By Cheryl Biron, EO New Jersey
After a career of working for others – and now for myself – I’ve identified three key questions helped maximize my productivity and ultimate happiness over the course of many years:
“What?”, “Where?” and “With whom?”
When I started out in the workforce, as an overachiever, I was led to believe that happiness came from success, and success came from going to the top schools and moving up the corporate ladder at Fortune 500 companies. And so I set out, a Cornell undergrad having attended the Merrill Lynch financial analyst program, with a Wharton MBA and Procter & Gamble marketing experience. I was well on my way to success, but happiness? Not so much.
Although I loved the school environments, which involved both hard work and fun, the work environments were cutthroat and competitive “up or out” business cultures. But back then, I was a Generation Xer working for Baby Boomers, and those were their values. We were expected to work hard for abusive bosses and be happy we had jobs.
My first step off the fast- track was to a more humane consumer healthcare company where they cared if you made it home to see your family at night. So, I fixed with whom I worked! Still, when I mentioned to my very nice boss that I wasn’t having any fun, he said with a smile, “That’s why they call it work.” Enjoying one’s work was not a typical expectation, just a happy byproduct that only a few lucky people achieved.
That’s why I think I am a Millennial at heart. Millennials get a bad rap for being perceived as lazy and non-committal. But what they (and I) really want is to find pleasure and purpose in their work. Now, companies are beginning to see that if they want to attract and retain top talent, they need to offer employees more than just money. When I was working in the corporate world, I would have readily taken a pay cut for more vacation time and the ability to telecommute, but prioritizing family over work was a death blow to one’s career back then. So I had to suck it up, put on my game face and stay late for “face time purposes,” just in case my boss wanted to walk into my office and talk.
Then in 2004, I read The Millionaire Next Door by Stanley and Danko and decided to have the lifestyle I wanted, I had to become an entrepreneur. My choice would fix the “where I worked” aspect, as I could work at the office or remotely. My kids were four and seven years old, so what I was doing didn’t matter as much as the freedom to work when and where I wanted. The other benefit was being able to create the work environment I wanted to have, one of cooperation vs. competition. As a business owner, I encourage a collaborative work environment, and while some are too busy for that “touchy, feely stuff,” others truly appreciate this distinction.
As my kids grew into their teen years and needed me less, I had more time to work. What I was doing started to matter more. We had built a very successful company, during which time we automated away most of the grunt work. This gave me the opportunity to craft the role I really wanted in my own company. The old thinking was to focus on correcting your weaknesses, but new thinking said to leverage your strengths – so that’s what I did. I got back into marketing, social media, writing and interacting with others. As I do more and more of what I love to do, I find my days flying by, and I end my day with a feeling of accomplishment. I am so much more happy and productive!
For those who would wish to do this for themselves, I have three insights:
- Take a look at what you actually do all day. Do you enjoy it? Are you excited to get up and start your day, or do you find yourself saying, “Not really.” Are you energized by what you do, or is your energy drained? If you can try to identify which tasks inspire and motivate you, you can start to create your dream job right where you already are. If there are parts of what you do that you absolutely hate, try delegating them to someone else, and focus on what you love. When you are more productive doing what you love, it can more than pay for the person doing the work you find less desirable.
- Take a look at your physical work environment. Do you go to an office with other people around you, or do you work from home? Do you have a choice? If you you’re yourself distracted by others in the office, maybe a change in scenery would help you be more productive. This could mean having a physical space with a door that can close when you need quiet time to focus; otherwise, working from home might be a better option.
Also, what kind of changes can you make to enjoy your physical work environment? More or less light, a better color on the walls, decorations, better equipment/computer, rules or boundaries about when you can or cannot be disturbed? I always loved taking a little break when my kids were younger and came home from school to tell me all about their days. Then my son would close the door to let me work.
- Maintain a business culture that benefits you. Have you created the business culture you have always wanted, one in which you personally thrive? Do your employees fit in, or are there toxic people dragging you down? As you may guess, I am very proud of the supportive/collaborative culture we have built at One Horn. Whenever a toxic person is acting up, it brings us all down. And when one leaves, we all breathe a collective sigh of relief. If you can eliminate the toxic element in your business, this will enhance your environment. But practically speaking, you might be “stuck” with them for a while, so working to minimize the negative effect they have on others can help until you find a more permanent solution. Once you do, you will be more productive and feel happier and less stressed on and off the job.
So take a look at what you do, where you do it and with whom you do it. It can seem overwhelming, so attacking one area at a time can be a good approach. Life is short, so do it for yourself and your loved ones. It’s taken me many years and several stages, but it was worth it – without a doubt!
Cheryl Biron is President of One Horn Transportation, an agent-based freight brokerage. She is also CMO of Stratebo Technologies, a company founded to market the software One Horn developed to run the back office. Cheryl has an MBA from the Wharton School and worked for 25 years in Corporate America before becoming an entrepreneur.
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