Know your optimal working conditions

In my quest to increase my happiness at work, I’ve realized that an important component of becoming better at my job is dependent on my working conditions. The main way for me to have some control and influence over these conditions is to develop skills to communicate my value and needs efficiently to my employer. 

As I’ve mentioned in the past, the research by Cal Newport author of the book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, shows that people gain more satisfaction in their work when they become better at doing their tasks which then leads to increased autonomy, competence and feeling connected and valued by others. Being able to operate and complete your work under circumstances that allow you to perform at your best is therefore valuable not only for your employer but for you as well. 

In order to mold your working conditions, you firstly need to have a good understanding of the value you bring to your employer and a thorough grasp on which circumstances allow you to do your best work. Before taking action to communicate your needs to your employer, identify if you have room to change your working conditions or if you are facing a problem that is completely outside of your control.

Increase your work happiness by identifying your best working conditions - flowers in front of wall

Know your Value

A good understanding of your value, that is what makes you stand out as the right employee to do the work you do, is essential before being able to identify and communicate the working conditions that make this value shine. 

A useful exercise for me to remember why I believed I should be hired to do this job, is to look back on my application process for my current work position.

Despite that I’m not currently searching for a new job, I regularly update my resume with skills that I have acquired in my current position. This helps me see the new value that I am building and acknowledge the experiences in which I gained marketable skills and abilities. 

I’ve also paid greater attention to what is being communicated to me during performance reviews. As I became interested in increasing my autonomy in my work, I listened closer as my manager would let me know the aspects where I had performed well or where I could do better. 

It greatly helped that my last two managers have taken these reviews seriously and provide actual helpful feedback. I know this is not always the case. If you do get some helpful feedback on your performance reviews, take notes and try to break them down into actionable steps. 

Having a good grasp on the value you bring to your employer will be helpful to identify the right work conditions for you. It will also allow you to gain the confidence required to speak up and communicate this value & your needs in an assertive manner to your employer. 

Know the work conditions that make you do your best work

One law and legal definition of Working Conditions is: “Working conditions refers to the working environment and all existing circumstances affecting labor in the workplace, including job hours, physical aspects, legal rights and responsibilities.

Therefore as I mention the term working conditions, I’m thinking very wide, such as your working hours, your physical work space, your interactions with your colleagues, your means of communications, the expectations you face in the workplace and so on.

This might be casting a very wide net, however I find it hopeful to think that there are so many levers that can be pulled to improve your wellbeing and performance at work. 

Track your productivity

It’s been very helpful to use concrete ways to track my productivity at work in order to highlight which working conditions allow me to be more productive and consequently happier at work

Every day I take a few minutes to plan out what I would like to accomplish during the day. I then break down how I will spend each upcoming hour ahead and take note of a concrete measurement of where I stand, such as the number of cases that are assigned to me. As the day goes on, I attempt to note progress within that sheet & take 5 minutes at the end of my day to review and plan for the next day.

After doing this tracking for a few months, it became quite evident that interruptions from colleagues or loud conversations near my office space would be significant in increasing the time it took me to focus and get my work done. As time went on, I found that I was accomplishing more when I was working from home and closing more cases and thus worked with my manager to increase my time working from home. 

You obviously have to find the criteria and measurements that can work in your own job to measure your progress and productivity.

Track your Work Engagement & Energy

One thing I’m currently working on, is tracking when I hit flow or low momentum while working. In the book Designing your Life, one of the exercises that is the pillar of most activities further on, consists of tracking your levels of engagement and energy throughout your daily activities. 

You also make specific notes for when you hit a state of flow which if defined as: “that state of being in which time stands still, you’re totally engaged in an activity, and the challenge of that particular activity matches up with your skill—so you’re neither bored because it’s too easy nor anxious because it’s too hard.” 

Building further on this, I was inspired to specifically highlight the moments that gave me low levels of both energy and engagement in my work. The exercise in the book then leads you to make observations by using the AEIOU method that provides questions you can use to reflect on your activity logs.

Here are the questions from the Designing your Life book:

  • Activities. What were you actually doing? Was this a structured or an unstructured activity? Did you have a specific role to play (team leader) or were you just a participant (at the meeting)? 
  • Environments. Our environment has a profound effect on our emotional state. You feel one way at a football stadium, another in a cathedral. Notice where you were when you were involved in the activity. What kind of a place was it, and how did it make you feel?
  • Interactions. What were you interacting with—people or machines? Was it a new kind of interaction or one you are familiar with? Was it formal or informal? 
  • Objects. Were you interacting with any objects or devices—iPads or smartphones, hockey sticks or sailboats? What were the objects that created or supported your feeling engaged? 
  • Users. Who else was there, and what role did they play in making it either a positive or a negative experience?

This tracking has been greatly helpful in allowing me to think of ways that improve how I work. For example, I’ve found I hit flow when I took some time to organize resources in a way that makes them easier for me to find and use when performing my work. 

Essentially, this gives you a tool to determine the working conditions that allow you to do your best work.

Perhaps you do your best work when you don’t feel rushed to come in at a specific time considering the chaos of getting your young children ready for school. In this case, a flexible working schedule might be helpful. 

Maybe your ideal to tackle a new project is to initially have a brainstorming session with your manager in order to understand their expectations better and get a sense of direction before taking the lead.

Your activity logs and reflexions also consist of concrete examples you can utilize to communicate to your employer and demonstrate the advantages of changing your working conditions for you to perform your best work. However, before moving on to this step, it’s important to figure out if you have some room to modify your working conditions.

Are your circumstances a gravity problem?

The book Designing your Life,  highlights that some problems are not actionable. It does so by using the analogy of a cyclist getting upset at gravity for making it harder for her to get up a hill.

This is defined as a gravity problem, since no matter how much effort the cyclist will put into making gravity go away, she can not change this fact. Basically it is the idea of working in a smart way to change things that can actually be modified . 

“If you become open-minded enough to accept reality, you’ll be freed to reframe an actionable problem and design a way to participate in the world on things that matter to you and might even work.”

Once you accept a gravity problem, you can then move on to looking at the issue in an actionable way. For example the cyclist could get more leg days in at the gym, training her muscles to propel her faster up that hill. 

When looking at your working conditions and those that allow you to do your best work, it’s important to ask yourself if anything you would like to change is truly actionable. Sometimes it is possible to reframe the problem and be able to find a way to organize your work to make it a bit more tolerable and even possibly enjoyable, despite not being able to completely change the working conditions. 

When it’s time to look for other opportunities

Finally, I have to be honest that I don’t believe that changing your employer’s working conditions is always possible. In a past position, I worked in circumstances where work was slow and very changing as it was a new department. Despite my boss’ best intentions, I could be working for months at a time on a project that would suddenly be taken off the table, changed for an entire new process

As a person that is highly motivated by the outcome of my work,  this was quite detrimental to my fulfillment at work. Looking back, I don’t think there is much I could have done in those circumstances to change my working conditions and I was very lucky that another opportunity came along.

In such moments, I suggest that you continue, to the best of your abilities, doing good work but take some of your energy to focus on your search for opportunities elsewhere. While doing so, do your homework on all opportunities that open up and keep your optimal working conditions in mind to try to identify a job that would be a good fit. Jessica from The Fioneers has a terrific post on how to interview your next employer to find one that is right for you. 

If things start feeling like they are having a negative impact on your health, please consult your doctor or another health professional and/or any employee assistance you might have access to. 

Have you found ways to improve your working conditions to increase your happiness at work? I’d love to read on some of your experiences in identifying what might make you happier in your own job!

4 thoughts on “Know your optimal working conditions

  1. I still haven’t read the Cal Newport book you mention at the beginning. I’ve been meaning to get to it! I was new at my role last year, and now that I am better at it (and consequently more confident) I love my job. It makes such a difference. If you are new to anything, be nice to yourself and give yourself some time.

    I really like the idea of tracking your productivity. We are so similar based on this excellent quote of yours:

    “Every day I take a few minutes to plan out what I would like to accomplish during the day. I then break down how I will spend each upcoming hour ahead and take note of a concrete measurement of where I stand…”

    I love the way you weave real research and excellent books into articles like this! Also, I’m glad you’ve landed in a happier place. It certainly takes self-awareness to get there and that’s what sharing and discussing these topics is all about!

    1. That’s so true that we should be kind to ourselves when we are new to anything! I have a bad tendency to be harsh on myself when I’m in a learning curve, it really doesn’t serve to solve anything and probably even makes it more difficult for me to learn as I get in a stressed mood.

      Funny you specifically pulled out this quote as just yesterday, I was listening to an older Choose FI podcast episode with Mr.1500 on, and he basically almost said he does the exact same thing! I wonder if this is a common behavior for people reaching for FI?

      Thank you so much for you sweet comment, it means a lot, especially coming from a writer I greatly admire! It really brightened the day I read it and all the subsequent days since :).

  2. Gravity problem! I’m hearing that for the first time and find that idea so refreshing and insightful. It goes to explain so many failed attempts at solving problems in life. Thanks for sharing that.

    As for finding ways to be happier at work, a friend of mine told me he recently started meditating at work for ten minutes every day around noon. It helps him recharge himself and clear his thoughts. Pretty easy hack to follow.

    1. I absolutely love this re-framing from Designing Your Life with viewing these as gravity problems :).

      Thank you for sharing the meditation timing hack!

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