"The best laid plans of mice and men..."
You know the rest. When we’re feeling like we’re perpetually behind and can’t catch up, it’s easy to blame our circumstances, jobs, and just about anything as long as it’s not ourselves. After all, change is hard and, when we acknowledge our own shortcomings as the reason for our inefficacy, the only logical next step is to do something about it (change). But rather than getting stuck on the hamster wheel of guilt, self-imposed pressure and feeling like a failure, most of us choose the path of least resistance – we stay behind, keep struggling, and continue blaming external factors. Why? Because, like I said, change is hard.
There Are Ways to Reclaim Your Productivity
And they don’t have to be difficult. The beautiful thing about self-propelled change is that you can control it, direct it, and bite off as much or as little as you think can handle at once. Baby steps, anyone? As Stephen Covey tells us, “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” You don’t need to hire a time management coach or personal assistant, and you can spare yourself the meltdown. With a little bit of basic, self-taught goal setting, time management techniques and regular mental pep talks (or out loud in the mirror, if that’s what you’re into) to keep yourself motivated and accountable, you’ll be adequately equipped to catch up and get ahead.
Many of us are masters of the first two steps, awareness and pondering. We know we’re behind, we wonder why, and we even tell ourselves we’re going to fix it somehow. But then the cycle repeats itself, something unexpected happens, and we stumble over those first two steps again and again instead of progressing to the third. Want to know why? It’s because there’s a gap between the second and third steps. The space between your current situation and your metamorphosis into an effective individual is called the intention-behavior gap, and it can be bridged. The keys to crossing over to the other side are reprioritization and ownership, which are the areas where we most often fail (and the place where excuses go to die). We’re all granted the same 24 hours in a day and, as unjust as that may seem, you can’t appeal to the powers that be for more. Sure, some of us are busier than others. But there are solutions to any problem and, more often than not, the solutions begin with us.
Reprioritization and the Intention-Behavior Gap
We all have good intentions. We intend to eat a decent breakfast and get to work on time, we intend to complete that project we’ve been procrastinating or get to the bottom of that nagging to-do list (which isn’t getting any shorter), we intend to leave work on time, get to the gym, and get home to our families with enough time and energy left over to actually be present and not zombie-like. But those intentions mean nothing when we fail to speak the “how” steps into existence, and we’re not the only ones affected. There are consequences when you manage yourself and your schedule poorly. You aren’t doing yourself or your health any favors, and you certainly aren’t doing your loved ones any favors either. Don’t you want to chip in and do your part to become healthier, calmer, and therefore positively impact the lives of your loved ones because they’re getting more of you, too?
Reform School For Your Inner Control Freak
The ability to reprioritize is a jedi-level skill which encompasses quick decision-making, the ability to separate emotion from necessity, and sharp focus. Some of the simplest and perhaps most common examples of reprioritization in the workplace are resisting the urge to immediately read and respond to every email you receive throughout the day, pausing or postponing a task because you’ve been asked to start on another (more important) one, and scheduling meetings, appointments, and follow-up phone calls by level of importance and impending deadline on the corresponding issues. Needless to say, reprioritization requires the ability to adapt, change directions, and let go when necessary.
Whether or not you have the luxury of being able to delegate, most of us don’t like to. Anyone else subscribe to the belief that if you want something done right, you should do it yourself? (I can imagine a room full of raised hands.) But even without delegates or subordinates, anyone can redirect. Don’t think of it as putting something off, ignoring something, or cutting corners. Think of it as reserving more resources for that item and giving it your full attention at a more ideal time. Think of it as doing yourself and the item in question a favor by clearing your mind and plate of other things so that you can better focus on that one.
And don’t forget one of the most crucial components of redirection – taking the necessary time to fuel yourself so that you can function optimally when addressing your agenda. Too many of us are guilty of “forgetting” to stop and eat lunch (“the day got away from me”), or forgoing lunch altogether to work throughout the afternoon because we feel like we can’t afford to take a short break. This is extremely detrimental to your health, mood, well-being, and capacity to perform at high levels. Sacrificing yourself for the sake of your work will definitely cause you more stress, put you even more behind, and catch up to you, even if it doesn’t look like it in the moment. Next time you’re tempted to give up your lunch break, weigh the long-term effects of that continued behavior against the short-term gain you might feel from completing a task. Then imagine yourself completing that task more efficiently after taking a small break to replenish your energy. You are not a robot – don’t try to function like a machine by denying yourself basic human needs.
What It Looks Like
For the sake of illustration, I’m going to create a hypothetical scenario. For example, you’ve got a presentation to deliver in Friday’s meeting that you’re only one quarter of the way finished. It’s currently 11:15 am on Wednesday. You have to leave work early today for a doctor’s appointment, your boss has just asked you to compile a list of vendors to contact in hopes of coordinating an event within the next thirty days, you have unread emails and unanswered phone calls, and you still need to finish your daily reports and account maintenance. The emails may seem like the easiest way to start, but as you already know, now is not the time to sort through your inbox just because that’s what’s in front of your face and all your brain can currently seem to handle.
It’s probably hard to discern the priority level of all these things when you’re also thinking ahead to the traffic to and from the doctor’s office, wondering if you’ll have to sit there and wait or if you’ll be called on time, hoping you don’t have to go to the pharmacy afterwards, and texting your spouse to make sure they can pick up the kids and start dinner before you get home. Oh, and don’t forget reminding your teenager to feed the dog and throw their dirty soccer uniform in the wash before starting their homework. This is life, and it overwhelms us and turns us into frazzled, frantic drones who buzz around from task to task in the random order of our thoughts.
You need to get refocused and map it out. If there are emails you know require a response by a certain time, flag them for follow-up and schedule them into your tasks. Set an alarm if that helps. But then, turn your attention back to reprioritization. This presentation that you have to deliver in a day and a half – how much time do you think you need to complete it? Will it require research and compilation of data? If you think you need to block out two more hours to finish it, decide when you’re going to shut your door or put in your earbuds and focus on nothing but that. Write it down. For the sake of the example, let’s say you picked Thursday morning from 10-12.
This event that your boss has come up with: it’s a month away, but you’d probably feel better if you at least took the first steps toward planning it so that it’s not looming over you like a big dark cloud. Can you schedule a short, 15-30 minute meeting with your boss to discuss the details (the who, what, when, where, why, and how)? Once you’ve recorded the purpose of the event, where it will be held, how much time you should allow for responses, who’s paying for it, and whether or not there are any special resources, materials or guests to factor in, you can (at the very least) make a to-do list with action items that have dates assigned to them.
Your boss agrees to meet with you Thursday at 1. Now you can set this aside for next week because there’s no critical action to be taken that will make a huge difference between Thursday afternoon and next week. You’ve allotted time to start conducting some outreach and calling some venues on Monday and Tuesday, and that’s all you can do for now. Your boss is pleased, and you can refocus your attention.
You know that if you don’t finish your daily reports and account maintenance it will throw you off your game for the rest of the week, so that’s really a priority that needs to get handled before you leave for your doctor’s appointment this afternoon. Unless any of those emails and phone calls were flagged with today’s date absolutely etched in stone, it’s time to close your email, silence your phone, and somehow barricade yourself or tune out your surroundings (I’ve written other posts on handling distractions and making your office environment conducive to focus and motivation).
If you don’t have enough time to complete everything before you leave, choose the one or two pieces you can adequately complete, and get started! Set yourself an alarm for your firm stop time – and don’t cut it too close – shaving fifteen minutes off your commute to the doctor’s office if it’s already close to rush hour will only induce panic when you leave the office. We're trying to deactivate the body's stress response and resulting resistance, remember? Give yourself a reasonable amount of time and set the alarm so that you can focus uninterrupted until then.
When you’ve got about 5-10 minutes before the alarm sounds, evaluate your progress and what still remains to be completed (unless you’ve got some end-of-day ritual like cleaning off your desk and using the restroom, or it takes you several minutes to get to your car. Then leave enough time for that, too). Make a to-do list for the next morning of the things you didn’t finish today that you should have. How much time should those things take? Another 30-60 minutes? Can you try to get to the office at least that early tomorrow (or split the time by coming in 15-30 minutes early and leaving 15-30 minutes later than normal)?
You’ve done all that you can do for today - now the only thing you can do is plan ahead for tomorrow and then let go of the guilt, stress and pressure as soon as you walk out the door. Always clear your mind so that you can focus on the next task at hand, because if your brain is still on the last one, you’ll lag behind. If you need to text or call anyone, do so as soon as you sit down in your car before you start driving. Don’t try to communicate about important things while you’re driving, navigating, or waiting at the doctor’s office. Get the information out of your brain and to the recipient as soon as possible, and then you can focus more calmly on your drive.
Later, when you walk through the door at home, you can honestly pat yourself on the back and know that you did your best with the time you had and check all that baggage at the door. Don’t beat yourself up for how the day went – just know that you’ll have a better day tomorrow because you’ve already started planning for it. This is where ownership comes in. You’ve acknowledged what you accomplished, you’re being honest about what still needs to be done, and you’re being mindful about getting it done tomorrow.
If necessary, make another list before bed to help you sleep. Break your list down into categories (home, work, kids, personal, etc.) and lay out your outfit for tomorrow morning. Set your alarm for a little bit earlier than normal because you’re going in to finish yesterday’s reports, remember? And when you get to the office in the morning, immediately do what you’re there to do. Don’t let those extra few minutes go to waste by getting settled in, checking emails, hanging out in the break room, etc. And if for some reason it doesn’t work out to get there early, it’ll be okay – plan out your day before you start tackling things and use the same methods of assigning priority levels, blocking out the necessary time, setting deadlines, and evaluating before planning ahead for the next day or two.
We all use different means of visualization, but literally drawing it out works for me. Here’s what the above hypothetical looks like, on paper:
The Ever-Elusive Work-Life Balance
We’ve all got too many things to manage. We’re managing people at work, tackling a large workload, and managing our home and personal lives, but too often we forget to manage ourselves. We assign rules and conditions to our kids and follow protocol at work, but when it comes to self-governance, it seems there are no rules. I’ve heard there’s really no such thing as work-life balance, but I think it’s a feeling that varies from person to person. To me, work-life balance is when you feel a sense of wholeness and completeness that can only come from taking adequate care of yourself amid all your other responsibilities. I’m a big advocate of finding ways to calm down and take care of yourself with little pockets of time, like fitting in a short pedicure or chair massage between running errands. But the truth is, work-life balance is as much about how you handle yourself at home as it is about not working too hard. You can’t blame work for having no peace at home.
If following the guidelines you set for your kids (like adhering to a bedtime instead of falling asleep while binge-watching Game of Thrones until 1 am) will help, then maybe that’s what you should do. If it’ll help you function better, then it’ll turn you into a better version of yourself. No one’s telling you not to relax after you clean up from dinner, get the kids to bed, and fold the laundry. Have that glass of wine, maybe just don’t have the whole bottle? You just have to reprioritize relaxation and time to unwind while being conscious of how well you want to be able to start your day tomorrow morning. Adulthood sucks, doesn’t it? Compromise and balance with a dash of discipline make the perfect cocktail for the home aspect of work-life balance.
The key to achieving this balance is just like the Stephen Covey quote – it’s deciding what’s most important to you in general – not just in terms of your career – and consistently acting in ways which reflect that those are your priorities. If someone were to follow you around every day for a week the way you’re currently living, would they be able to tell what your priorities are, or would they think your only priority is work? I’m not encouraging anyone to shirk their job responsibilities – it’s a great thing to take your job seriously, but you can’t take it so seriously that it detracts from the other important parts of your life. What’s your ‘why?’ Why do you get up and go to work every day? Is it to support a family? Is it to make sure your kids can go to a certain school? Is it to put food on the table? Then make sure after work you’re doing everything you can to go take care of those things. If you’re not there to put the food on the table and help your kids with their homework, then what does any of it matter?
If you’re getting paid for 9-5, 8-4, or some set amount of hours (no more, no less), then don’t kill yourself trying to stay until 7:00 every night to get something done when your life is waiting at home for you. Overachieving is great when it’s done within the amount of time you’re paid for. Your boss won’t fire you if you work as hard as you can during the time you’re supposed to be there, and the success or failure of your company doesn’t rise and fall on you not finishing that report today. If you’re an entrepreneur, you may have a harder time holding yourself accountable and setting boundaries. Either way, be sure to align your goal setting and time management with the hours of the day you’re paid to work. Stealing time from your personal life and reallocating it to professional duties will not ensure more success, more abundance, more wholeness, or more happiness in your life. This should be a non-negotiable rule in achieving work-life balance – don’t shortchange your life for your work.
Focus on the Activities, Not the Outcome
One main reason so many of us get derailed when trying to put plans in motion is because we’re too focused on the results. It’s like the flood of new members at the gym in January, all trying to stick to some New Year’s resolution. Except when they don’t see the desired results within three to four weeks, they stop coming as frequently. Three times a week turns into once a week, and then you barely see them at all. A watched pot never boils, right? Remember that you’re not just turning this new leaf to achieve a certain result. You’re doing this because it will have a ripple effect on other areas of your life and make you a more effective and balanced person overall. So don’t just dabble in goal setting and reprioritization for a week and throw your hands in the air when you don’t feel caught up or less overwhelmed. Keep planting those seeds because, once it becomes like second nature, you’ll be able to harvest the fruits of your proactive (and prioritized) labor in every area of your life.