Need to know
The changing nature of work
If you’re like many people these days, glancing over your work emails may be the first thing you do after opening your eyes in the morning. In fact, your work is probably in your pocket, travels with you on holiday, sits with you during a romantic dinner, and accompanies you to the playground with your kids.
Even if emails aren’t really your thing and you work in construction, nursing or some other non-office-based industry, the move to a 24/7 economy might mean you have expectations placed on you to work at short notice or during antisocial hours.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, another major trend is that more people work from their homes, which now contain persistent reminders of work that lure them to finish this short email or that little task just before going to bed. And far from us slacking when remote-working, research conducted during this period showed that, on average, people work more hours when at home than at the office.
Despite this, and the widely shared feeling that the work never ends, most people do not want to go back to the more rigid pre-pandemic situation where bosses expected their team to be at the office or on duty strictly between 9 to 5. The increased freedom and flexibility of working arrangements helps many people to juggle their different roles in life. Who doesn’t appreciate the possibility to work from home while waiting for a handyman, or being able to drop off the kids at the sports club at the end of the afternoon?
But many of us also recognise the challenge to set boundaries between life domains and the different roles we must play. When you can easily do the dishes or the laundry while listening to a work meeting, then what is work and what is private can easily mingle and sometimes become inseparable. Books such as The Burnout Society (2010) by Byung-Chul Han and The Flexibility Paradox (2022) by Heejung Chung reflect exactly this feeling of ever-increasing levels of freedom at work that paradoxically provoke our sense of having ever-more responsibilities and a sense that work is endless: always on, never done.
In this new reality, a lot of the advice you will hear is to erect strong barriers between your work and your private domains – no matter how unrealistic that might be – or to somehow find the right balance between these different areas of your life. We propose a very different approach that we believe is more realistic and beneficial.
Aim for harmony rather than balance
We argue that setting up your life in a way that meets your psychological needs (known as needs-based crafting), and doing this across all domains, is what’s important. Psychological needs (we’ll come to what these are shortly) lie at the base of human wellbeing and fulfilment. Needs satisfaction has been linked to successfully fulfilling various life roles, such as parenting, and it may also free new resources to engage in prosocial behaviours, such as helping others, potentially leading to ‘virtuous cycles’. Other studies have shown that people whose needs are fulfilled are more productive and creative at work, more eager to walk the extra mile for their company and help co-workers.
The good news is that neither work nor leisure time must satisfy all your psychological needs. Instead, each role in life you have (eg, experienced foreman, loving husband, caring son, dedicated Red Cross volunteer and avid chess player) plays an important part in an orchestra. Coordination of these different roles, and satisfaction of needs via active engagement in these roles, results in what we call ‘life domain harmony’ – the symphony of your life.
We prefer to talk about life domain harmony rather than ‘work/life balance’ because the latter term suggests that there are only two domains in life that are in opposition, and that ‘work’ is somehow different from ‘life’. Talk of balance also suggests that an equilibrium between the two life domains is optimal. However, in reality, many people have a natural tendency to focus on certain roles, or they shift their focus depending on their life stage (eg, people in their early 20s might focus on their work role, while young parents may put an emphasis on their caring role).
Based on our research and experience, we propose that, as long as your psychological needs are satisfied to a certain degree in any of the roles you have, you are fine. For instance, if you have a rather boring job that provides few opportunities to feel competent and have mastery experiences, you may be able to compensate and satisfy your need for mastery by engaging in a challenging hobby (eg, learning a new language, playing an instrument, or organising a big event for your sports club). Similarly, if your personal life is lacking in social connections, you might be able to satisfy that need via a job that offers you possibilities to truly connect with colleagues and clients. The important point is that it doesn’t matter how much each domain of your life contributes to your needs, as long as your needs are somehow met by one or more of all the different roles you play in life.
In addition to your different roles complementing each other, there may also be positive spillover between roles: experiences in one role enrich experiences in another role, which further supports taking a holistic view of your life. For instance, research showed that employees who felt well-rested after the weekend performed better and were more willing and able to invest energy in helping others at work the following week. Similarly, our field experiment on vacationing demonstrated that people produced more diverse ideas after a holiday, compared with before it. Experiences at work can also enrich experiences during leisure. For instance, research showed that when employees helped co-workers and felt appreciated for their assistance, they experienced more positive emotions in the evening after work. So, feelings of social connection at work can spill over to and benefit other life domains.
In our view, striving to satisfy your psychological needs across different life domains can be a tool to achieve life domain harmony and ultimately high levels of wellbeing, happiness, productivity and creativity. Remember, some needs may be more easily satisfied at work, while others are satisfied more in the leisure or family context. This view on life and needs can be liberating as none of your roles must satisfy all your needs, and your roles do not compete with each other. Each role simply adds a few notes to your life’s symphony.
In this Guide, we’ll help you better understand your own psychological needs and how you can actively shape your needs satisfaction across life domains. By reflecting on your psychological needs, you’ll develop a more nuanced, psychologically informed approach on how to use your time.
What to do
Understand your basic psychological needs
Satisfying your basic psychological needs is essential for your mental health. Within psychology, there have been discussions of what exactly constitutes a need, and there are various models describing what these needs are. We find the DRAMMA model, proposed by the psychologist Ed Diener and his colleagues, particularly helpful. This model arose from a meta-analysis that integrated insights from more than 300 scientific papers across various academic disciplines (such as psychology and leisure sciences). DRAMMA is an acronym, and each letter stands for one of six fundamental psychological needs, as follows:
- Detachment is your need for psychological disengagement from effortful tasks, such as certain work-related activities or care-taking responsibilities. To experience detachment, you must not only stop the demanding activity itself, but also stop thinking about it, taking a mental distance. Switching off from these thoughts is important to be fully present in the moment and for regaining the psychobiological resources needed to tend to other life roles. Psychological detachment forms the basis for other experiences to occur. So, you first need to disengage before you can fully engage in something else, such as relaxing.
- Relaxation is your need for periods of low activation of the body and the mind, and it is fostered by activities that demand little physical or intellectual effort and that place few social demands on you. Watching your favourite series on television, having a massage, listening to music or ASMR streams, visiting a sauna or taking a bath are typical examples of activities to relax.
- Autonomy is your need to experience a sense of ownership of your behaviour, to feel in control of your own choices and actions. Autonomy is a basic human need, deeply ingrained in the human psyche, and it shows from a very early age.
- Mastery describes your need for seeking learning opportunities and optimal challenges to experience feelings of achievement and competence. Although activities to feel mastery require effort, they also help to create new resources, such as skills and knowledge, and increase positive mood.
- Meaning is your need to engage in activities that provide you with opportunities to gain something valuable and important in life. A study from the Mayo Clinic found that physicians who were able to spend at least 20 per cent of their time doing work they found meaningful, such as taking time to discuss a diagnosis or prognosis with patients and their families, were at dramatically lower risk for burnout. Anything beyond that 20 per cent had only a marginal impact. In other words: you do not need to change everything about your job to see substantial benefits.
- Affiliation is your basic need to care for others and feel cared for. Social activities, cherishing existing meaningful relationships with family, friends and colleagues, and building new relationships, all help to create positive emotions and enhance wellbeing.
Reflect on how well you are currently addressing your needs
Reading about the DRAMMA needs and their potential benefits has hopefully sparked your interest in learning more about how to enhance your own needs satisfaction. Now it is time to put theory into practice. A first step is to gain a clear picture of the current state of your needs fulfilment. As you do so, please remember that people naturally vary in the needs that they think are important to them. So, like many other people, you might have developed a tendency to focus only on one or a few needs.
As a starting point, this short test hosted by the University of Groningen in the Netherlands can help you to assess your current DRAMMA needs satisfaction – it does so by asking you questions about the past month, including the degree to which you felt like you could determine for yourself how you spent your time or whether you did anything to broaden your horizons, and giving you a score out of 5 for each of the basic needs.
After you have received your personal score and learned which need(s) you scored the lowest and highest on, it is helpful to reflect on how you spend your days. Routines and habits can make your daily life easier, but sometimes you can unwittingly acquire habits that do not serve your needs, your health and your wellbeing.
Perform an audit of your time
Identifying the activities that your day consists of can make you more aware of your time use and help to make positive changes to better satisfy your needs. You could take a piece of paper or open a note-taking app on your smartphone. First, think of a random day in your life (eg, last Tuesday) and list all the enjoyable activities that you engaged in throughout this day. The list might include activities such as a brief chat with a colleague, a successful presentation at work, a movie date with a friend, or even housework that you enjoyed doing. For each entry, consider how it helps you to fulfil your different psychological needs. Next, list all the activities you engaged in during this day that you did not enjoy doing. It might entail certain work tasks, the commute to and from work, or household chores. For each of these non-enjoyable activities, consider how it might be compromising your psychological needs, or how you could make tweaks to these activities so that they better cater to your psychological needs. Below, we’ve provided a brief example of what the table might look like.
Once you have gained an initial snapshot of your DRAMMA needs and your current daily routines (for a more comprehensive overview, you could consider performing the previous exercise for more workdays and the weekends), you are well placed to start thinking more deeply about ways to further satisfy each of your six DRAMMA needs – not just tweaking your existing activities, but considering each need in turn and how you might further satisfy it through new routines and practices. Bear in mind that if you are currently satisfying only some needs and not others, this might be problematic in the long run – there is empirical evidence suggesting that balanced needs satisfaction is more beneficial than the satisfaction of only certain needs.
Researchers have recently called this process of proactively striving for need satisfaction needs-based crafting. The term is derived from job crafting, which refers to shaping job activities to match one’s skills and interests with one’s job. You can use needs-based crafting in different life domains to achieve harmony between different roles in life and attain a higher sense of wellbeing. In the next section, we share some further tips on needs-based crafting, taking each of the six needs in turn.
Remember, if you are tempted to focus on a need you’re already satisfying, you will probably benefit more if you look for ways to tap into needs for which you are currently unfulfilled – this is the way to a harmonic life. Also, remember that it doesn’t matter in which domain of life you happen to satisfy a particular need – the important point is to take a holistic view and ensure your needs are met somewhere, somehow.
Find more time for detachment
Sometimes it can be difficult to stop thinking about your work after working hours. If you notice that your mind is constantly filled with thoughts about your unfinished tasks or you keep going over work situations in your head, you could try to create a transition ritual that enables you to more easily switch from your work mindset to a leisure mindset. This simple action that you repeat daily – such as writing a to-do list for the next day, washing your coffee mug, or changing your clothes after arriving home – helps to signify the end of your working day and the start of your free time.
Similarly, you may take care of an elderly family member and find it hard not to think about your loved one when you are at work. To prevent your thoughts from circling back to your care tasks or worries, you could purposefully schedule a ‘worry moment’ every day. So, whenever you notice that you start to worry, you postpone these thoughts to your ‘worry moment’. Research has demonstrated that this strategy significantly reduced people’s average daily worry time from 37 to 25 minutes, which might not sound like a lot but will soon add up to a lot less worrying.
Learn to relax!
This is easier said than done but luckily there are also many ways to relax the body and mind. Reading the newspaper in a café, getting a massage, taking a walk in the forest, listening to heavy metal music, curling up with a glass of wine on the sofa, cuddling with your partner or your cat – what relaxes you is highly personal. It’s important to keep in mind the importance of creating distance from anything that creates tension in your body – doing this will help you achieve a relaxed state of mind. And maybe you also want to consider your breaks during working time? How do you use your breaks? Can you relax during your break? Is there anything that you could do to get the most of your break in terms of relaxation? A brief and efficient strategy is progressive muscle relaxation. There are various audio and video clips to learn this strategy, which helps you to relax in just a few moments.
Cultivate your sense of autonomy
By crafting your day with pleasant, needs-satisfying activities and transforming less enjoyable activities into more needs-satisfying and enjoyable ones (as you did with the earlier audit of your time), you take ownership of your day and, in doing so, you fulfil your need for autonomy. Sometimes, to truly satisfy your need for autonomy, you might require a longer break from your daily routines and activities. In this case, you should schedule a day or at least part of a day just for you. This break from your routines and obligations should include only activities that you really want to do and should be spent only with people you truly want to spend time with. Even if your work or family obligations allow you to take only a few minutes off from your daily reality, it is worth scheduling this ‘me time’ to experience a greater ownership of your life.
Find more mastery and meaning
After evaluating your daily activities and making plans to adjust them to the DRAMMA needs, you might notice that addressing some needs, such as mastery and meaning, can require more time and effort. In order to achieve a sense of mastery, you will need to take on a pleasant challenge and learn something new. Maybe you have long been pondering whether to take a course in improvisation theatre, ikebana or taekwondo? It’s very likely that you will feel proud of yourself after you have embarked on this journey to learn a new skill. These new hobbies may also feel meaningful and thus increase your sense of purpose in life, catching two birds with one stone.
If you’re still struggling to increase your sense of meaning, a good place to start is to identify the truly important things in your life. To do that, you can go to a list of core values (such as this one provided by the self-help author James Clear) and choose five that are most important to you. For instance, you may love art and thrive in an environment that provides possibilities to be creative, while another person’s values might be more focused on finding stability and security in life.
Now think how these five personal values have been present in your recent activities, lifestyle, and relationships. You could check your weekly agenda to get a more realistic picture of your life at the moment. If you notice that the five values are not present in your weekly schedule, brainstorm new ways to incorporate them into your life. For instance, if you value learning, make sure to schedule some time in your weekly agenda for a learning activity that matters to you. Or if one of your core values is meaningful work, try to identify what makes your current work meaningful and extend this aspect of your job. The nature of your work in general or some specific tasks might be meaningful, or you might find that certain professional relationships with your clients, colleagues or mentors add meaning to your (work) life. If certain tasks or relationships make your work more meaningful, make sure to schedule these activities in your weekly agenda.
While work can provide meaning for some people, not everyone finds meaning in their work. Instead, you might find that supporting a worthy cause with small daily actions or volunteering your time adds meaning to your life. If you are passionate about the natural environment, you could focus on buying more local products, reduce your waste and become more aware of how you use daily resources such as water, heat and means of transportation. You might give ‘plogging’ (jogging while picking up litter) a try. Or do you feel compassion for certain groups in society? There are probably plenty of options for volunteering to help them in your local community, for example, you can volunteer in a homeless or refugee centre, or work with underprivileged children. Or you can put your skills and knowledge to use by becoming a mentor to a junior employee or by helping to organise a fundraiser.
Don’t forget affiliation
Not only will these volunteering experiences enhance your experience of meaning, they are also great for feeling more connected to others and thus satisfying your affiliation needs. Importantly, to fulfil this need, the meaningful actions that help you feel connected to others don’t have to be extensive. Even small acts of kindness such as helping your friend, colleague or neighbour, visiting an elderly relative, or surprising a friend or family member with a small homemade gift, can enhance positive emotions such as love, trust and gratitude within these relationships. Performing acts of kindness might also make you aware of your previous positive social interactions and make you feel proud of yourself for helping someone. If you would like more inspiration and insights on how to build your life around what matters to you, the book Happier Hour (2022) by Cassie Holmes will make an insightful read for you. She provides practical advice on how to use your time in more fulfilling ways.
Key points – How to craft a harmonious life
- The changing nature of work. Technological changes and the shift to more remote and flexible working has left many of us feeling as though we are ‘always on’ and not in control of our time.
- Aim for harmony rather than work/life balance. It’s standard to hear advice about ensuring you have a good work/life balance, but a better approach is more holistic, ensuring your basic psychological needs are met somewhere, somehow across your different life domains.
- Understand your basic psychological needs. The six main psychological needs are captured by the DRAMMA model, which stands for detachment, relaxation, autonomy, mastery, meaning, and affiliation.
- Reflect on how well you are currently addressing your needs. A free and quick online test can give you a snapshot. What’s important for wellbeing is to satisfy all your needs rather than just some of them.
- Perform an audit of your time. To get a more complete picture of how your current routines and roles in life are meeting or failing your needs, it is worth drilling down into how you spend your time.
- Find more time for detachment. Once you have a clear picture of which needs you’re currently neglecting, you can begin to address them. Detachment is all about switching off physically and mentally from demanding activities and concerns.
- Learn to relax. It is only after achieving detachment that you can truly relax, which involves doing activities that place little physical or mental demand on you.
- Cultivate your sense of autonomy. Even babies are happier when they have a sense of control. You can foster your autonomy by taking more deliberate control over how you spend your time.
- Find more mastery and meaning. It’s worth spending some time reflecting on what matters to you in life, and then look for ways to live in line with your values – either through work or in your personal life, for instance through volunteering, taking on pleasant challenges or learning something new.
- Don’t forget affiliation. This is about your sense of connection to others. A powerful way to satisfy this need is to perform acts of kindness for others.
Needs-based crafting as a social practice
While needs-based crafting focuses on your individual needs, it does not happen in isolation from the social context you are in. Needs-based crafting often involves and affects the people around you, such as your partner, family, friends and colleagues. While reading the examples provided in the previous sections, you might have thought: ‘Taking the afternoon off to do whatever I want sounds great, but what will I do with my children who need to be fed and taken to their soccer practice?!’ or ‘Who is going to complete my other work tasks when I start an exciting new work project?’
In these situations, other people can play an important role in enabling your needs-based crafting efforts. For instance, you might need to agree with others that they would take care of your children so you can get the much-needed break from your routines. While making these arrangements might seem like a hassle at first, it could also provide other people with opportunities for needs-satisfying activities. For example, your children might get an opportunity to spend quality time with their grandparents or their favourite uncle, creating a win-win situation for everyone.
At work, a chat with your team might help to identify how different tasks can be divided in a way that benefits everyone. A task that gives you a headache might be one that someone else in your team enjoys or that they would like to learn. Shifting some responsibilities within the team might give you the much-needed time to do something you find more meaningful or beneficial for your professional development while also providing others with a chance to grow their competency.
Regular check-ins and open discussions about everyone’s different roles and needs might thus help to create an environment that not only supports your own needs but helps your family, friends and colleagues to fulfil their psychological needs, too. So, when you want to get others on board for your needs-based crafting journey, don’t forget to help support their own efforts – a degree of reciprocation might help convince them to team up with you, and you can go on this crafting journey together.
Note of caution: don’t overdo it!
After reading this Guide, you are hopefully eager to incorporate needs-based crafting into your daily life. However, please don’t view needs-based crafting as a strategy to optimise every moment of your life. Instead, it should naturally flow from your current psychological needs and help you to create a personally more meaningful and enjoyable daily life. So, use the DRAMMA model to serve as a guide and framework to think about your needs, but don’t let it become yet another to-do list that you must finish every day (the book we mentioned earlier, The Flexibility Paradox, provides a cautionary tale about going overboard with managing your time and ultimately exploiting yourself).
Links & books
Although it isn’t rooted specifically in the DRAMMA model of psychological needs, the Greater Good online magazine produced by the University of California, Berkeley provides countless research-based resources for creating a more meaningful and happier life. Their Greater Good in Action library also contains a variety of research-based practical exercises to support happiness and wellbeing.
For inspiration on ways to engage in acts of kindness – which will satisfy your needs for meaning and affiliation – check out the various resources provided by the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, a US-based non-profit.
In this episode of the psychologist Adam Grant’s WorkLife podcast, he talks about setting boundaries between work and private life.
The book Rest (2016) by the Psyche author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang provides practical advice on ways to increase productivity, creativity and energy, and have a better life. Also, check out his popular Psyche Guide, ‘How to Rest Well’ (2021).
The book Boost (2018) by Jamie Gruman and Deirdre Healey covers the ‘science of recharging yourself in an age of unrelenting demands’.
The article ‘Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime’ (2013) by Ferris Jabr in Scientific American describes the links between mental breaks, productivity, attention, memories and creativity – showing how downtime can benefit your work, rather than being in opposition to it.