Designing your Work Life - by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans
Updated: Jan 14, 2022
In November 2020, after a hectic summer responding to Covid-19 from a HR perspective, I found myself without a job and with a dislocated elbow. I was forced to take some time away from work (and away from a keyboard) and think about what comes next for me career-wise. The book I’m talking about today has helped with that.
During 2020, I listened to some great podcasts from Squiggly Careers and one of them mentioned a book called Designing Your Work Life, by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. I decided to read it and work through the exercises to help me think about the future of work for me.
It was an easy read and flowed well - a good mixture of theoretical content, storytelling and prompts to actually think about your own situation. I found it best to read a chapter and then reflect for a while - trying to apply what I’d taken in.
The premise of the book is applying design thinking to finding the right way forward in terms of work. Reading it, I discovered that I already seem to “think like a designer” quite a lot. It seems to be my natural way of approaching things. I like to identify and reframe problems, making sure we’re looking for the answer to the right question. I enjoy “ideation” - coming up with lots of options - and working out which is the “Best Doable Option” rather than wasting time being distracted by the best theoretical option - keeping my perfectionist tendencies well managed. Where I’m not so confident is the “prototyping” stage. So I’m practicing. This book review blog is a prototype - trying something new out to see how it works.
I was intrigued by the comment that design starts with empathy and that to design our own work lives we need to start with empathy for ourselves. I think I’m much better at empathy towards others, seeing things from their perspective and understanding how they may be feeling. Self-empathy is about observing how you experience life, noticing and recognising what you think and feel. It’s also about silencing your inner critic/judge (just for a moment) and being willing to explore. So, I’m also practicing listening to myself better and working out what I do actually value, enjoy, need, etc.
As I progressed through the book, at times I wished I’d read their original book first. Designing Your Work Life can definitely be read as a stand alone book and I think it repeats some of what’s contained in the first book, but a few references to content within Designing Your Life led me to Google what they meant. [I've now got hold of the original book and will be reading it soon.]
The first big takeaway for me was the authors’ idea of “good enough … for now”. Especially at this time, where the world seems hunkered down and finding opportunities for any work is challenging, I found it refreshing to think about what my “good enough for now” looks like. Contentment is a challenging but important state of being for me. In my last job, I was always asking “are we there yet?” and didn’t take enough time to appreciate the amazing things we achieved together. The concept of “good enough … for now” isn’t about settling, but about making a conscious choice to accept where you are and genuinely make the most of it. It’s about identifying the aspects of your work situation that truly are good enough, for now.
This links with their concept of developing a clear articulation of your Workview - a set of values you use to define what you think good work is and is not. The idea is that this Workview, combined with your Lifeview, can be used as a compass to help make work related decisions.
We all do lots of different types of work in our lives, and we get different things from each of them. Designing Your Work Life challenged me to think about what I personally need/want to get from my work, and what types of work will help me obtain those things - income, impact, meaning, self-expression.
So what are some of the things I came up with for my own Workview.
I value peace of mind, financially. I need to earn an income - so that I can feel safe, secure and comfortable in my life, without financial worries. But I don’t see money as what defines my value in the world. I like what I have and want to sustain it.
My desire to make an impact is stronger. I want to make a positive difference and be known for my expertise. I want to make things better than they were. In particular, creating, sustaining and repairing the way people experience their working lives - that’s my “quest”, as the authors describe it.
Later on in the book, there are chapters on overwhelm (with a nice approach to exploring what type you're experiencing), growth mindset and grit. There’s also advice on navigating the politics of work, which made good sense and I’ll definitely be using when coaching others.
If you’re not happy at work then the authors suggest you can Redesign not Resign. This is something I’ve helped people with in the past, as part of my HR role. It’s surprised some employees that I genuinely want them to be happy at work and will take the time to explore this with them personally. There’s also a chapter on Quitting Well - another topic I’ve talked through with people I’ve worked with. As a manager (or HR professional), I’d always rather have a good leaver on my hands, someone who has made a positive decision for themselves and who has “left the campsite better than they found it”.
The last chapter is entitled Permission to Be Happy. Burnett and Evans end their book by encouraging us to be curious about what we want from life and work, to keep coming up with ideas and trying things out, to ask for help from those around us and to tell our stories to each other. And, of course, to give ourselves permission to be happy, through having empathy for ourselves and designing a way forward that helps us get what we want from our work lives.
I'm glad I read the book and will probably go back to it again and again, particularly as I work on designing my own work life in 2021.