The meaningful career guide: How to find work that matters, build your skills, and live a happier life

What brings meaning into your life?

Whoah. Hold on a second. I didn’t mean to scare you off. I know that’s a bit of a heavy statement to just come out of the gates with.

Many of us struggle with finding meaning. And why shouldn’t we? Days get packed with responsibilities and distractions and we end up feeling simply swept along by its current, rather than in control of how we spend our time.

However, meaning is one of those things that is hard to define, but once discovered has far-reaching benefits.

Meaning gives us a purpose for getting out of bed in the morning. It makes us energized and excited and more productive at work. And in one study, researchers discovered that people who prioritize meaning over happiness actually end up happier in the long-term.

With an estimated 21–35% of our waking hours spent at work, how we spend those hours can have either a negative or positive impact on the meaningfulness we feel.

And I think it’s worth it to try and make it positive.

With the right tools and processes, we can build a meaningful career—one that makes us feel invigorated and like we’re providing real value.

But to get there, first we need to understand what meaningful work is (and isn’t), and how we can make sure we prioritize it in our day-to-day.

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    Meaningful work is a topic that’s very close to us at RescueTime and one that we know is complex and personal. So, while we’ve done our best to make this guide a fantastic starting point, we’ll be updating it regularly as we learn more about what makes work and life more meaningful. Enjoy! 

    What is meaningful work (and why does it matter)?

    Two of the biggest myths about meaningful work

    How to build a meaningful career

    How to make your current work more meaningful

    Is your workplace holding you back from doing meaningful work?

    What is meaningful work (and why does it matter)?

    Working at desk

    At RescueTime, our goal is to create tools that help people do more meaningful work. And as such, we have our own ideas of what meaningful work is, which we’ll get to in a minute. The difficulty with defining meaningful work, however, is that it is such a personal statement. What’s meaningful to you might not be to me, and vice versa.

    However, according to a wealth of new research, if we look beyond our individual ideas of what makes work meaningful, there are certain qualities that all people who do meaningful work share.

    In a recent paper in the Review of General Psychology, psychologists Login George and Crystal Park from the University of Connecticut identified the 3 most commonly referenced pillars of a meaningful career:

    1. Purpose: How much do you feel directly motivated by life goals that you value?
    2. Comprehension: How able are you to understand and make sense of your life experiences and weave them into a coherent whole? In other words, how easy is it for you to see your own life story?
    3. Mattering: How much do you believe that your work is significant and valued?

    In another study of workers across 5 generations, researchers discovered that while the definition of meaningful work varied from group to group, 3 statements were regularly used by all groups:

    • Meaningful work is intrinsically motivated
    • Meaningful work creates lasting relationships
    • Meaningful work helps others

    If we wanted to put all these statements into one succinct definition of meaningful work, we could say:

    A meaningful career is one where we feel an authentic connection between the work we do and a broader life purpose beyond the self.

    But meaning isn’t something you either have or don’t have. It’s an approach to life and to your career. It’s a mind-set more than a behavioral trait. In fact, simply prioritizing meaning in your career can lead to improved performance, commitment, and job satisfaction.

    Research has shown that employees find the opportunity to pursue meaningful work more important than salary, working conditions, or opportunities for promotion.

    Sounds good, but still a little vague. To truly understand what a meaningful career entails, let’s start by dispelling some common myths around meaningful work and then get into how you can find more meaning in the work you do every single day.

    Two of the biggest myths about meaningful work

    Like any topic this complex and personal, there are certain myths that have bubbled up around what is and isn’t meaningful work. Let’s look at a few to help clarify our definition:

    If we pursue happiness, meaning will follow

    When you ask people what’s most important in their lives, meaning or happiness, most will tell you the latter. Which makes sense. Meaning comes from hard work, which is often not very pleasurable while we’re doing it. On the other hand, it’s easier to connect with the immediate good feelings that come from being happy.

    However, simply chasing happiness doesn’t guarantee you’ll find meaning in what you’re doing.

    In one study college students were asked to pursue either meaning or happiness over ten days by doing at least one thing each day to increase meaning or happiness. Things like sleeping in and playing games (happiness), or helping others or studying (meaning).

    Although the students in the happiness group has less negative thoughts and more positive ones immediately after the study, three months later those had all but disappeared. The meaningful group, however, did not feel immediately better after the study but reported feeling ‘enriched,’ ‘inspired,’ and ‘happier’ in the long-term.

    It seems, then, that happiness follows meaning, and not the other way around.

    Or, as Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, explains it (emphasis added):

    “To the European it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’”

    You’ll find meaning by following your passion

    You’ve probably been told at some point or another to ‘follow your passion’. It’s a favorite piece of career advice for those starting out, at a crossroads, or simply in need of making sense of their path. But much like chasing happiness, your passion won’t necessarily bring you meaning.

    However, telling someone to follow their passion can inadvertently close their minds to other, potentially more meaningful pursuits. It also prioritizes the instant gratification that comes from doing something you already enjoy, rather than the meaning that comes from work that is challenging and helps others.

    Here’s an example: We all know Steve Jobs as the founder and spirit of Apple. But before starting the company, he was a passionate follower of Zen Buddhism and even traveled to India in 1974 to follow his passion. Technology, at that point, was simply an interest. But as he became more involved in build Apple and saw the far-reaching effects his products and ideas could have, it grew to become his passion.

    Had he simply ‘followed his passion’, that meaningful career would never have materialized, and I’d be typing this post on a very different machine.

    How to build a meaningful career


    Now that we hopefully have a clearer understanding of what meaningful work is and isn’t, how do we bring more of it into our lives?

    This is a hard question. With the pressures of modern life, finding a meaningful career can be difficult. Pursuing a career that brings us meaning while neglecting our other responsibilities can be reckless and make us appear selfish. However, there are simple ways you can start to bring more meaning into your day whatever you’re doing, and help you on the path towards finding your own meaningful career.

    Let’s look at a few:

    Understand your interests, values, skills, and preferred work style

    To build a meaningful career, you need to first understand what type of work you have an authentic connection to. According to research group 80,000 hours, this means identifying jobs or activities that satisfy these six key ingredients:

    1. Work that’s engaging
    2. Work that helps others
    3. Work you’re good at
    4. Work with supportive colleagues
    5. Lack of major negatives
    6. Work that fits with the rest of your life

    While this still doesn’t necessarily help us change our path, we can start by asking these simple questions from Stanford’s career assessment department:

    • What are your interests? What sort of work are you excited about?
    • What are the values that motivate you? And, how does your career align with these values?
    • What skills do you have right now that you can apply to work?
    • What is your preferred working style? For example, structured or unstructured. Independent or on a team. Working with people or working with ideas.

    Understanding these answers will help you start to piece together the types of careers that will be the most meaningful to you and align with your skills and values. While it won’t tell you exactly what path to take, these should be answers you refer back to regularly on your path to a meaningful career.

    Try writing them down on a sticky note or on the front of your notebook. This way the crux of what will create a meaningful career for you is always front and centre and won’t get lost in your daily tasks.

    Find a like-minded community by sharing what you’re working on

    A large part of finding work that is meaningful involves connecting what you’re doing to a bigger purpose. However, sometimes we don’t know what the purpose is right away.

    So, what if instead we simply shared what we were working on and waited to see who it attracted?

    Austin Kleon, artist and author of the bestselling Show Your Work, has been one of the loudest advocates for the power of going public with what you’re working on. Here’s how he explains it:

    “Forget about being an expert or a professional, and wear your amateurism on your sleeve. Share what you love, and the people who love the same things will find you.”

    Finding a like-minded community is so important when it comes to meaningful work. At the minimum, they become your fans and supporters. But more often or not, they become your collaborators, advocates, or even employers.

    When aspiring tech consultant Bill Mei was looking for his ‘dream career’ out of University, instead of applying at jobs, he opted to start building apps and posted them publicly to Facebook and other sites. Eventually, he caught the eye of a few friends who asked him to build them websites, which turned into more referrals, which snowballed into an avalanche of steady consulting work. As Cal Newport says in So Good They Can’t Ignore You:

    “No one owes you a great career […] you need to earn it—and the process won’t be easy.”

    By putting your work out in the public, you’re casting out a lure for similar people—ones that will help you hone your craft and drive meaning into the work you’re doing.

    How to make your current work more meaningful

    Passion led us here quote

    While we just looked at some ways to find a new, meaningful career, doing meaningful work doesn’t have to mean quitting your job and starting over. In fact, a growing body of research has shown there are ways to craft your current career into one that is meaningful, connects to a bigger purpose, and aligns with your values.

    Regardless of what you do, we could all use a bit more meaning in our daily work, and these suggestions are the perfect launching off point:

    Use the ‘Job crafting’ technique to make your current job more meaningful

    Coined by psychologists Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane E. Dutton, job crafting is the process of adjusting your job description to be more focused on meaningful work. While there are three parts to how you craft your job, improving in any area helps.

    • Task crafting: The process of picking up or dropping particular tasks to adjust the day-to-day of your role. This could include taking on a task not in your job description in order to expand your abilities.
    • Relational crafting: The process of purposely creating or deepening relationships at work, and changing who you spend time with. For instance, you might take time to teach new team members, or get to know colleagues in different departments.
    • Cognitive crafting: This is essentially changing the way you think about your job. Thinking differently about what you do and why it’s important can imbue your existing role with more meaning. For instance, changing your title to reflect the most meaningful aspects of your role can help you think differently about why your work is important.

    Start by auditing your current job. Where can you make changes to the work you do or the relationships you’re building? These minor tweaks to how you approach each day can have a major impact on how you feel about the work you’re doing.

    Conduct regular reviews to make sure your work aligns with your values

    Doing meaningful work means having a tight feedback loop between what you’re doing and how it relates to your larger purpose. And there’s no better way to get this sort of feedback than to conduct regular reviews.

    As finding meaningful work is a long-term process, it’s good to get both a micro and macro view. Let’s look at some simple ways to conduct these reviews:

    Weekly Reviews

    The weekly review is a chance to reflect on how you spent the last week, review how your activities aligned with your larger goals, and plan for the coming weeks. If you’re curious what this should entail, here’s a few key items from author Michael Hyatt’s 8-step weekly review template:

    • Sort through notes and loose papers and either transfer to a better place, add to your action list, or discard
    • Review last week’s calendar for any follow-ups that need to be scheduled and also to get a high-level view of how you spent your time
    • Look at your annual goals and how last week aligned with them
    • View your upcoming week’s calendar to see if you need to do prep and to make sure your upcoming tasks align with your larger goals

    Monthly Reviews

    The monthly review gives you a chance to reflect on a longer period of time, but one that isn’t so vast that it’s hard to quantify the progress you’ve made. A month is a good period of time to see change happening. So, if you’re working towards a more meaningful career path, this is a good time to see if you’ve gotten any closer.

    To see an example of what this looks like in practice, here’s what 750words creator Buster Benson includes:

    • Highlights from the past month
    • The outcome of last month’s goal
    • Goals (usually just one) for the month ahead
    • Any changes to his codex—a list of his values and personal beliefs revisited monthly

    A good addition would be to include reflections on three things from the past month, such as your biggest personal milestone, your biggest professional accomplishment, and your most valuable lesson learned.

    Annual Reviews

    Finally, your yearly review is a chance to take a step back and reflect on where you’ve come in the past 12 months and plan your next move. It’s a daunting task, but one that’s incredibly powerful. While what you include is up to you, here’s the 6-step template from Celes Chua of the blog Personal Excellence:

    1. Reflect on your biggest accomplishments from the past year
    2. Reflect on your biggest lessons learned in the past year
    3. Give yourself a score for how well the past year went. You can give yourself a grade from F to A+ or a score from 1-10.
    4. Plan your goals for the next year by asking yourself what it would take to look back on this year as your best year ever, or to rate it 10/10
    5. Devise any new habits you can build to help you achieve the goals you set in the previous step
    6. Map out your immediate next steps to achieve each of the goals you set

    (You can also set your RescueTime dashboard to show all your time logged and your productivity pulse for the full year).

    Create space for regular, high-impact work in your schedule

    We can’t talk about meaningful work without addressing how idealistic it sounds. The modern world demands our undivided attention and focus. And the more things you add into your life, the more difficult it becomes to focus on those that matter.

    To craft a meaningful career, then, we need to protect time on at least a weekly, if not daily basis to do meaningful work. We’ve written about protecting your time at length in the past, but here’s a few strategies we really like:

    Schedule your meaningful work session a month in advance

    Cal Newport, best-selling author of Deep Work, uses prioritizing meaningful work sessions months in advance as a way to boost his workplace productivity:

    “At any given point, I should have deep work scheduled for roughly the next month. This four week lead time is sufficiently long enough that when someone requests a chunk of my time, I’ve almost certainly already reserved my deep work blocks for that period.

    “I can, therefore, schedule the request with confidence in any time that remains.”

    Start your day with a meaningful work session

    Designer, creative director, and Superbooked CEO Dan Mall recently discovered he was spending the majority of his days on busywork. So instead, he decided to ‘boilerplate’ his daily schedule with a session dedicated to meaningful work:

    “By doing meaningful work for the first 60-90 minutes of your day, no matter what happens later that day, you will have advanced your personal mission.”

    What these two techniques come down to is our ‘effort capacity’, which is essentially the amount of time and energy we’re able to put into a given thing at a given time. If your capacity for working on the really meaningful stuff isn’t high because you’re not giving it priority, your chances of crafting a meaningful career are pretty slim.

    Stay connected to your bigger goals by celebrating the small wins

    ‘Meaningfulness’ might be some big, lofty goal, but treating it as such can actually be detrimental. Researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer found that “Of all the things that boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”

    Yet, it’s not just making progress that makes us feel better, but celebrating it. Every time we recognize an achievement that relates to our most meaningful work, we build our self-efficacy. The more confident we are in our abilities, the more motivated we are to do our best work.

    Having lots of small wins like this play into something called our ‘goal gradient’. This essentially means the closer we get to achieving something, the harder we’re willing to work to make it happen.

    Rather than focusing solely on that large, lofty, future filled with meaningful work, look at the small steps you’re taking today. Each small win takes you that much closer to building a meaningful career.

    Give yourself permission to act out of character as you find your way

    When you’re making massive changes like this, it can feel like you’re becoming a different person. Which you are. Unfortunately, our brains hate change and will fight against these feelings, even if they know they’re positive in the long-run.

    One way to get past this is to embrace what personality psychology expert Brain Little calls a ‘free trait’—behaving out of character while in pursuit of something more deeply meaningful. This could mean allowing yourself to be more extroverted when pitching your idea, even if you’re naturally introverted. Or, taking more risks by sharing your work even if you’re normally more reserved or risk-averse.

    However, Little warns that these moments of embracing your free trait can be mentally tasking. Therefore, you should only employ them sparingly on your path to a meaningful career.

    Is your workplace holding you back from doing meaningful work?

    meaningful career

    While there are many ways to change the work you’re doing to be more meaningful, or to find a new, meaningful career, sometimes our job and our purpose just don’t align.

    This isn’t always our fault, however. In one study on meaningful work in the workplace, researchers found that managers can’t help us increase how meaningful our work is, but they can all-too-easily undermine those same feelings:

    “… our research showed that quality of leadership received virtually no mention when people described meaningful moments at work… but poor management was the top destroyer of meaningfulness.”

    Most commonly, leaders and managers cause a sense of futility and a lack of meaning in our work through:

    1. Creating a disconnect between personal and company values
    2. Failing to recognize and appreciate employee contributions
    3. Giving employees work they see as pointless (e.g. bureaucratic work or filling out forms)
    4. Treating employees unfairly
    5. Overriding employees’ judgement, leading to feelings of disempowerment
    6. Ostracizing employees or creating a disconnect between colleagues
    7. Creating unnecessary risk of harm to employees (e.g. putting them in situations where they feel unsafe)

    While all these actions by management were associated with lower feelings of meaningfulness at work, researchers found that a disconnect between personal and company values were the most common causes.

    If your manager is pushing you to do work that goes against your personal values, it can quickly erode any sense of meaningfulness from your work.

    If you feel like something is missing, don’t simply blame it on yourself.

    Look at your workplace and whether it allows you to do work that aligns with your values. Does where you work and who you work with empower you? Or is it adding to a sense of meaninglessness and futility?

    And remember, while your boss can bring you down, you’re the only person who can build yourself back up.

    What makes our work meaningful? For many of us, this question rarely even enters our minds. Work is work. It supports other facets of our life, like raising a family or pursuing our hobbies.

    However, with a third of our life spent working, isn’t it worth the effort to try to make it a better, more meaningful experience?

    Give these methods a try and let us know what works for you in the comments. We’ll update this post as we learn more techniques.

    Jory MacKay

    Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.


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