becoming conscious of the challenges and responsibilities that flow from your personal pool of knowledge, skills and experiences.
  4. Pursuing your best self so that you realise your potential – overcoming the negative thoughts and barriers that block your potential. If you are not consciously trying to improve yourself, you can find that you are going backwards. Even small steps towards fulfilling your potential will bring you closer to your best self. This is a life-long journey but leads to a sense of well-being when you have achieved a real breakthrough. It is important to approach this self-realisation task non-judgmentally, avoiding “beating up on yourself” for not progressing as fast as you “should”.
  5. Self-transcendence – contributing to something that is bigger than yourself and that will outlast you. Viktor Frankl suggests that self-transcendence is central to your well-being as it is part of your “spiritual nature”. This involves moving beyond self-centredness and self-absorption to being altruistic and compassionate – ultimately being other-centred, whether the other person is a neighbour, friend or casual contact. Happiness and well-being lie at the heart of self-transcendence.
  6. Relating well to the people who are closest to you – your life partner, your children and closest friends. This “intimacy” is a rich source of happiness and well-being. If you are in constant conflict in this arena, you need to explore the dynamics of the situation and your contribution to the conflict. Relating well entails reflective listening, being thoughtful and aware of others’ needs, and “going out of your way” to help the other person when they are not coping, are ill or saddened by some occurrence in their life.
  7. Having a sense of personal fulfillment when your life is productive – in line with human connectedness. This means, in part, having a sense that you are using the surplus in your life to contribute to the well-being of others. It also means using your knowledge, skills and experience to be a productive and positive contributor to your work team and your organisation.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and small acts of gratitude, we can enjoy happiness and well-being, develop rich relationships and realise our potential through positive contributions to our work team and our community.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Making Meaning for Well-Being

Viktor Frankl, a survivor of four years in German concentration camps, wrote a landmark book, Man’s Search for Meaning. In the book he argues that our most fundamental drive is a search for meaning rather than a search for pleasure. He demonstrated in his life in the concentration camp and through his research, that while suffering is an integral part of life, we can find meaning in it. Subsequent research has confirmed that searching for meaning and pursuing meaningful actions develops personal well-being.

Joaquín García-Alandete, writing in The European Journal of Counselling Psychology (2015), reported the results of his research that demonstrated that the relationship between meaning in life and psychological well-being was significant. Michael Steger and colleagues found in their research that the search for meaning is present in all stages of life and that realising meaning in life contributed to well-being. Conversely, the absence of meaning in the latter stages of life contributed to a reduced sense of well-being.

Dr. Paul Wong maintains that meaning contributes to well-being by enhancing positive feelings, reducing depression and building hope and resilience in the face of adverse and stressful circumstances. Michael Steger and Joo Yeon Shin argue that happiness and meaning become more imperative in our technological age characterised by an anxiety epidemic, choice overload, constant demand for adaption and an ever-increasing pace of life.

Making meaning- aligning our actions with what is meaningful for us

The search for meaning alone does not guarantee well-being. Dr. Pninit Russo-Netzer found in her research that the key to well-being was prioritizing meaning within our lives. This ultimately means doing things that align with our purpose in life and that give meaning to our life.

Achieving insight into our life’s purpose and realising alignment through our actions is a lifetime pursuit that is aided by mindfulness. Pninit suggests that as we develop self-awareness, we can reflect on our action choices and test them for alignment with our values and their impact on our well-being … and make appropriate adjustments.

Pninit argues that our simple everyday actions can be the pathway to well-being because they enable us to cultivate meaning in our lives on a daily basis. We can effectively build meaning into our lives by giving priority to aligning our choices with our values and life purpose. Just the simple, conscious act of building a collage of meaningful photos can reinforce what matters to us, build a renewed sense of purpose and increase our energy for prioritizing meaning in our lives.

Dr. Paul Wong maintains that it is not enough to believe our life is meaningful and then indulge in a lifestyle that does not contribute value to society in a way that is unique to ourselves, to our core knowledge and skills. A life that consists solely in the individual pursuit of pleasure and or power is wasteful and is devoid of meaning – a reality that is born out daily in the lives of celebrities in the fields of sport, cinema and music.

As we grow in mindfulness through a focus on our purpose and what is meaningful in our life, we can achieve a sense of well-being that assists us to live more fully and to deal with the ups and downs of life. Mindfulness meditation and reflection enable us to assess the alignment between what we value and what we do – to determine how well we are prioritizing meaning in our life. These mindful activities help us to deepen our sense of meaning – and consequent well-being – through our everyday activities.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Emotional Self-Awareness

Daniel Goleman, in his interview for the online Mindfulness at Work Summit in June 2018, introduced what he calls the 12 competencies of emotional intelligence.  He has recently rethought the emotional intelligence framework and now has four main groups of competencies (instead of the original five) – (1) self-awareness, (2) self-management, (3) social awareness and (4) relationship management – and 12 competencies that sit under the various groupings.  Emotional self-awareness is the sole competency listed under the first grouping.

Understanding “emotional intelligence”

In the interview with Mo Edjlali, President of Mindful Leader, Daniel explained that the term, “emotional intelligence”, challenges people to think about dealing with emotions intelligently, not being under their control nor ignoring them.  He maintained that emotions are “part and parcel” of life and that whatever we do, even if we think we are being rational or analytical, emotions underpin our choices – our thoughts and actions.

This was brought home to me in a recent conversation with a colleague who was describing a number of actions she had taken to help a homeless person she met when interstate.  She had spoken to this person and got to know their domestic violence situation and decided to provide the person with a meal.  This led to helping her in other ways including providing a particular style of footwear required for a job the person was applying for.  After sharing the story, my colleague then identified the emotions she was feeling as a result of her decision and her compassionate actions.  She was asking herself, “For whose benefit am I doing this?”(uncertainty), “Am I doing this because it makes me feel good?”(doubt), and “What expectations am I creating in this person and can I meet them?”(fear/anxiety).

So, to achieve anything, whether improved productivity or compassionate action, we need to be able to intelligently manage the emotions involved.  Daniel mentioned that in recent workshops in Nashville and Romania, different organisations and different countries, participants realised that when they talk about the characteristics of their best and worst bosses, they are talking about dimensions of emotional intelligence.  My colleague and I have undertaken this exercise with over two thousand managers over more than a decade in our Confident People Management Program, and we have found that people intuitively know what are the characteristics of the best and worst managers and can identify their own feelings when working for either category of manager.  There is remarkable unanimity across multiple groups in multiple locations.  The characteristics could be readily matched to Daniel’s 4 groupings and the 12 competencies of emotional intelligence. Emotional self-awareness is the first and foundational competency described by him.

What is “emotional self-awareness”?

If you have “emotional self-awareness” you have developed  awareness about some personal aspects such as:

  • what you do well and what you do not do well
  • what you are feeling and why you are feeling that way
  • how your feelings impact your thoughts
  • how your feelings and thoughts impact your performance
  • why you are doing what you are doing or being able to answer, what am I doing this for? – your purpose/meaning.

Emotional self-awareness underpins everything because it is the gateway to self-improvement – in all its mutliple aspects, including acquiring the other emotional intelligence competencies.

Daniel suggests that you may not achieve complete emotional self-awareness if you rely on mindfulness alone.  He argues that because of the internal and individual focus of mindfulness, you may be unaware of blind spots.  He suggests that mindfulness in combination with 360-degree feedback can help you to identify and act on these blind spots or hidden gaps in emotional intelligence competencies.  He has developed, with his colleague Richard Boyatzis, an Emotional and Social Competence Inventory (ESCI 360) as a 360-degree feedback instrument to measure the twelve emotional intelligence competencies and to enable identification of blind spots in relation to the competencies.

As Daniel acknowledges, a competent coach can also help in this area of developing accurate emotional self-awareness.  I recall coaching a manager where his blind spot was defensiveness and it was only after providing persistent and constant feedback over a few months that he finally accepted that he was being defensive.  He was then able to demonstrate emotional self-awareness by pulling himself up whenever he started to get defensive and, in the process, name his feelings.   Mindfulness can also help us to accept feedback that is uncomfortable but accurate.

Another route to developing emotional self-awareness and overcoming blind spots is participation in an action learning group where the group norm is “supportive challenge” and feedback is designed to help you be the best you can be and to achieve the best outcomes for your project and yourself.   The action learning set may be less contaminated by political considerations (such as fear of repercussions) or revengeful action, than a 360-degree feedback process.  The honesty norm underpinning action learning may also help to ensure that the feedback is uncontaminated.

As we grow in mindfulness and engage with others through feedback we can develop increased emotional self-awareness and be able to act on the feedback given.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Meditating on Death

This has been one of the hardest blog posts for me to write.  It is difficult to write about death when there are so many different views about death from various philosophical, spiritual and religious perspectives.  It is even more difficult to confront the reality of your own death – accepting its inevitability and the impermanence of life on earth.

Our concept of death develops as we grow older and its inevitability becomes part of our consciousness.  However, there is a real taboo about talking about, or thinking about, death.   We fear death and avoid it – but we cannot avoid its inevitability despite the stories we might tell ourselves to stave off the fear of death.

The benefits of meditating on death

One of the primary benefits of meditating on death is to overcome this fear.  Annie Robinson, for example, suggests that mindfulness can “ease our fear of death and dying” – it can also help to reduce the pain, anger, grief and denial that occurs with dying.  Other authors support this view and add that meditation on dying enables us to better assist those closest to us with the process of dying.

One of the really strong and lasting benefits of meditating on dying is appreciation for the life that we have to live – valuing each day as the first day of the rest of our life.  This encourages us to live mindfully in every aspect of our life – to value nature, our freedom, our friendships, our gifts and talents and our close relationships.  This was the very clear message of Holly Butcher as she confronted her imminent death from cancer.

What people value when dying

Mathew O’Reilly, a critical care, medical emergency technician, spoke during a TED talk about his experiences in helping people who were very near death as a result of an accident or a natural disaster.  In his early career, he felt that he needed to lie to these critically ill people who had moments to live to protect them from the fear of death.  Once he decided to tell the truth about their impending death, where there was nothing that he could do for them, he found that the majority of people faced their death with peace and acceptance.

What he found too was that three things were important to different people at the time of death:

  1. wanting forgiveness
  2. wanting to know that their life had meaning
  3. wanting to be remembered (even by Matthew and his team).

Meditating on death

Pursuing three questions

One form of meditation on death is to pursue the above three things for yourself.  You could ask yourself one or more of these following questions, thinking about how you would respond at the time of death, if you knew it was imminent:

  1. Who do I need forgiveness from – who have I neglected or caused suffering to?
  2. What meaning does my life have? What have I actually contributed to make this world a better place for others, near and far?
  3. What will I be remembered for?
Writing your own obituary

Some mindfulness experts suggest a form of meditation on death is to write your own obituary.  Lux Narayan, in his TED talk, shared his experience of reading 2,000 published obituaries of people who died.  What he found was that both the famous and not-so-famous did extraordinary things to help make society a better place – “they made a positive dent in the fabric of life”.  He asks that we consider how we are using our talents to help society so that our obituary will reflect the “positive dent” also.

Buddhism Nine Points Meditation
Buddhism  offers Nine Points Meditation on Death which reflects the foregoing discussion of what people value at death and what obituaries say about people who have lived a meaningful life:

It is vital that when we die, we will have as many positive imprints—which will bring good experience and as few negative imprints—which will bring suffering—on our mind as possible. Also, we should aim to die at peace with ourselves, feeling good about how we lived our life, and not leaving behind any unresolved conflicts with people.

The nine points meditation on death explores this rear-mirror perspective after helping us to confront both the inevitability of our death and the uncertainty about the timing or means of our death.  It concludes by reminding us that, as we live, we still have time to live a life that is “meaningful, beneficial and positive.”

Mindfulness of Death Meditation

WikiHow provides a detailed Mindfulness of Death Meditation that covers the potential distractions (in part, generated by discomfort with the topic of meditation), explores the reality of death and your feelings about it, and assist you to identify ways to improve the wellness of your life here and now.

A Death Meditation method

This is a detailed meditation on death that involves relaxing your body in the first instance, then imagining the dying process with energy progressively leaving all parts of your body, then identifying the real self that remains and following this with reintegrating with your body.  This can be a confronting meditation initially but lead to a sense of peace and relaxation.  The author suggests that you first read about preparing for the death meditation.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditating on death, we can achieve a level of peace and acceptance and, at the same time, increase our motivation to live our life in a positive, helpful and meaningful way.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of leninscape  on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.