Latalia White, AMFT

Work: we have a love-hate relationship with it. Many of us believe in the importance of hard work and search for passion in our careers. The first question out of our mouths when we meet someone new is typically, “What do you do for a living?” School preps us to be thinking throughout our whole childhoods about what we want to do when we grow up. Our work can give great meaning to our lives — many of us find purpose and drive in the work that we do. But at the same time, work drains us. It can take over our lives and feel like it comes before our family and home lives. If our work environment is not healthy, or if we have contentious relationships with our coworkers, we wake up weekday mornings dreading a day in the office.

For these reasons, work is uniquely positioned to affect our well being in many ways. While we may feel a lot of pressure to find the perfect job to have a positive impact on our working lives, making small tweaks to our work environment may be enough to improve our happiness at work. As cited in a recent New York Times article, research done at the Mayo Clinic looked at the happiness of doctors at work. These researchers found something highly interesting: when doctors spent 20% of their time at work doing things they found especially meaningful, they were at a lower risk for burnout. Even more interesting? Spending more than 20% of their work time doing their most meaningful work did not lower their burnout risk any more.

What does this mean for us? If we spend only 20% of our work time doing work meaningful to us, we are likely to feel happier at our jobs. The key to being happier at work is figuring out how we can tweak our current jobs to make sure that 20% of our time is spent doing meaningful tasks we enjoy. How can we do this? Try taking the following steps:

First, figure out what you like and dislike doing at work.

Authors Goodall and Buckingham of the book Nine Lies About Work write that the best step you can take to increase your happiness at work is to start tracking what you love and hate about your job. Take notes for a week, recording everything from the smallest to largest of to-dos with your feelings toward the tasks. Be especially mindful of any duties in which you enter a state of “flow” as well as tasks that you tend to procrastinate doing.

Next, map out how your time is spent during a workday and work week.

To make sure you fill up 20% of your time with work tasks from your “love” column, you need to know how much time you spend a day and during the week on everything job-related. There are opportunities here to figure out how much time you actually spend on work — the hours may add up differently than you think. Don’t forget about the little things you may do outside of the typical 9-5: make sure you’re counting emails read and answered at home, materials read, etc.

Last, evaluate how much wiggle room you have to tweak what you’re doing.

Using your list of things you love and hate and your map of work hours, do an honest assessment and figure out how you can incorporate things from your “love” column to fill up about 20% of your time. If you’re falling short, try to imagine how you can tweak some of your “hate” tasks to contain some element found in your “love” tasks. Remember, the research has shown work happiness is not about eliminating everything you dislike about your job — it’s making sure that 20% of your time is spent on the things you love and find the most purpose in.

Herrera, T. (2019, April 7). A deceptively simple way to find more happiness at work. The New York Times. Retrieved from