NEED VS. WANT VS. ...NEITHER?

Tuesday, February 23, 2016 Gabrielle Bill 0 Comments



Need versus want. Sounds simple enough, right? I need food to live. I want ice cream for dinner. I need a roof over my head. I want to live in a penthouse apartment. But do I need camaraderie at work or do I want it? Do I need a supportive, team-based work environment or do I want one? Conversely, do I neither need nor want either of these things and actually prefer to work alone? Somehow when you start to think about needs versus wants in the context of your career, things become a bit...well, blurry.

When I was working for Capital One, there was a 2-week period where all of the Associates on our floor had to work from home -- they were doing renovations around our office, including replacing all of our furniture. When I learned about this, I was horrified. I already felt lonely enough when I was home in the evenings -- if I had to be home all day too, surely I'd shrivel up and die! I couldn't imagine what it would be like to only have conversations with my co-workers via phone, to be trapped within the four walls of my tiny apartment and to not have my morning ritual of radio / podcast listening on my commute. But I had no choice. This was how it was going to be, and I'd survive. It was just two weeks.

And then something strange happened. I woke up at 7:30am on Day 1 of the work from home cycle (versus my normal 6am wakeup-call). I ate a leisurely breakfast and stayed in my pajamas all day. I got a ton of work done -- more than usual -- and when the work day ended, I was so full of energy that I left the house to go to a workout class. I came home, slept better than I had in months and felt rested for Day 2.

As the days ticked by, I actually found that I really loved this arrangement and was significantly more productive than I'd been before. I didn't feel disconnected from my co-workers, because I still spoke to them daily, if not via phone then via IM or even get-togethers after work for dinner or a drink. I had significantly more energy throughout the work day, and this dribbled into my social life, which meant I was having positive human interactions that further fueled my good mood.

After the 2-week period ended, I realized just how much happier I had become. But had you asked me if I'd preferred to work from home prior to testing it out, I would have answered with an adamant no.

This was a surprising finding. I had been SO sure that I needed a work environment full of other people. And I didn't just need it, but I wanted it, too. Sure, I sometimes felt annoyed by the open floor plan at work, or got distracted by my co-workers' antics, but I loved taking laps around the office with my friend Melanie and I loved afternoon trips to Starbucks or lunches out with my co-workers. So why was I suddenly so much more fulfilled in the absence of all of these things?

That's the trickiest part of this equation -- the "knowing thyself" bit -- because this episode taught me that maybe I didn't know myself as well as I had thought. Maybe I had been trained to believe that a bustling work environment was great. Maybe I used to need it, even. But something inside of me had changed, and I never would have experienced the fruitful results had I not been forced to try something new.

The story doesn't end here, because my discovery brought me back to the initial question of this post. Did I need to work from home or did I want to work from home? And was I supposed to judge the emotion differently based on which descriptor I assigned?

When the construction at our office was complete, I obviously returned with the rest of my crew. But something immediately felt different. I was more tense than I'd been before. I sat with my headphones on with increased frequency, and I'd book conference rooms for hours to sit in and do my work. Suddenly, it was as though my body needed the silence and solace of my own company to produce my best work.

And that's when it hit me. For me, working from a quiet, solitary space had become a new need. I understood this because I was doing everything in my power to re-create the work environment in which I was producing to my best ability. Once I had discovered how productive I could be in a solitary space, it was hard to turn off this new way of behaving.

But listening to my new need felt wrong! In my mind, I was equating my need with "eating ice cream for dinner," i.e. I thought of it more as a want. And naturally, we are often trained to believe that wants are things you can easily compromise on in the workplace.

This line of thinking is troubling in many ways.

Firstly, I needed to work through my own inability to distinguish between my wants and needs, and here's what I came up with. A need is something that supports my ability to produce great work, as required by the job. In this example, I needed more alone time than I thought. A want is something that, when added to the need, allows me to go above and beyond expectations but that, in the absence of, I could still survive. So, I want to be able to wake up every morning without an alarm clock, and I've built a career around this want to-date, but if I did have to start setting my alarm each day, I wouldn't be significantly worse off.

Secondly, I needed to get comfortable with the idea that my needs and wants mattered in the workplace. I feel comfortable expressing my needs in friendships and other personal relationships. I feel comfortable expressing my needs in business transactions. So why was I conditioned to believe that at work it was all about sacrifice? This one was much harder than step one, and it's something I've only recently become comfortable with.

I got there through a few tactics:

1) I kept a journal. When I had a great moment, I analyzed it and tried to figure out its root cause. What made me so happy? When I figured it out, I added it to the need or want list. Conversely, when something made me really UNhappy, I analyzed that too and figured out whether it was in direct conflict with a need or want.

2) I found small ways to remind myself of my own importance at work, and made small changes to make it more apparent, both to myself and others. I worked from home once a week regularly to ensure I had adequate time for focus. I spoke up when I needed more time to complete a last-minute assignment. As I got more comfortable, I continued to up the ante.

3) I started talking to myself. I swear I'm not crazy. But it helped to repeat the mantra that I mattered. It helped to read inspirational quotes and stories. It helped to interact with people who were recognizing their own wants and needs, and pursuing them, because it reminded me of how much self-care was a necessity for me. Over time, the ideas took deeper root, although I still find myself repeating these things when I have down moments.

Getting comfortable with the idea that you CAN and SHOULD count in your career, and that it's OK to pursue things that actually make you happy, takes a while. But it makes a dramatic difference once you get there.

Now it's your turn. Do you have trouble distinguishing between your wants and needs at work? How do you make sure that you make decisions that are in line with your own values? How often do you check in with yourself to make sure that your wants and needs have stayed the same? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this complex topic in the comments section below!

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