Focusing on the how in the quest for great work

An exploration of micro and macro meaning

I think meaning exists at two very different scales. The more common and overarching “macro” meaning that lives at the organizational level and the equally important meaning that is derived on a moment-to-moment basis while doing almost anything the right way (let’s call it “micro” meaning for now).

Consultants and the organizations in which they consult spend a lot of time talking about the first one and a lot less talking about the second one. Macro meaning is generally pretty easy to identify and talk about. It’s about doing good in the world and creating a positive impact in your community. It’s the difference between a non-profit bringing clean drinking water to the people of the world and a company bottling clean water from Michigan while its residents continue to drink poison from their taps.

Most people want to feel like their work has meaning (even if there is a significant dose of cognitive dissonance that must be managed). When you spend as much time at work as most of us do, the idea that what we do doesn’t matter is a quick recipe for disengagement and apathy. Macro meaning tends to live at the organizational level and when we talk about it we are mostly talking about organizational purpose. It’s all about what the organization exists to do and whether we believe that is worthwhile.

I’m more interested in the other kind of meaning, though. The smaller one. The one that exists at an individual level and is built and re-built hundreds of times throughout the day. Moment-to-moment, activity-to-activity, thought-to-thought.

This kind of meaning is what’s built when the way in which you are working and interacting aligns with your values. It’s the decisions you make about how to tackle a piece of work or how to have a conversation with your boss or how to show up in a meeting. I’m having trouble defining this feeling with words, so instead I’ll share a couple examples from my own work life.

I know how dangerous distractions can be when trying to do something that requires concentration and focus. When I take action to limit distractions during an activity (like writing this article) I feel like I’m doing it right. It’s easier not to turn on Do Not Disturb or put my devices in Airplane Mode or not switch over to Twitter the second I get stuck with what I’m trying to write. But every time I setup my environment in a way that allows me to do what I need to do well and I avoid the temptations to break concentration I feel like what I’m doing is more meaningful. If it’s worth the extra effort to do well then it must be worth doing.

Another example from a typical day; when I show up to meetings on time, or ideally, a little bit early. Not every meeting is one that I look forward to (shocker, I know) and the temptation is to stroll into those just as it’s starting or even a little bit afterward. Every time that happens, though, I can feel the cracks forming in my meaning foundation. I think it taps into a feeling that I don’t have any volitional control over my time and attention so showing up a little bit late is the (lamest) act of subconscious rebellion. Showing up early, ready to go, and fully focused for a meeting isn’t always the easiest thing, but when I do it I feel like my work has more meaning and that I’m showing up the right way.

One last example. On any given day there is almost always a mix of actions I could take but the overall order of operations is completely up to me. Very few things must be finished today. Things could get moved to tomorrow, later in the week, and truthfully, could probably never get done and the world wouldn’t stop spinning. When I’m not feeling connected to my work and it’s not feeling meaningful in any way, the way I tackle those tasks is often dumb. I’ll look at everything I need to do and I’ll do the easiest thing first. Then I’ll do the next easiest thing. I essentially take everything I need to do and reverse sort on Difficulty. That wouldn’t be a huge deal if nothing new was being added to my list but because I work in a company (kind of two, actually — The Ready and my client) there are always new tasks (e.g. emails and Slack messages) that are entering my consciousness and getting kicked to the top of my reverse sorted Difficulty list. The next thing I know, I’ve spent 8 hours doing easy (and mostly unimportant) stuff while surfing along the top of my email inbox and Slack notifications. The clean inboxes at the end of the day come at the cost of having to actually do anything difficult or worthwhile or meaningful.

In all three of these examples the common theme is having control over my attention. When I make deliberate choices about how to spend my attention I generally feel like my work has more meaning. When I let my attention be buffeted by things outside my control it feels like nothing I do matters. That’s why having a conversation, responding to an email, and writing this article could all be opportunities to build a sense of meaning in my work, or they could all be opportunities to destroy a sense of meaning in my work. It’s not the what but the how that matters.

I think a surprising amount of the organizational dysfunctions we see in our consulting and you probably live on a day-to-day basis can be tracked back to that sense of moment-to-moment meaning that happens at an individual level. When you multiply that feeling, or lack of feeling, across hundreds or thousands of people in an organization you get some effects that are far more than the sum of their parts and why extremely minor shifts in how we all approach our work may be more of a solution than it first appears.

I have a lot more to say about this but let’s end it here for now.

What do you think? When do you feel like your work has the most meaning? When do you feel like what you’re doing doesn’t matter at all? What am I missing from my description?

I write and publish something in roughly 30 minutes every day. Leave a response below or tweet at me (@samspurlin) with your thoughts.