Wisdom//

The One Question Oprah Wants You to Ask Yourself at Work

She identifies a deliberate intention — and encourages us to do the same.

Gallo Images / Getty Images
Gallo Images / Getty Images

Oprah Winfrey talked about the value she has found in setting intentions throughout her career at the Qualtrics user conference in Salt Lake City. Winfrey says that before pursuing any new project, she asks herself one question: “How do I use this in the service of something greater than myself?”

Winfrey’s intention-setting question has helped her in big moments and in daily decisions, and she says it can do the same for the rest of us. “Whatever you end up with is what you started with as an intention,” she told the crowd. “Getting that principle changed the trajectory of my entire life.”

Setting an intention can allow you to reframe the task at hand, and even inspire you to see your work as something more positive and impactful, Winfrey points out. In her own life, she says this strategy brought meaning to each episode of her long-running talk show, and has helped her become the best version of herself. “Ultimately you want to be able to live out the fullest, highest, truest expression of yourself as a human being,” Winfrey added. “It comes back to you tenfold — one-hundred-fold — in ways you cannot even imagine.”

While Winfrey’s mantra has helped shape her career, the answer to her question can often feel less than intuitive, especially in your day-to-day work life. “Life and work are not perfect,” Mitchell Marks, Ph.D., an organizational psychologist and professor at San Francisco State University College of Business, tells Thrive. “Setting an intention is often easier said than done.” Many of us go through the motions of our routines without thinking mindfully about our work, and we could be missing out on finding its value and  overarching meaning. If you struggle with setting an intention, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Find a mantra, but be flexible

We’re all motivated by different intentions, so if Oprah’s specific question doesn’t resonate with you, find one that does. Most importantly, remember that our intentions can change as time goes on — and it’s OK to readjust. “Be open to mid-course corrections,” Marks says. “While it’s great to have an intention, the reality is that there’s a lot going on around us… So it’s important to identify an intention, but be flexible throughout.”

Plan for long-term goals

Marks urges us to see planning as an intentional action, too — and if setting a mantra isn’t up your alley, use your strategic thinking to your advantage. “Put energy into planning for the future,” he urges. “This can range from writing up a five-year plan for your career development, to exploring and planning new approaches to your current work situation.” Sometimes keeping the broader picture in mind can help us with the daily motions of our work, and if planning helps you see that picture, use that as your intention.

But remember: It’s not all in your control

“Always remember what you can control and what you cannot,” Marks adds. “Focus on the former, and do your best to let go of the latter.” Marks says that we can often get hung up on our initial intention, but if our plan deviates, it’s OK to start again, and find an intention that better aligns with our goals going forward. Plus, if you diverge from your original intention, you can always come back to it down the line. “Sometimes you throw seeds in the ground and walk away,” Marks notes. “And even after you forget about them, they grow.”

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