How to Ensure That You Have a Meaningful Day of Work (Whilst Being an Effective Manager)

Have you ever ended a work day knowing that you were really, really busy, but you’re not really able to articulate what you did or if you feel fulfilled from the day?

You’re not the only one. 

One key challenge of being a manager is balancing the needs of your team against the demands of your role. For many managers, even the most senior ones, managing a team of people isn’t the only responsibility of their role. Quite often, a manager will have other responsibilities that involve the delivery of work, particularly in digital agencies.

For example, an Art Director at a design agency may manage four or five designers, whilst still being responsible or accountable for delivering (or, at least, overseeing) designs themselves. 

This means that a manager needs to find time to deliver work to the highest standards possible, whilst driving the same for their team and looking after all of the other responsibilities that a manager has. 

It’s important for you to be aware of the need for this delicate balance because all too often, the managerial responsibilities (which are usually people focused and therefore, hard to ignore) will dominate your headspace and time. This can lead to subpar performance in your “day job” which can spiral and lead to subpar performance in your role as a whole. 

I’ve seen plenty of managers over the years not manage their time and workload effectively, leading to them spending most of the regular working day looking after their team, then their delivery work is worked on out of hours. 

Whilst a hard (and often not discussed) challenge to overcome, there are a few simple steps that you can take that will help you move towards a place where your workload is balanced, leading to a meaningful day of work. After all, whether you’re a manager or not, having a meaningful day at work is important to all of us. 

Luckily, the first step is simply the awareness of this need for balance. Many managers don’t realise it until it’s too late and it’s the one paradox of becoming a manager that you’re not prepared for: you get promoted and promoted multiple times because you’re good at a “thing” – but the more you get promoted, the less you do of the “thing” and even when this is the case, you still have to do the “thing” whilst being a great manager.

Let’s look at what other steps you can take to find this balance.

Be clear on what a meaningful day is to you

Meaningful is a hugely subjective word. What gives us meaning in our work will differ for pretty much everyone. Of course, there will always be some commonalities. But there is no way for me to tell you what meaningful work means for you as an individual. 

I mean, the fact that you’re reading this probably means that you find meaning in managing people and seeing them develop! 

So, I’ll give you a few ideas that may apply to you but even if they don’t, they should give you enough inspiration to start identifying what a meaningful day of work means to you. 

Making progress on a task or project

When you wrap up for the day, do you get a good feeling when you’ve been able to make good progress on a task or a key project? This could be related to your team or it could be another task. For example, it could be a task to review and update a personal development plan for a team member, or to finish the first draft of a wireframe for a piece of design for a client. 

Essentially, it’s something very “tangible” and has value to the recipient. 

Making a key decision

Perhaps you derive meaning from making, or helping to make, a key decision that means moving forward with something. This is far less tangible than the previous point, but could still carry a lot of meaning to you because it means that a project can be moved forward either by you or by others. 

Having a period of quiet time to think and allow ideas to flow

Another way that some people find meaning in their work is literally just thinking. It may mean finding uninterrupted time and headspace to think about a hard problem or a new creative idea that you’ve been mulling over for a while.

As a manager, particularly a busy one, this kind of meaningful work can be hard to get because there are so many demands on your time. But if you find meaning and value in it, then you absolutely need to find a way to carve out time for it. 

Back to back meetings

Yes, this can also provide meaning! Meetings are often denounced as unproductive time and something that we should avoid. Whilst this can be true, it’s almost certainly only true if you’re running and taking part in bad meetings. I’ll write about that another day…

But if you are energised and enthused by meetings, then it’s likely that you’ll also find meaning from them – along with actions and a purpose which, sadly, many meetings miss. 

Hopefully, the handful of examples above have given you some ideas on what meaning in your work day can be. One broad way to think about this is to simply ask yourself what makes you feel good at the end of a work day. When you log off for the day, what do you look back on and think “that was a good day”. 

This is where you need to focus because these are the things that you need to try and find time for as much as possible.

What you need in order to enable meaningful work

Now that we’ve looked at what meaningful work may mean to you, let’s finish off by looking at the conditions that you need in order to enable that work.

As Bruce Daisley says in The Joy of Work, meaningful work is a combination of: four elements:

  • Quiet: for most of our work, we probably need quiet time. This means switching off anything that can interrupt us, whether in the office or at home. It means making yourself unavailable on Slack, unavailable for meetings or even by phone.
  • Flow: chances are that you need to be able to get into the flow of your work if you are going to make it meaningful. This probably means that an appropriate amount of time is set aside for that work that enables this flow to exist.
  • Progress: if we don’t make progress with the work, then we’re probably not going to find meaning in it. This doesn’t mean that we have to progress enough to complete the work, but we need to feel like we’ve at least moved forward a little on what we wanted to achieve.
  • Satisfaction: for something to be meaningful, we need to derive some satisfaction from it. If we don’t, then we’re unlikely to end that day feeling fulfilled.

When reviewing whatever gives you meaning in your work, look at the four areas above and try to put in place tangible steps and checks that can enable them to be present. 

If you can follow these steps, then you’re far less likely to fall into the trap of leaving your work day having managed your team, but still not feeling like you achieved anything. 

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