I’m a self-diagnosed workaholic. It’s perhaps too strong of a term, but I derive most of my energy and satisfaction from getting things done. As many other self diagnosed workaholics will tell you, it’s not as much about being busy, as it is the feeling of success and accomplishment after achieving or overcoming something. There are real dangers to this (just read about the regrets of the dying) if you let it overtake you. Personally, I want to enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done AND the experience of life without regrets. From my own failures I’ve learned some practical tips to work a little bit wiser, bring down the stress level and make daily steps towards living better.
1. Get Organized – For anyone who is work and activity driven, disorganization is the greatest buzzkill. One of the most important things you can do to start working smarter is to find a system that works for you. There’s hundreds if not thousands of variations out there, but most of them are founded on two basic principles – time and action. After trying many methods, I landed on Getting Things Done by David Allen because I felt it worked the best with my personality (and if you’ve read my previous post, you know I was able to adapt those principles to meet my needs even more). Before any of this, I ventured out on my own to create my own systems – I strongly encourage you to learn from my mistakes and go and gather from experts that have already paved a path for you – then build on that. But there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Here’s a few resources that you might find helpful:
Getting Things Done – David Allen
The Pomodoro Technique – Francesco Cirillo
7 Habits of Highly Effective People – Stephen Covey
The Power of a Focused Life – Mike Bickle
Today Matters – John C. Maxwell
One important tip: Consolidate
For most people, this has two applications.
1.Keep your to-do lists in ONE Place: Believe me, I tried the method where I’d have my school tasks on one app, I’d write down stuff for work, put my personal stuff on post-it notes…for me, it failed miserably. It works if there’s not much going on, but as soon as things get busy, you forget things, you get confused and you get frustrated. Keep it all in one place, if you have an app like Things or Omnifocus, use it and stop writing things down. If you prefer writing things down, stop using apps, buy a quality notebook like a moleskine and stop writing things on post-its/scratch paper.
2. Use ONE Calendar/Schedule: the calendar app on your phone usually does the trick these days – but if you’re old school, you can get those two year pocket calendars with pictures of kittens and stuff – I find those more helpful than weekly planners because you can see a month at time, but whatever floats your boat. The only key if you’re starting out is to make sure you’re using it as your Calendar AND your schedule. Too many times I’ve seen people get lost and confused because they keep their daily schedule on a piece of paper and then ultimately don’t plan their months ahead because the calendar gets no attention (or vice versa). Keep it simple, keep it one place and always write down your appointments, leave nothing to memory.
2. Learn to Say No
This can be one of the hardest things for a driven person to learn. In many ways, you’ve attained some of the success you have through going the extra mile – but this can be a double-edged sword if you don’t know how to control it. I recommend the book Boundaries to help you identify some of those traits. If you have trouble identifying responsibilities or have a hard time knowing when to turn something down or ask for a way out, it’s a good time to reevaluate your priorities and take some time to work through your emotions and see if there’s a root cause that’s enforcing a self-guilt or obligation on you.
3. Take Breaks and Have Fun
As a graphic designer, I spend a lot of time in front of the computer and besides the obvious physical detriment to my posture and eyesight, it takes a toll on me emotionally and mentally as well. The problem is, I’m a workhorse and I don’t naturally think to stop and rest. (The pomodoro technique is a helpful resource in this area). There’s a lot of power in 5-10 breaks. It’s a chance to rest and re-focus. Taking an opportunity to get your mind off your project is a great way to return re-motivated and sometimes re-inspired.
On a larger scale, it’s important to make sure you make time in your weeks and months to have fun – and if you’re a workaholic – learn to keep it sacred. This goes hand-in-hand with saying “no”, especially if you’re a freelancer or running your own business. When you don’t clock-in and clock-out somewhere, it’s easy for work and stress to consume your life, partially because it’s constantly on your mind. There’s a dirty little secret about stress – it’s a self-inflicted injury, and unfortunately, it can be hard to get rid of. Your situation doesn’t dictate stress, your perspective of your situation does. There’s a lot that can be said about that, but sometimes one of the best things you can do to re-frame your perspective is to make time to get free of it – better yet, if you can spend time with people you love. I’ll get into this more in the future, but the key to remember is this: Make time to relax and have fun with the ones you love – and don’t let your work interfere with that. You’ll work smarter and feel better.
4. Put people before projects
People are more important than projects. This personally has always been a tough one for me because I naturally have a low empathy quotient (A Whole New Mind is an interesting resource on how creativity and empathy play into our economy), but I’ve found that even in a work environment, putting people before projects is still a key to success. The caricature of the workaholic executive that’s achieved wealth and power through by bulldozing through individuals usually shows up in scrooge-like parables where they discover some deeper meaning about life through the fallout of their actions. To me, at least, that’s a given; mistreating people on your way up and abandoning your loved ones will have dire consequences to your character and your quality of life in the long-term. Always make it your priority to be kind and generous to those around you, even if you don’t feel respected now, you’ll see long-term reward.
Here’s the less obvious, yet equally profound aspect of the “people-first” principle. If you bring some of that insight into your work and projects, specifically your team, leaders and/or clients, you can often-times draw out a higher quality result than simply focusing on accomplishing said project. I like to call this “winning by helping people win”. I hope to talk about this more on the future, but the basic idea is this: Put people first and help others succeed, especially when you are taking the lead. It’s an investment into your own success that will see greater returns than anything achieved through your own endeavors.
5. Work Out
As fitness continues to become trendier, there seems to be a greater polarity between those who “work out” and those that don’t. As a long-time desk jockey, I know what it’s like to hate on fitness culture (which I still do in some ways), but I’ve also discovered the benefits of making fitness a priority when it comes to working smart and being happier. There’s a trickle down effect to exercising regularly. First you experience the increased energy and positivity from the release of endorphins and physical activity. If your exercise is habitual, you begin to gravitate at least in some ways to healthier eating habits and lifestyle choices (I personal felt my food cravings shift and my sleeping patters improve). Finally the sense of accomplishment you feel after reaching fitness goals (or even just a good day’s workout) rivals that of any project and after putting in some weeks and months, the increase of confidence can spill into your performance in other parts of your life as well (interactions with others, your ability to say no, feeling calm in difficult scenarios).
For me, the main benefit I seek from working out actually has little to do with physical gains (although don’t get me wrong, I love that part too). The mental and emotional release I experience through fitness has helped me engage in the 4 previously mentioned principles at a much higher level. Fitness became a catalyst for my other goals and priorities and enhanced them in many ways. I don’t necessarily have a concrete cause-and-effect reason for why that is (maybe a scientist can break that one down for me), all I know is that it’s worked extremely well. If you’re looking for a boost to your productivity try adding exercise to your schedule.