Think about your job description. Does it read like this?
Have an empty inbox and no loose papers on the desk.
I'm guessing it probably doesn't and instead has something to do with building customer satisfaction, keeping superiors or clients informed about the status of ongoing work, producing results on those projects on time and under budget, etc.
It's hard to remember to do, but if you're like me, you need to let go of the illusion that your job will be done properly when you're "all caught up". Dig out that job description and the comments from your last review and see what the real measure of "things going properly" should be. Put it in priority order. Write it up and discuss it with your boss to refine it as necessary.
What you want to end up with is a touchstone you can pull out when you feel overwhelmed, adrift or unrewarded. This kind of a list is particularly crucial for anyone whose work doesn't reach regular cycles of completion and congratulation on a weekly or monthly basis.
Stick it up on your wall and refer to it whenever you need to decide what should be worked on next.
Here's an example list for someone maintaining a sales team's software demonstration machine:
- All reported problems with demo server investigated and resolved or resolution in progress.
- Status of problems reported to stakeholders.
- Aware of demonstration schedule (to avoid conducting maintenance during demos).
- Software on demo server up-to-date.
- Server status webpage on intranet current with software versions, known issues, and links to demo scripts.
- Aware of coming software updates including new examples which will need to be set up.
- Aware of operating system/hardware requirements for coming updates and shortcomings reported to manager with a plan for their correction.
- Maintaining familiarity with products being demonstrated.
- Maintaining familiarity with operating system and hardware being used, particularly with security and backup needs and techniques.
- Keeping an eye out for ways to improve workflow for self and co-workers.
- Progress on long-term, non-timebound projects.
- Progress on professional growth goals.
So, imagine our hypothetical sales engineer after a wild morning of resolving some surprise software issue before an important demo. He's coming up for air and trying to remember what he had been planning to work on today instead of the crisis du jour. What he shouldn't do is start trying to completely resolve everything reflected with an email in his inbox.
Instead, he should run down this prioritized list of conditions and do what needs to be done to achieve that state for each one in order.
He's going to scan his inbox and voicemail for any newly reported or unresolved issues on the demo server which require his action. He's going to make sure he's let the necessary people know where everything stands now, any pending actions and who is doing them. He's going to take a quick look at the demo calendar to see if there's anything new he needs to prep for. He's going to check the status on development and if there is new software coming, he will work around the demo calendar to schedule the next software update, again notifying the necessary people and adding any downtime to the calendar. He's going to look to see if he needs or wants to do any other operating system or server maintenance at the time of that update. He's going to take a quick look over the intranet page he maintains and make sure it's current.
Then he can start looking to the non-urgent mail from the development team or listservs which keep him up-to-date on what's coming in the longer term. He can thus plan accordingly and send out any necessary questions to the developers to help avoid last minute crises. Once all these conditions are met, he can broaden his activities to gaining deeper knowledge of his company's products and of the tools he uses or might want to start using. He can also take this knowledge and propose improvements to his own and others' workflow. He may prepare a description of a longer term project based on these ideas or continue working on an already approved such project. When all is in order and moving forward properly, he can also take time to work on professional growth such as the acquisition of new skills, participation in professional activities such as conferences or publication, or other activities he and his manager have identified as desirable for his continued growth and success.
What is very important to note here is that he can reach the bottom of that list - he can be doing his job beautifully - with lots of mail in his inbox and lots of papers on his desk. Those things are not the measure of a job well done.
However, they may be very distracting, so tomorrow I'll be back with some tips on cutting the clutter to help yourself stay focused.
If you don't work on an actual mechanized assembly line, why act like you do? I don't think the average human is satisfied by mechanistic repetition without variation. All the ergonomic experts come around telling us to vary our physical positions to keep our limbs from becoming unduly stressed, but I think you need to vary your mental position just as much.
Shift your tasks based on your energy and the tools at hand.
I know that I tend to have an energy slump in the early afternoon, so that's when I schedule meetings or routine tasks. In the late morning and late afternoon tends to be when my brain is ticking over at high speed, so that's when I like to do heavier mental lifting such as writing that's not based on previous work or in-depth testing of a complex problem.
Try microbreaks and nanobreaks.
When my work could be very stressful due to more falling onto my plate than it can hold, I can often fend off that overwhelmed feeling by taking a moment to remind myself of the good things in my life. Between tasks I'll take a quick look at one of a few sites I check every day - three friends' photoblog sites, a web-based comic, and, for the longer breaks, a link-blogger who frequently has tech news of interest to me at work, but who is so interesting as to be a risk of longer distraction, and a snarky news commentator who does a daily video post. Pulling myself out of context when I feel the stress building diffuses the tension and allows me to return to work a few seconds or minutes later with a fresh mind.
Nanobreaks are a new enhancement to my stress-busting repetoire. I have stocked my screen saver and changing desktop pattern with pictures that make me happy: friends, flowers, landscapes, and other favorites, mostly copied from my Flickr contacts. When I need a little jolt of happiness, I just minimize my windows (F11 on the Mac, yay!) and there's something on my desktop to bring a smile to my face. A second or two may not seem like it would make a difference, but for me it is profoundly useful. I recommend any cube-dweller who doesn't have a beautiful view to use for recharging give this a try.
A lot of the time my advice is basically "just do it", but sometimes that isn't the right answer.
I have a guest room that is currently a halfway house for yard sale items, unfinished projects, and other miscellanea in a semi-confused state of existence in my daily life. I want to get it cleared out of the unimportant or no-longer-me stuff and turned into a space I really use. It weighs on me that I'm paying rent for that room and I don't make proper use of it.
However, today I have to concede that now is not the time. I have a massively busy schedule at work for the next month. I will be in a state of intense activity every day and have at least three conferences to prepare materials for.
This month, I'm closing the door. What am I paying that rent for? For the ability to put my personal chaos in another room and not have it detract from the peaceful, soothing nature of the rest of my home.
When you need some clarity and extra calm, find those resources you already have to help accommodate and relieve the stress-causing things in your life. Split the to-do list into "Must happen now" and "Can wait until things settle down" and absolutely do not worry about that second list.
What's the first thing on my important list? "Stay well and happy and unstressed".
What's second? "Support my family and friends as best I can".
What's third? "Perform well at work".
What's not on the list? "Clean out the armoire in the guest room".
Be sure that getting organized and uncluttered doesn't leave you overwhelmed all the time. Sometimes the best tactic truly is to just shove that crap in the closet and deal with it later. (Just don't put the bills in there or postpone later too long).
Thanks to Heartsong for her great tip in the comments yesterday. Yes, absolutely, when something has been on the top of your to-do list for long time and you keep putting it off, you need to either find a way that it can be permanently off your list or get started on it. Sometimes those first 15 minutes are all you need to overcome the entropy.
Today, look for the physical manifestations of the not-yet-done items on your list. What is clogging up your space that doesn't need to be? Do one thing today that cleans some of that stuff out of your life.
The other day Joe & I went and sold books & CDs to Green Apple and that cleared a bit of room, but I still have quite a few things piled up in there waiting to be dealt with. First on my list, though, is not the stuff in the guest room or the basement, but that stack of bills, receipts and mail. It'll be gone by tonight.
While I resolve a few technical difficulties, please amuse yourselves trading Discardian tips in the comments.
"Slow down, you move too fast, got to make the mornin' last..."
Have to travel to a big conference for work? Don't fly back the day everything ends, take one more day and fly home the next afternoon or evening.
Be sure to ask the front desk at your hotel for late checkout so you can take your morning as slow as you want.
Then leave your bags at the desk and go putter around, have a nice lunch somewhere, see something you might have otherwise missed...
You'll come home much restored, even from a very intense and active conference.
Reminder: 90% of everything really isn't that important. Don't shout or make bitter snarky remarks at the poor retail or service staff. Let it slide & smile.
Yes, optimize where it matters, but when it doesn't, let it go by and move on sweetly.
Some of us like to relax with games on the computer or video gaming systems. Unless you're blessed with as much free time as you want and don't have anything else on your list you'd rather get done, you might want to limit the amount of time you spend distracted in these alternate worlds.
Here's a simple suggestion from D. Keith Robinson:
Play on an easier setting than you might otherwise.
Yes, okay, maybe you aren't challenging yourself properly, but really, what's your goal here? To become better at this particular game or to relax and have fun? Weigh the satisfaction you achieve after 30 minutes at easy vs. hard and go for that which leaves you jolliest.
It's just like tossing a ball around in the yard instead of suiting up for a regulation football game; who cares if you aren't playing it the tough way? Don't you get enough tough elsewhere in your life?
There is a terrible pressure to stay in high gear at all times in today's culture. There's a hidden message that with enough caffeine you should be able to go go go all day and night.
Of course you can't run your metaphorical engine in the red nonstop any more than you can any real motor. You've got a certain capacity, which you most definitely should exercise the fullest quite often, but slow down and recover afterwards.
There are things we fundamentally need to stay happy and healthy and wise.
When that little voice in your head is saying "Too much!", be sure to build a rest into your schedule as soon as possible. If there's a crisis, you might need to make it a shorter rest, but there is always a way to take a few moments to step out of the noise, look out to the distance, breathe and rest your mind.
When that moment comes that you can't take the longer break you need, at least schedule it. Plan to use a vacation day, give your regrets for that social obligation that was going to take up all of Saturday, skip the TV tonight and go to bed early.
It's really truly definitely okay that you can't Do It All all the time.
If it's gonna suck, don't pretend it ain't.
I got back to my hotel room after dinner tonight and it smelled like an ashtray. As I was suspiciously sniffing the connecting door to the next room (which, like mine and, in fact, the whole hotel is supposed to be non-smoking only), I heard a boisterous group of young guys coming out of the elevators, down the hall and - uh oh - the sound of the door next to mine opening.
Of course this would be the night I have to get up early for a breakfast meeting with a customer where I need to be alert and supportive. I thought about it for about 3 seconds, picked up the phone, very politely explained the situation and asked if maybe they could move me. They were (thank you, Hyatt) happy to accommodate the change and apologized sweetly, even though it isn't even their fault.
25 minutes later, after a quick pack up (and a fun trip in the cool industrial-looking service elevator to avoid having to go down floors to get over to the other tower), I have a lovely fresh and sweet-smelling room on the 30th floor which is going to have a great view to compensate for the early alarm. It's quiet and I'm happy. Yes, I had the mild inconvenience of packing & unpacking, but it took 10-15 minutes at most and I would have spent way longer than that being annoyed by the ashtray stink and the noise from next door.
Don't hesitate to optimize your world when it will save you unhappiness and won't add to anyone else's.