No matter how much importance you place on your job, most of us wouldn’t mind being more successful at work. The thing is, being “successful” can’t really be defined by one single metric—it’s not just about negotiating that raise or closing a round of funding for your startup. So what is success at work and how do you do it?
In order to answer that question, we have to understand the various components that make up success in this context. If you’re like most Americans, you probably work more than 40 hours a week, which means your job is a big part of your life. And while there are downsides to that, the upsides are equally important. What are those upsides? Close colleagues who become close friends. Favorite activities. A greater sense of purpose.
To be more successful at work you have to take all these factors into account.
Let’s take a look at what success means, according to science, and dig into seven ways you can up feelings of success on the job and in your life.
What Does It Mean to Be Successful at Work?
In the simplest terms, success just means accomplishing an aim or purpose. So to be more successful at work, you have to figure out what your aim is. Do you want to increase your productivity, so you can get home to your family earlier (and impress your boss in the process)? Do you want to move to a different role or company that better aligns with your values?
The science of positive psychology (which is the study of what makes people thrive, and we live and breathe it around here), suggests that the most successful people are those who are tapped into a sense of meaning. In fact, research shows people who find meaning in their jobs perform better at work. It’s sort of a 1 + 1 = 3 situation: Finding meaning in your work can help you be better at your job, and research shows that in turn can help you find more meaning in life. That sounds a heck of a lot like success to us.
So allow us to define being successful at work like this: Reaching a point where you’re energized by what you do, motivated to do it better, and ultimately fulfilled both in the office and when you go home. Is it a lofty goal? You bet—but we like those.
7 Tips for Being Successful On the Job
Luckily, there are several science-backed strategies you can use to accomplish your aim. Here are seven of them.
1. Remember your mission
It sounds a little touchy-feely, but finding meaning in your work—aka tapping into your mission at the office—can actually help you 1) be more productive and 2) be happier with your job, according to research from organizational psychologist Adam Grant.
You don’t have to believe your job is changing the world for this strategy to make you more successful. If your mission isn’t so explicit, take a moment to define what motivates you to do what you’re doing. Maybe your job provides relevant experience to help you get into business school, a paycheck that allows you to bulldoze student loan debt, or just a really fun creative outlet.
Whatever it was that motivated you to take the job, remember why you’re there and use it to inspire your success.
2. Talk to your coworkers
Study after study has proved social connection is a huge part of determining your happiness. But relationships are also a key part of finding meaning—and thereby a key to success at work. Research shows that spending time with people you care about, increases your sense of meaning.
So how can you use that to be more successful at work? Be intentional about creating bonds with your coworkers and your boss. Not only will developing these kinds of relationships make you feel more energized to head into the office, it can also build your reputation as a well-liked team player—not a bad thing to be in your boss’s mind as she considers your next promotion.
3. Ask how you can make a difference
Researchers at the O.C. Tanner Institute conducted a research project to try to analyze what makes successful people truly great. One of their key findings? Successful people took the time to ask thoughtful questions, like “What difference can I make that my team would love?”
Aside from strengthening your professional bonds, it will also help you reach those more tangible metrics of success—like industry awards. The researchers found 88 percent of people who won awards for their work started projects by asking similar questions.
4. Make positivity a priority
According to Tom Rath, an author and researcher who studies how behavior impacts our success in business and in life, the most successful people in the office make it a habit to stay positive. According to Rath, in his book, “Are You Fully Charged? The 3 Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life,”
Positive exchanges boost your body’s production of oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that increases your ability to communicate, collaborate, and trust others. When oxytocin activates networks in your prefrontal cortex, it leads to more expansive thought and action.”
But because our reaction to negative exchanges tends to outweigh positive ones, we need more of the latter for the success-building strategy to work. Rath’s rule of thumb: Focus on keeping 80 percent of each work interaction positive, whether you’re giving feedback on a project or talking to your boss about how things are going.
5. Take a vacation
It seems counter-intuitive but taking time off can actually make you more successful at work. There’s actual data behind that. A study from the U.S. Travel Association and Project: Time Off found that people who used all of their vacation days were more likely to get promoted and get a raise or bonus than their coworkers who forfeited some of their allotted time.
Why? The researchers theorized that taking time off does two things for you: It helps you recharge and therefore maintain peak productivity levels. In other words, your downtime helps you stay motivated to up your game in the office.
6. Take a break
The same idea applies to taking breaks throughout your day. Research shows brief “mental breaks” keep you focused. One study found that when working on a task for 50 minutes straight, participants who took two brief breaks performed better than those who worked without stopping. Translation? Building quick breaks into your day can help you be more successful at the office.
The key is to keep breaks regularly spaced and short. How short? Well, the research differs, and truthfully, you’ll have to experiment to find what works best for you. Here are some ratios to try.
- 45-15: Rath’s research suggests the best ratio is to work in highly-focused 45-minute bursts followed by a 15-minute break.
- 50-10: Other research suggests focusing for 50 minutes and then taking 10-minute mental rests.
- 25-5: Aka the Pomodoro, which brings that working time to 25 minutes with 5-minute breaks.
7. Work together
Earlier this year, we wrote about how happiness researcher and co-founder of The Institute for Applied Positive Research, Shawn Achor, changed the way we looked at success. Our main takeaway? One of the most powerful ways to be more successful at work (and in life) is to stop looking at success as a one-person game. Instead, working together can boost you to new levels, Achor argues. “The height of your potential is predicted by the people who surround you,” he writes.
So, how can you use that idea to actually be more successful? Focus more on collaborating rather than competing at the office. Identify the people who challenge you at the office and team up with them—just imagine how successful you can be together.
To sum it all up
Being successful at work isn’t just about how quickly or even how well you do your job. It’s about the meaning you take from it, the people who join you on the way, and the impact you can make. Tapping into these tips can overhaul your perspective and increase not only your success but also your happiness. In our book, that’s the biggest success of all.
Here’s a quick summary of how to be successful in the workplace.
- Focus on the why of your work: What motivated you to get started in this field? What made you excited about this job when you took it?
- Prioritize connections with coworkers. Make it a goal to have at least five minutes of conversation with someone at your office once a day.
- Ask good questions. How can you make a difference to your coworkers? Bosses?
- Keep your perspective positive. Remember Rath’s 80-20 rule: Aim to make 80 percent of work interactions positive.
- Use all of your vacation time. Time off = recharged brain.
- Take regular breaks during the day. Find the ratio that works for you, whether it’s 45 minutes of focus and 15 minutes of rest or 25 minutes of focus and 5 minutes of rest.
- Make it a group effort. None of us actually succeed alone, so embrace togetherness for more success for everyone.
Your turn: What makes you feel successful at work? Tell us in the comments.
Want to make your job even better? Here are 83 secrets to feeling happier at work.
Author: Macaela Mackenzie
Macaela Mackenzie is a freelance writer and content strategist. When she doesn’t have her nose in a research journal or the New York Times, she’s likely to be found looking for punny greeting cards or an excuse to explore a new travel spot.