You’re up at 5:00 a.m. to squeeze in a workout before the phone starts ringing off the hook at the office. A stack of bills sits on your desk at home, waiting for your attention. Your spouse’s birthday is next week and you’ve just found out you have to be out of town on business (again). Meanwhile, at the office, yesterday’s e-mails sit unopened in your computer’s inbox. You decide you’ll just have to skip lunch today to catch up. Oops—you forgot. You have a lunch meeting. Welcome to the new normal!
In the 1960s workers were told that within a very short time, the 40-hour work week would, like the dinosaur and the dodo bird, become extinct. That prediction was correct, except for one thing—instead of American workers having more leisure time, the reality is that most managers today work more than 40 hours, some logging in as much as double that. The big question remains: “How do you achieve a balance between family, friends, community, personal fulfillment and leisure AND fulfill your career goals and responsibilities?”
We’ve all tried to cut down on our busy schedules. But for most managers, this is an exercise in futility. The bigger the change we contemplate, the more overwhelmed and anxious we become. So here is the one strategy you can employ that is guaranteed NOT to stress you out. It is the undervalued art of “tweaking,” based on the idea that sometimes the smallest adjustments yield the biggest results.
There are hundreds of relatively small things you can do that will make you feel more empowered, enlivened and enriched. So take a deep breath, relax and tweak away. Here are 10 strategies to get you started:
1. Fix what irritates you.
Managers spend a lot of time listening to others’ complaints and solving problems. But like the cobbler whose children are barefoot, you may be putting yourself last. What bugs you? Do you have a laptop that chugs along? A cell phone with a ringer that isn’t loud enough? An e-mail program that doesn’t do what you need it to? It’s amazing how taking care of what annoys us can truly make us happier. Splurge on that new, faster laptop. Investing in your satisfaction is always worthwhile. If you change what you can, you will be more able to let go of what can’t be changed.
2. Apply the “80/20 rule” to everything. You’ve no doubt heard the time management maxim that 80% of results come from 20% of efforts. Look at where you’re getting the most results. Then see how you can tweak the places where your valuable time and energy are being used less productively. The first step is to assess your typical work day. Where did you think you would spend time that day? What did you hope to get accomplished? How was your time actually spent? What can you tweak that would make a difference? For example, did you spend too much time answering e-mails? Make a decision to check e-mails on a scheduled basis. This will prevent you from getting caught up in minutiae and help you stay focused on your priorities.
3. Examine ways you procrastinate. Successful managers aren’t perfect but they do look at themselves honestly. Look at your avoidance strategies: dusting the plant leaves, answering e-mail, making phone calls. Then figure out why you are procrastinating on a particular project. Do you avoid projects that take a lot of time? Or ones that are complex? Or ones that you might be criticized for or even fail at? All of the above? Procrastination is a survival mechanism to avoid something we fear. The catch is that the fear actually builds the longer we procrastinate. To break this vicious circle, identify the situations that are most likely to trigger your procrastination, then break down the project into manageable chunks. For example, if you have a huge report to write, spend time each day doing something that will bring you closer to the project’s completion. This can include gathering research, writing the introduction or conclusion first, creating PowerPoint slides or graphs—anything that keeps your toes in the water.
4. Let go of “sunk costs.” This is a psychological term for the ability to stop throwing good energy, time and money after bad. We all hate admitting to ourselves that our time and energy have been wasted. You may be tempted to say, “I put three months into this project so I can’t quit now.” But you will be more productive if you ask yourself, “How likely is it that continuing with this project in this way will yield worthwhile results?” Assess your biggest projects first since they take the most time and energy. Don’t spend one more day doing something that isn’t likely to work, no matter how much more blood, sweat and tears you pour into it.
5. Get help organizing. Most of us would love to save time by moving some of our activities (e.g. paying bills, buying groceries) online. But you may lack the computer savvy and/or the time to set up the necessary systems to make it happen. Consider hiring a virtual assistant who can organize you from anywhere for a contracted period of time.
6. Participate in spiritual, community and family activities. It is easy to lose perspective by getting caught up in the next presentation, make-it-or-break-it career move or pending big deal that will put your organization out front in the marketplace. But balance doesn’t come from working in a vacuum. Become a volunteer and invite your family, even young children, to volunteer with you. This both increases the amount of quality time you spend together and serves as a reminder that you are of value in a many different ways.
7. Take a walk every day. This isn’t to jog or run an errand or to catch up on to do list items. Just five minutes moving your body in fresh air, away from your office, without electronic devices, is bound to reenergize you and give you a fresh perspective. Albert Einstein’s understanding of relativity came to him in a dream, away from his laboratory. There is power in just being rather than in continually doing.
8. Do something different. Scan your newspaper’s weekly events section and find an activity you’ve never done before. If you have a family and you usually attend sports events together, mix it up with music, art or nature. Doing something new will give all of you more to talk about.
9. Interview someone who seems to “have it all together.” Is there someone who seems to be living the life to which you aspire? Ask the person to lunch and find out how he or she successfully blends work, family, community and leisure.
10. Write about your accomplishments as though you’re 80. No one wants his or her tombstone to read “Here lies _____ who completed everything on his/her to do list.” Ask yourself, “If I were gone tomorrow, what would people say about me? What would I want them to say about me?” If there is a discrepancy, use the information to prioritize your schedule. Make a list of your goals and aspirations. Put the list in a prominent place where you can’t ignore it. Then tell someone what’s on your list. Committing to others helps us keep commitments to ourselves. Begin to do today what you want to be remembered for at 80.
If you learn to balance external demands with internal aspirations, you will not necessarily be any less busy, but you will be able to put your daily stresses into perspective and feel the satisfaction of a life well-lived. Feeling reconnected, rejuvenated and rekindled aren’t bad outcomes for practicing a little tweaking, are they?