The #1 Cause of Unhappiness at Work

Many people are unhappy with their job. For many of them it shows up as burnout. Others just don’t like what they do and want to do something else. This unhappiness has sparked the recent popularity of side gigs: Something you do other than your main job to make extra money to eventually leave your main job. 

Side gigs are not just about boosting one’s monthly income. If that was all that was desired, doctors could simply work an extra day and likely earn a lot more money than they make during the startup months/years of their side gig. 

Why are so many people unhappy with their work? Why is burnout so prevalent? What is driving the need to discuss work/life balance? Why don’t we enjoy our calling?

The issue of work unhappiness can be summed up in one word. It is what almost all my High Performance Coaching clients are seeking. Once this matter is solved, all the other pieces in life seem to fall into place, leading to a happy work environment.

The real issue

The underlying problem driving most unhappiness is a lack of clarity. When we are not clear about what we want, we have no way of prioritizing life events. When nothing is of high importance, everything is important, and we end up putting too much on our plate while not doing what makes us happy. Without a clear picture of our priorities our job tends to take over filling all the space in the schedule and becomes the scapegoat for our unhappiness.

Clarity helps us focus our efforts on what we feel is truly important and what will make us happy. Here is a simple example. When I ask someone to list their priorities, the most common priority sequences I hear is the following: 1. God   2. Family   3. Work.

Then I ask to see their calendar. I look for things on their calendar pertaining to their #1 priority. I often can’t find anything. Then I look for their #2 priority in the calendar and I rarely find anything. But priority #3 shows up all over the place on their calendar.

If God and family are prioritized ahead of work, why can’t I find any evidence of that ranking in their day planner?

Incongruity between desire and action

This incongruity between what we feel is important, and how we spend our time is causing anxiety. It is this anxiety that makes us feel our work/life balance is out of alignment. 

When we feel time with our family is important, but we spend all our time at work, then we blame work for getting in the way of our family time. Almost always when this happens, we can find ways to work less and be with our family more by making changes in our planning.

If it’s not on the schedule, it will not happen

One great example of this came up recently when one client was concerned that he could not seem to get enough exercise. He felt it was a high priority, but he wasn’t doing it, which bothered him.

I asked him if he could show me anyplace that exercise was on his calendar. It was nowhere to be found. He was saying exercise is a priority, but it didn’t seem important enough to put on his daily schedule. During that coaching session he came up with times he could fit exercise into his schedule. He put exercise into his calendar app as we spoke.

During our next coaching session I asked if he went to the gym. It turns out he did his workout every time it was scheduled. He then told me that when he could see it on his schedule, right after work, he wrapped up his work faster because he had somewhere he was supposed to be. 

This is a great example of Parkinson’s Law:

Work expands so as to fill

the time available for its completion.

He had the same work to do last week yet he couldn’t get to the gym. This week, with going to the gym on his schedule, he finished his work sooner to make it to his appointment on time. 

I encountered Parkinson’s Law when I retired. I seemed to get nothing done. I was far more productive at home when I had to work 60 hours a week. It didn’t make sense, but it was true. If I had all day to do a project, it would take all day. If I only had two hours to get the same job done, it took two hours.

When we become clear about what we want and where we are going, the things we want become important enough to make it onto our daily schedule.

Clarity helps us say NO

This is a very important lesson to learn: Say no to everything that is not a top priority. When we become crystal clear about what we want, it becomes very easy to say no to everything not on that list. 

A few years ago, I directed a Christmas Eve program at church. It was a big hit. The next fall I was asked to do it again. But this time I was editing my first book and needed to turn it in by the first of January. The Christmas show was a lot of fun to put on, but it also took a lot of my time. I said I would think about it. 

My wife knew I had agreed to get my book completed and to the publisher by January so she asked me if doing the Christmas Show would help me meet my deadline. This brought clarity to the decision. I would not make my deadline if I added the Christmas show to my plate. Saying no was easy at that point. Had I not had clarity of what I was doing at the time, I would have taken on more than I could handle, and I would have been late finishing my book. I would have likely blamed not completing my book on time on something that wasn’t the real cause, like my work.

When we are clear about what we do want, it is easy to say no to everything else. Which frees up time for the things we want to say yes to.

Clarity helps us say YES

There are more things to do than we can ever accomplish. There are also more patients for a physician to see than they have time to see.

I once stayed home with my kids one weekend while my wife went to a women’s retreat. Since my kids were very young, I signed out my patients to the doctor on call so our weekend wouldn’t be interrupted. Since I wasn’t scheduled to work, I had a long to do list I planned to tackle that weekend. I planned to take advantage of my full weekend off work.

Right after my wife pulled out of the driveway, one of the kids said, “Can we use the scrap wood out back to build a fort on our dad’s weekend?”

My to do list flashed before my eyes for only a moment. Then I realized that my kids are a high priority item, and this was not just a weekend off work, this was a dad’s weekend. How could I possible turn that down? Nothing on my to do list could trump a dad’s weekend.

Clarity makes it very easy to say yes to the things you are clear you want in life. I want time with my kids, so the yes was easy. That fort stood for about 15 years before the deck it was built on needed to be rebuilt. By then my kids were grown. They had a lot of fun playing in the fort for many years because I had the clarity to say yes.

Being clear about what you want will make you happier

If you want more happiness at work, seek clarity. Be clear about what you really want at work, what you want your home life to be, and anything else that rises to the top of your priorities. When you gain clarity, you will turn down the things hindering your happiness and you will say yes to the things that make you happy. 

If you need help finding clarity and implementing it, or discovering your purpose, then contact me regarding one-on-one High Performance Coaching. I can help you gain the clarity that will transform your life. Life is too short not to be your happiest.

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1 thought on “The #1 Cause of Unhappiness at Work”

  1. Clarity to understanding the root cause or causes of dissatisfaction/burnout is critical to moving forward and adjusting your life!


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