“Ouch, my knee!” I whine into the, mercifully, empty bedroom.
Two days post-surgery, I’ve awoken from drug-induced slumber to the sight of my bandaged leg atop several pillows. I wonder if the eight screws the surgeon inserted into my shinbone are tap dancing. As fond as I am of this hypothesis, I decide the pain is likely a function of medication wearing off (although, apparently, not its hallucinogenic effects).
I fumble around the night table for my work notebook and phone. Nothing on my to-do list seems vital and there are no urgent texts from my assistant. I, therefore, reach for the Percocet and swallow a pill.
“Oh no! What have I done? Project CST can’t wait!”
I’m suddenly upset that Project CST, which is not even on the to-do list, will be further delayed. Happily, my fretting doesn’t last. I soon see thousands of pink snowflakes and blissfully forget I have Project CST, a wounded knee or troubles of any kind. Thank you Percocet! When I eventually awake, I disregard the huge yellow sticky note with the urgent to-do’s and instead open my laptop to start work on Project CST. I’m soon engrossed and as oblivious to my marred condition as when stupefied by Percocet.
I’ll shortly reveal what Project CST is and why it’s so enthralling. But first, why in the world was it not on my to-do list? The reason is I wrote a dreadfully small-minded to-do list. On the eve of my surgery, I was the modern version of the threatened cave woman trying to survive an approaching tornado. With a sore leg, unsteady hands and a hefty portion of self-pity, I pondered this question:
How do I minimize the damage to my job of a leg fracture and eight-week recovery?
I dutifully listed what I would do to ensure that three thousand people expecting a conference keynote did not face an empty lectern because I couldn’t travel there, that a project did not get canceled because I failed to present survey findings to the executive team, that I didn’t miss a client deadline and that I didn’t get fired. Yawn. It was not an inspiring document.
Of course, saving my job is understandable. Work provides me shelter when it rains, food when I’m hungry and medical attention when I do stupid things like try to jump over a rock while running full speed down a steep mountain trail (yes, that’s how I fractured my tibia). Nevertheless, protecting myself from ruin, while necessary, is as inspiring as dental hygiene. I brush my teeth every morning. Still, I’ve never bolted out of bed because I fervently want to feel the toothbrush in my hands. Goals of preventing tooth decay, a no-show at a conference or other personal calamities will not fan the fire in our bellies.
Project CST, on the other hand, is profoundly motivating. Why? Because it has a societal purpose. Specifically, Project CST involves helping a Fortune 500 hospitality client engage employees in stemming child sexual trafficking. It didn’t make it to my narrow-minded to-do list because it had no deadline and, regardless as to how it proceeded, posed little risk to my work. This non-urgent low-risk project, however, is what lured me from my fluffy mattress to my hardwood desk.
If you think I’m unusual because I was more motivated to help a group of unknown girls in dire life circumstances than pursue self-interest, I’m not. This merely makes me an ordinary human. Scores of academic studies find that, for most people most of the time, improving the lot of others is the mightiest motivator. A UK study published in Management Science conducted by Mirco Tonin and Michael Vlassopoulos, for example, found that employees are more productive when their work benefits a societal cause. Chances are, however, those employees have no clue that societal purpose drives them. Indeed, such lack of awareness explains why many of us find ourselves listlessly following to-do lists we are indifferent to.
There’s a beautiful irony to human motivation. The clarion call that draws us fully into work can’t be fully about us. Don’t make the mistake I made. Don’t limit yourself to a soporific egotistical work to-do list. If your to-do list includes drafting a meeting agenda, why not include an invitation for participants to give a 30-second commercial on their favorite nonprofit as part of their personal introductions? If your to-do list includes finding a way to improve your interpersonal work relationships, why not join your company’s green team as a way to learn how to improve your teamwork skills? If your to-do list includes planning the workplace holiday party, why not convert it into a night of volunteering at the local soup kitchen?
In summary, don’t be afraid to tweak your to-do list to contribute to unemployed veterans, terminally ill children, the health of our oceans or other societal cause. You deserve work that awakens you.
This post was originally published on LinkedIn on the post date and reposted here in January 2018 when this site launched.