Practical Ways To Promote Joy at Work


The goal is to not waste your time. This piece is about time, and asking the question, what does my work time feel like? Whether remote or in person, most people want their work to be fulfilling and enjoyable. The fog of the pandemic made that want a touch more elusive. Thankfully, it’s never too late to reclaim joy at work. In my own quest for presence and positivity, I turned to experts on productivity, organization, and focus. Now that I’ve had time to digest and apply their advice, I’ll offer several salient takeaways that individuals and organizations can use to hit the reset button and find balance.


When is the last time you or your organization recalibrated communication expectations? We’re experiencing a communication crisis. According to one study, as high as 80% of workers feel stressed because of ineffective communication. It seems impossible when you think of all the technology that allows us to communicate more “efficiently,” but that same technology is destroying organizational culture and work-life balance.

Email has become another form of texting. People expect immediate responses. Emails are flying around every second, seven days a week. It makes us feel like we’re always on call. When we put one fire out, there’s another explosion at the top of our open inbox. The pandemic threw gasoline on the email dumpster fire, and it’s distracting us from the work that matters.

In Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport offers a ton of practical strategies for limiting shallow work (“noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted”) and regaining our focus. Here are just a few steps that can radically improve productivity and restore joy.

1. Check your email 2–3 times a day

Crazy. Impossible! I’ll get fired. Leaders can reassure their team that won’t happen. My times are before or after breakfast, the same for lunch, and then once more before I finish for the day (ideally around 5:00, though that’s not always possible as a boarding school teacher). You can play your favorite flow music if you want, respond to what needs responding, and then… Close! That! Tab! No lurking inbox count. If we understand this to be an expectation in the workplace, if we give each other permission to disconnect, email will still be a part of the job, but it won’t be the job (if it is your job and you love it, now’s a great time to be alive).

2. Institute a shutdown ritual

I’ll do one last sweep of the inbox, check my planner for the next day, make sure there aren’t any emergencies that need immediate resolution, map out my morning plan of attack, and then, as a wise man once said to some boys making a lot of noise on a weeknight around a fire, “Don’t turn it down…shut it down.” This is hard at first, but it’s a lifesaver. Again, if leaders make this an expectation, people won’t feel guilty spending time with their families and doing what they love. Instead, they can recharge and have the energy to be productive tomorrow. We should celebrate people who unplug from work and make the most of their free time, and we should learn what they’re doing at work that allows them to do so. (Note: There are those of us who find quiet time in the evening to work after the kids go to bed. At the very least, that work can get done without checking email. And not everyone has the luxury of a 9:00–5:00, or the privilege of financial stability. Still, if you have just one free hour not working or sleeping, a shutdown ritual will help protect that time.)

3. Establish email etiquette

This is for everyone. Discourage the 2:00 AM email and encourage the schedule send function to communicate during work hours. Only send emails to people who need to receive them. No attention-seeking CC parties. Beware the reply all button. Include clear calls to action and compose messages that are easy to respond to, instead of hasty blasts like, “Thoughts?” If you can find someone in person, don’t send the email. It can be an entertaining exercise for an organization to develop email norms, and it can dampen the dumpster fire.

Tidy Up

We’re surrounded by stuff. So much stuff. And too much stuff is distracting. In Joy at Work: Organizing Your Professional Life by Marie Kondo and Scott Sonenshein, the authors explain how we can declutter our work lives and enjoy showing up each day. After I finished reading, I made some much-needed changes that have allowed me to breathe a little easier in the office. No matter the size of your workspace, it’s important to hold onto what matters and to let go of the rest. Extraneous relics will hold you back. More blank canvas. Less museum. Output over input.

1. Purge

I went to my office and did a deep clean. There was an impressive amount of random stuff that had no good reason to be there. Two sleds, a broken portable PA system, books I had never and would never read, mysterious electronics, fire permits from 2016. You get the idea. I still have work to do, but now I walk into my office and know where everything is. Cleaning up takes a couple of minutes at the end of the day. I don’t open a drawer, experience an alarming jump in heart rate, and then shut the drawer. It’s a space with fewer distractions where I can get down to business. Organizations should make time for people to tidy up. It will save time, money, and mental energy in the long run.

2. Keep things that bring you joy

I was suspicious of the KonMari method: if it doesn’t bring you joy, let it go. I have to say, she’s onto something. I took all the random pens and pencils I never used and put them in a big bin to give out to students. The only pens left are the kind I love to write with. I put a fold-up meditation bench in a drawer that I can take out for a mid-day break. I left the decorations that bring me joy when I see them and got rid of the scattered notes and things-that-might-come-in-handy-one-day. I held onto the solar-powered figurine of a Mexican wrestler that has made more than one person search the room and say, “What’s that noise?” while it ticks like a clock, rocking back and forth as long as the sun still burns. So much joy.

3. Bring order to digital chaos

For me, this will be an ongoing battle, but having an organized desktop and phone has saved me a ton of time. It’s never been easier to search and find what you need, so every app and document doesn’t have to be in view. I decluttered my computer desktop to a handful of folders and removed any app on my phone that was a distraction. I was a repeat offender of having a million tabs open. Now I keep it to the ones I’m actively using. Simply having a phone nearby drains mental energy as we anticipate incoming or missed notifications, and too many folders take longer to sort through. Bringing order to digital chaos reduces the distracting noise of our devices. If we limit what is immediately accessible, we focus on what matters.

Celebrate Leisure

What?! Nick, this must stop! Hear me out. Or read Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving by Celeste Headlee. Her book was an eye-opener for me, and I needed it. As a society, we’ve come to glorify overworking. The past few years have dissolved the already blurred boundaries between work and home. I hope that leaders recognize the importance of healthy boundaries, and I hope they celebrate employees who value their lives outside of work.

1. Schedule time for leisure

Especially time without social media and the internet. If I’ve kept your attention this long, I won’t take this opportunity to rain on your parade. I’ll simply suggest you noodle the research about the impact of social media and heavy internet use on your health and wellness and decide what’s best for you. Wherever you land on that one, scheduling time to do what you love will always be a worthwhile investment. Organizations that explore ways to give their employees ample free time — and help them use that time well — will find that they have happier, healthier, and more effective workers.

2. Do what you love at work

Here’s where collaboration is key. Finding joy at work is a two-way street. It’s easy to blame the bosses. However, the bosses don’t know what gets everyone tuned in and fired up. Self-advocacy is necessary. While we do have to accept that working for a team means doing what’s best for the team — and that may not always be what we want — we can have open conversations about the kind of work that motivates us. That’s the work to focus on. If you’re spending hours on end doing stuff that makes you stressed and unhappy, it’s probably time for a little self-reflection.

3. Stop multitasking

I have found myself staring blankly at my computer, failing to remember what I was doing. One time, I picked up a phone call, told someone I would do something, and then completely forgot the conversation. I’ve discovered emails still in draft that I thought I sent months ago. These were all failed attempts to multitask. Many experts have said it already, but the human brain can only focus well on one thing at a time. If you want to do many things poorly, multitasking is the way to go. You wouldn’t tweet before taking a game-winning penalty shot or check your email while reciting lines for a play or online shop while changing a diaper. Whether it be banning laptops and cell phones from meetings or training employees to work smarter not harder, organizational leaders would be wise to create work cultures that unleash the full potential of the human brain.

No Patronizing

What about the whole “without patronizing” thing? Employees don’t need to hear that their job is hard. They know if it is or isn’t. They don’t need management to leave them alone if they are looking for a more fulfilling experience at work. Rather, they benefit from leaders who get to know them, take time to listen to them, and then set them up to do a job they love. They don’t need me or anyone else to make them joyful. Joy lies within.

No one needs to do what I have suggested here. I have not instituted every piece of advice from every book I have read. Self-help is patronizing when authors present their anecdotal experience as “if you do this, you shall be successful and happy like me.” We all acquire knowledge, apply it to our own experience, try to learn life’s lessons, and take our best shot at living.

People yearn to feel alive. They’re hungry for meaningful connection. Leaders are people yearning to connect, in person, without distractions. I believe all of us want to feel that our work is worth the sweat, that we aren’t just keeping our heads above water, that our lives aren’t never-ending dumpster fires, that they mean something. We don’t need to patronize because we’re all looking for the same stuff. Life, love, the pursuit of happiness and all that jazz. You won’t find it in your inbox, and it probably won’t pop up in a little red bubble with a ding. Shall we get to work?

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