What to Do If You’re Unhappy at Work

Do you love your job? No? You’ve probably just accepted that a less-than-stellar job is the status quo.

You took that job in the first place to make money and sustain yourself. That afforded some satisfaction in the independence of financial freedom and feelings of security and validation.

But over time, the satisfaction that money provides has waned, and that need to feel validated has evolved into wanting something more than just a paycheck—to feel fulfilled by your work, to have an impact or to see some meaning in what you do. The problem is that you have already lapsed into the routine of going to work every day, putting in effort to keep the wheels running. You’ve resigned yourself to doing work that might be better at paying the bills than providing fulfillment.

Just like smoking a pack a day or mindlessly spooning down a half-gallon of Rocky Road, tolerating an unfulfilling job is a bad habit.

Yes, a habit.

Maybe your company culture isn’t outright bad. But if it’s just “good enough,” that actually can deepen the habit further. It’s not so painful that you feel the need to make a change or leave, and like so many people, you say, “It’s not my dream job, but it’s fine.” This mentality is a coping mechanism that can prevent one’s ability to maximize personal potential. The idea of a dream job seems based in fantasy, something that is for “other people.”

“Habits emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort,” says Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit. “Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often.” Essentially our brains are looking for ways to make as many things we do a habit, as a way to be more efficient.

Generally speaking, our habits follow a specific pattern: starting with a cue, then a routine, then a reward. 

The cue is a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.
The routine, or the actions you perform, can be physical, mental or emotional.
The reward helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering. And if it is, it becomes more and more ingrained and automatic over time.

So how does your less-than-stellar job fit into this pattern of a habit?

Your job is the cue
Your work is the routine
Your paycheck is the reward

You get into a habit of doing the same thing over and over, and sooner or later, it feels like it’s impossible to change anything—even for a better reward—because our brains are content with the efficient status quo.

So, the reason you’re unhappy at work: The bad news is, it’s you. The good news is, it’s a habit that can be broken.

In my work, I try to demystify the code for creating a job or a career that gives you success and satisfaction. And I know that having your dream job is a strategy to solve, not an untouchable fantasy.

The key is to break your bad job habit and find a new more fulfilling one. Duhigg says you have to change the routine that gives you the same reward, but I would take that further. You must change the routine to get an enhanced reward—a paycheck and passion.

You can start by identifying and expanding something I call your Zone of Genius, where your innate talent and your purpose meet. Working in your zone is just what it sounds like: It’s doing the work you love and focusing your efforts on what you do best. Once you’re an expert on yourself and what you bring to the table, you can take on the role of being the CEO of your career.

Specifically, with clients looking for their dream job I use an approach called PEAK: Pinpoint, Express, Action and Keep operating in your Zone of Genius.

Pinpoint your Zone of Genius by figuring out what type of work would not only be fulfilling, but uses your innate talent. Know yourself well enough to know your natural talents.

Express your personal brand with more distinctiveness. This is when you share with people what jobs or projects are the perfect fit for you, what things you enjoy and are good at.

Action. Start being more proactive about creating the right work for you.

Keep in the zone by building a new habit, one with a more satisfying reward—the ability to create work you really love. It can change your life.

The side effect of knowing your best assets is that you can, more effortlessly, be proactive with your work. You can more easily see and create the types of opportunities that will get you in the zone. You create or ask for the opportunities that you are best suited for, rather than getting stuck in the habit of just taking what you get.

Don’t just settle for the status quo—ask what it’s costing you. See what 7 parts of your life will suffer if you fail to make positive changes.


Laura Garnett is a performance strategist, TEDx speaker and the creator of the Zone of Genius Assessment. She works with CEOs and executives to identify their unique talent, skills and purpose, and to craft an actionable plan to leverage those strengths in their day-to-day work. Laura has consulted with organizations such as Capital One, Conscious Capitalism, Blurb and MTV. Prior to launching her company, New York City-based Garnett Consulting, Laura honed her marketing, branding and career-refining skills at companies like American Express, IAC and Google.

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