When a lot of people think about their work goals, the first thing that usually comes to mind is making it out of the door as soon as possible on Friday afternoon. Many workers spend the work week dreaming about what they’ll do when they leave their place of employment. What they don’t consider is that if their career posed a worthwhile challenge, they might actually enjoy showing up.

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Quick takeaways if you’re in a hurry:

  • It’s important to challenge yourself in ways that’ll help you grow and develop your career the way that you personally want it to.
  • A good challenge provides positive motivation and direction, and helps to reframe and mitigate the stress and boredom of the modern work environment.
  • Often, professionals can best challenge themselves by developing their skills, educating themselves, or gaining influence in their business and their industry. At the end of the day, though, these goals could be nearly anything, and have to be defined by the individual.

Read on: Is your work challenging enough?

[Estimated read time: 5 minutes]


Modern work can be a drag

The modern working world was created with the industrial revolution and the increased specialisation it brought with it, but it came at a cost. Modern workers typically have highly specialised jobs that are repetitive, boring, and time-consuming while often also being very difficult. As a result, workers are stressed, unproductive, and unhappy. Only 13% of workers worldwide report that they actually enjoy their work. Ouch.

These issues have been known for some time, and businesses have tried to address them by providing benefits and leisure activities at work, ranging from free gym memberships, to snacks, to unlimited vacation days and more. While these help to reduce stress marginally, they don’t address the core issue, which is that modern work is often unfulfilling to workers; it’s very difficult to love what you do.

The issue is that our jobs today don’t feel like they really tie into our personal success and well-being, so they feel like a waste of time. The way to address that is to make work challenging again.

Challenge provides motivation and meaning

Challenging work is work that requires ingenuity and skill to achieve a goal that’s worth pursuing. Most of our jobs today require skill and ingenuity, which makes them difficult, but they tend to lack that the sense of achievement that comes with overcoming those difficulties.

That’s not because we generally don’t pursue our own goals at work. We might have performance indicators to hit, raises to earn, employee of the month awards to win, but those goals are defined by employers, not by workers themselves. Because of that, they only work for people who are interested in those things.

Defining and pursuing personal work-oriented challenges helps to make work a means to a meaningful end, and not just a place where we lose all of our precious daylight.

Making work challenging is about you

The fundamental problem with our approach to making work meaningful is that our goals are defined by our employers. Employers are focused on profits and on ensuring that their workforce is productive. The incentives they set for workers are oriented around both negative and positive reinforcement, and are focused on how well the worker is producing for their employer.

Because of that, the burden of making a job challenging is on workers themselves. Of course, some employers are more accommodating about this than others. Depending on the type of job you have, and what your personal life-goals are, there are a huge variety of ways to challenge yourself through your work.

For example, structured programs sometimes can offer what employers themselves don’t. Chartered Accountants challenge themselves by keeping up with annual professional development learning requirements to maintain their status. This keeps them on top of their game. It’s not just about accountants, of course. People in any field can use online hubs like Coursera and Udemy to educate themselves about their industry and to update and develop their skills further to help them advance at work, or to help qualify themselves for another job.

Beyond that, the sky’s the limit. You might decide to pursue a raise, a promotion, an award, a new job, industry-wide recognition, or anything else. The point isn’t the goal itself, it’s about taking control of your work life to get something that you want out of it.

The payoff

The result of challenging yourself at work is more than just the sense of achievement that you get if and when you succeed. Having a goal gives you a reason to show up, and reframes your everyday work stresses as obstacles that you’ll overcome to get somewhere, rather than oppressive nuisances that exist to torment you while you’re trying to reach Friday.

This altered focus will help you reduce the amount of stress you’re feeling, improve your productivity, and help you achieve your work and personal goals. So, what are you waiting for? Figure out how you can make your job work for you.