How To Stop Work From Feeling Like Work

I had an interesting conversation the other night with a man I met at an event. We were talking about an uncomfortable truth—the fact that, no matter how inspired and motivated you may feel about what you do for a living, after a while it tends to start feeling like, well, work. That is, you start subtly resenting and resisting the tasks your career requires, as if someone else were forcing you to do them, and start getting distracted by fantasies about what you’d rather be doing.

The man I was talking to was having this experience in his career. For several years, he worked at a large, prestigious investment bank. Eventually, however, he started feeling burned out and uninspired, and quit to start his own company. The firm he started did “environmental investing,” investing in businesses involved in energy-saving technology. But after a few years, he said, his job started to feel like “work” again, and he’s now pondering possible exit strategies.

A certain amount of this kind of feeling is probably inevitable. Every career involves some mundane tasks, like paying bills, making phone calls, and buying furniture, that it’s hard to feel thrilled about doing. However, I’ve found that, if we have the right mindset, even these responsibilities don’t need to feel as burdensome as they often do.

I’ve come to recognize that our work starts to feel stifling and oppressive when we become too identified with the role we play in it. When we start feeling as if our careers are part of who we are, we become consumed by constant fear of performing badly in them—as if we could lose part of ourselves by making a mistake. Ironically, taking our work this seriously has us lose our drive and productivity. I came to this realization when I saw the difference between my experience of activities I considered “work” and those I thought of as “play.”

For example, I’ve written a number of published nonfiction pieces, but I’ve yet to publish any fiction I’ve done. I love writing fiction just for my own and my friends’ amusement. However, in years past, whenever I’ve tried to get my fiction work in shape for publication, I’ve suddenly become hypercritical of my writing. “How could I think people would want to read this?” I’d think as I pored over a passage I’d initially adored.

I recently recognized that, when I start thinking about publishing my fiction, a subtle shift actually takes place in the way I think about myself. I start seeing myself not simply as a guy who has fun writing fiction, but as a fiction writer. When I become identified with being a fiction writer, I get overly concerned about the quality of my writing and how it will be perceived. In other words, I start needing to “live up” to the role of fiction writer, and holding my work to an accordingly exacting standard. Not surprisingly, in these moments, “writer’s block” sets in, and I find myself agonizing over every word choice and making little progress.

By contrast, when I choose to sit down and write “just for fun,” I’m amazed by how productive and inspired I am. When I’m not concerned with how well I’m playing some important role, and I’m content to be “just a guy who likes writing fiction,” I unquestionably do my best work.

Spiritual teachers have long recognized the danger of becoming identified with a career or other function we perform in life. As Osho writes in Zen: The Path of Paradox, taking the roles we play in life too seriously can strip the joy from what we do:

“When you are in the office, be a clerk, be a commissioner, be a governor—that’s perfectly okay—but the moment you get out of the office, don’t be a governor . . . . That governorship will be heavy on your head—it won’t allow you to enjoy. The birds will be singing in the trees, but how can a governor participate? How can a governor dance with the birds? And the rains have come and a peacock may be dancing—how can a governor stand there in a crowd and watch? Impossible, a governor has to remain a governor.”

How do we prevent ourselves from identifying with what we do, and retain the joy and creative power that come with freedom from our roles? One practice I regularly use is to keep most of my body in motion as I’m going through my daily activities. My movements may be slight—for example, I may be gently rocking my hips in time with the music I’m listening to. Or, if I’m feeling a bit more energetic, I’ll stomp my feet and occasionally take a break from typing to clap my hands.

This practice keeps me conscious of my humanity and the simple joys of living, and prevents me from becoming too absorbed in any particular role or task. No matter where I succeed or fail in my activities, I’ll always have access to the pleasures that come from moving my body in playful ways. When I remain aware that this source of joy will always be available, regardless of what happens, the things I do in life no longer feel so risky and significant. When my body is joyfully dancing, even with very minimal movement, work no longer feels like work. By staying connected with my body, I can turn any activity, no matter how routine, into “play.”

Osho, again, offers a compelling explanation of this phenomenon. When we’re aware of and using our bodies, he says, we feel “rooted in the earth,” and thus whole and empowered. However, he writes, “[i]f we are not in contact with our bodies we are not in contact with the earth. . . . Because we are not rooted we are always afraid; because of that fear we become possessive; because of that fear we cannot trust anybody and so jealousy comes.” The fear created by this lack of rootedness has us second-guess ourselves in what we do, and make working a stressful and difficult endeavor.

If your career has started to feel burdensome and anxiety-laden, see if this exercise helps you. While you’re at work, regardless of what you’re doing, experiment with keeping your body moving. If you’re sitting at a desk, try slightly rocking your hips or tapping your feet. Or, if you’re feeling more inspired, you can try rhythmically swaying your entire body from side to side as you work. Try on various forms of movement until you arrive at something that gets you feeling energized and focused.

When you stay connected with your body in this way, you’ll likely start to feel your identification with your role, and the accompanying anxiety, fading away. Paradoxically, when you find ways to take what you do less seriously, and to treat it as “play,” you’ll find your passion and drive for what you do returning.