Small Tweaks: Crafting Your Job May Improve Satisfaction

For those who know me, you know my full-time "gig" is a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota Duluth. In my inaugural post, I shared some of my struggle to find a healthy flow between work and life. Many have heard of the concept of work-life balance, in which individuals try to "balance" or split the amount of time and effort between work and other aspects of their lives that matter (e.g., family, recreation, spirituality, self-care). Personally, I take issue with the term "balance" -- seriously, is a perfect balance between work and life realistically attainable? I don't think so; at least, I've never found this to be true in my own experiences. If you have, please share your secret in the comments! Thus, I have chosen to describe the ideal relationship between work and life as a flow, in which the intention is to look for ways to make "tweaks" so that work and life can coincide alongside one another in a somewhat integrated matter...flowing in the same direction, toward what matters.

For me, achieving tenure was a feat I considered the ultimate "gold star" in my academic career and one after which I had expected to feel less stressed, less trapped, more fulfilled, and more at ease. Unfortunately, quite the opposite was true.

You might be wondering why I didn't just leave and find a new job. I thought about it, for sure--several times, in fact.  However, I paused and reflected a lot on what is important to me in the work that I do, and I continue to do this on a regular basis. What matters to me are the students at UMD with whom I have the opportunity to instruct, mentor/coach, and collaborate. I really do enjoy teaching, despite some of the day-to-day frustrations! What matters to me is working alongside a group of dedicated colleagues who share common values related to undergraduate education. Our faculty is a group of active teachers, mentors, and researchers. UMD was also one of the few places I interviewed at in which I felt my background in behavioral psychology was welcomed; believe it or not, being a behavior analyst in a non-behavioral psychology department can be difficult. I've witnessed it.

When thinking about leaving, I often have thoughts such as, "Is there another job as good as what I do have?", "Why did I want this position in the first place?", and "Would I be self-sufficient, financially, without my university job?". These thoughts are "hooks" -- inner experiences that can "get in the way" and often resulted in thinking that "sticking it out" is/was my best option.

"Sticking it out" might have actually been the best option. I have had some "aha" moments over the past few years -- these moments, I realized, only occurred when I paused to notice my thoughts and feelings and, instead of reacting in a way to avoid the day-to-day demands, viewed this as an opportunity to take action by making tweaks to my job that aligned with and moved me toward what matters. In doing so, I believed I might be able to create a job that felt less like that thing I HAVE to do and more like that thing what I WANT to do to make a meaningful impact.

So, without further ado, here are examples of some of the things about my job that were less-than-satisfying and how I "tweaked" them:

Scheduled Appointments. I value my time, and I found it very frustrating to sit in my office during "open office hours" only to have no one show up. While some might be able to use the time to work on other tasks, I had a difficult time with this because then I was working under the condition that I might get interrupted. Therefore, I hesitated to do much of anything that required too much attention. My solution: I switched to offering scheduled appointments that can be booked online. While I still have the occasional "no show," it's much less common. Also, I think this method models the importance of respecting one another's time. The scheduled time with each student is theirs, and they (and I) don't have to worry about being disrupted.

Flexible Work Practices. I value a flexible schedule and work environment. This is HUGE for me. I'm not sure if it stems from the fact that I've remained in an academic environment all my life and am used to having a day that is broken up, but I know I'm not a 9-to-5er at all! In my current position, faculty members are asked to provide preferences for teaching schedules and teaching formats (we offer face-to-face and online courses). Breaking up my work day has been one of the best things I've done for myself, and I do this in a variety of ways. I teach a mix of online and face-to-face classes, which allows me the flexibility to work both on campus and at home (or from New York, where I've been living for the summer). I also break up the day, using a work-personal time-work-personal time-work-personal time format. Breaking up my work day to make time for self-care (I'm a total gym junkie!), walk the dog, or to meet friends or clients for coffee keeps me energized and more focused when I am in "work mode".

Alignment of Service Activities with Interests. I value participating in things to which I feel I can add value and are related to personal interests. While teaching and research are considered the top priorities within the scope of my job responsibilities, I am also required to provide service to the university. This can be fulfilled in many ways, including serving on various departmental, collegiate, or university-level committees, as well as providing service to one's community and profession. Knowing that I can't drop all of my service commitments, I made the decision to be more selective whenever possible. Thus, I served on the Teaching and Learning Committee within our campus governance system because I felt I could add value to the committee's purpose. I also helped form and now co-chair the UMD Wellness Collaborativethrough which I've been able to connect with students, staff, faculty, and members of the community who all share a common interest in wellbeing.

Setting Healthy Boundaries and Learning to Say "No." I value my mental health! When I started my career, I already had a long history of saying "yes" to most anything I was asked to do, so I found myself saying "yes" to many service-related activities as a new, tenure-track faculty member. I also found myself feeling as though I needed to work 24/7 in order to "be available" to my students. While being actively involved and available typically results in a lot of positive social reinforcement from peers, supervisors, and students, it also significantly increases workload and the amount of stress one feels from trying to "do it all" and "be everything" to everyone. Now, when I'm asked to join a new committee or get involved in a project, I more carefully consider the costs and benefits and how my involvement moves me toward what is important to me. This isn't to say that my involvement comes from a place of selfishness, as what matters to me in that situation might relate to my values for mentoring students and collaborating with colleagues. I also created clear statements and course policies regarding expectations for "turn-around" time to respond to student emails; these are included in my course syllabus so that there is no "grey area." My clear policy statements--and the sound rationale for them--have saved me numerous headaches over the last 10+ years, including a time when a student questioned my decision to enforce my late submission policy because the student was unable to find parking!

Speaking Up and Voicing Concerns. I value the ability to be "real" with others. If you think about the first weeks, months, and maybe even years of your new job, you might share in my experience of avoiding sharing too much and voicing concerns about your job or work processes. I can't even begin to stress how important speaking up is, but in order to do so, you must build trusting relationships with those with whom you work. I admit that I didn't do a very good job of this at first, mostly because I was afraid that my colleagues would judge me, but also because I've had one too many relationship experiences in which trust has been damaged. So this "tweak" is one that is newer to me, and it's one I continue to work on. Post-tenure, I felt more at ease with sharing my concerns; I suspect this is normal, given a greater sense of security in one's position. What I've found is that, by speaking up and voicing my concerns, I learned that others shared similar concerns or were at least empathetic of mine. Thus, my behavior of speaking up and sharing has been positively reinforced over the last few years, and I have been able to identify other ways to "tweak" my job through conversation with my colleagues.

I truly believe the support of my colleagues is one of biggest reasons I've stayed.

The fact that my colleagues have cared enough to listen and have been willing to both allow and to help me craft my job demonstrates that they find value in what I bring to the Psychology department and to UMD. In the time I've been at UMD, I've proposed and developed three new courses, two of which are entirely behavior-analytic in nature, and a third that focuses on behavioral approaches to worker wellbeing. I have also had support to redirect my lines of research to better align with my passion for health and wellbeing at both the individual and organizational level and to reinvent my lab from the Organizational Performance Management lab to the Wellbeing and Behavioral Science (WBS) lab. I have also found a "tribe", to which I alluded via connections made through my involvement in the UMD Wellness Collaborative.

All of what I described above has fed into my ultimate desire to live authentically, and I plan to share more about this value and how it relates to a major "tweak" I've slowly integrated into my role as a professor where in I now bring more of "ME" into the classroom. That tweak has definitely been a biggie and a major eye-opener for me. It's one that has impacted my role as a coach, too.

While I didn't know it at the time, I later learned while attending the Occupational Health Psychology Summer Institute last summer that these tweaks I was making to my job are a form of what researchers call "job crafting." Dr. Amy Wrzesniewski, professor of Organizational Behavior at the Yale School of Management, provides a great story to illustrate the art and science of job crafting and finding meaning in your work in this video. And if you are a manager reading this, you might want to check out some of the resources related to work-flex for ideas on how to support employees in achieving their own flow.

Clearly, each job differs in its structure and its ability to afford flexibility and opportunities for tweaking. That said, with a little creativity and some conversations with coworkers and supervisors, I suspect the probability for job crafting exists on some level within your job. Perhaps some of my own examples above and the linked resources will provide some insight to get you started. In any case, I invite you to pause, notice, and look for ways to take action in your job that will continue to move you in the direction of what matters. Pausing and noticing creates space for value-added change to happen.

Notice & Act


[Note: There are many misconceptions about what tenure means in higher education, so I would encourage you to check out this article by the National Education Association outlining some of the major myths.]