Relax — unlike some articles on productivity, the suggestions below are not meant to help you do more than you’re doing now. Instead, I hope they will help you enjoy your work more, relax more, and open up a little extra free time in the new year.
1. Know your best times of day for different tasks
Our brains work differently at different times of the day. Figuring out the ideal time to perform a task can make it more enjoyable and lessen the amount of time you spend on it. Most people are more creative in the afternoon or evening. That’s because they're a little fatigued, so their minds tend to wander, which leads to new ideas. For that reason, a first draft, whether of a business memo, a short story, or a legal brief, will flow more easily in the afternoon. In contrast, for most people, the morning is a better time for tasks that require focus and precision. (Interestingly, one study showed this was true even for individuals who reported they were not “morning people.”) So revise that first draft or proofread your near-final document in the morning.
2. Focus on large blocks of time
Business/self-help guru Tony Robbins once said that most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten. The same thing tends to be true for a week versus a month, particularly when you’re very busy. If your days feel booked to the hilt, setting more daily or even weekly goals will just add stress. Instead, take a few minutes to consider what you can reasonably get done in a month or a year. Let’s say you want to find a new job but have no time to look. Choose one task per month to further that goal. Maybe in Month 1, spend an hour total talking with two people who already have the type of position you want; in Month 2, spend an hour researching ideal companies; in Month 3 update your resume, etc. Will you have a new job at the end of the year? Maybe, maybe not, but you’ll have made substantial progress. As another example, if you’ve wanted for years to write fiction, try setting a goal of writing just 250 words 10 times over the next three months. At the end of that time, you’ll have a 2,500 word short story (which you can then edit in the mornings).
3. Schedule important meetings with yourself
There’s an old saying that if you want something done, ask a busy person. If that’s you, schedule time for yourself, even if it’s only once a week or once a month, and treat it like any other important appointment. In other words, if someone wants to set something else at that time, you are not available. (No one needs to your important meeting is with yourself.) What to do in that time? Whatever you need most. Spend half an hour with a cup of tea and plan your next month’s personal goals. Take a walk, meditate, or sneak away to a coffee shop (don’t bring your tea with in that case) to read a book. But do something just for you – not for your boss, your employees, your spouse, your kids, your neighbor….
4. Expect to be interrupted/frustrated/for things to take longer than you expected
Especially when we’re busy, there's a tendency to schedule everything to the minute. What that really means is we’re assuming all will go smoothly. Every conference call will start and end on time, every software download will finish in the estimated time, and the car will never break down. When does life work that way? It doesn’t. So don’t start the software download when you know you’ll need your computer half an hour later. If you are stuck with back-to-back meetings, leave a half hour somewhere in the day to catch up. For a one p.m. meeting that’s a 30-minute drive away, block out the time from noon on in your calendar. (You still won’t leave until 12:15, but at least you’ll have an extra 15 minutes if the route includes a detour.) This will give you breathing room to still get most things done on time and will ease stress. When the computer crashes, you can say to yourself, “Oh, yes, I knew that could happen. Good thing I I started this at 6 p.m. and I can go grab dinner while it reboots.”
5. Make your own rules
For a short time, I tried the OHIO system – Only Handle It Once. It sounded great – why waste time, for instance, looking at each e-mail two-three times in a day. On a slow day, responding to each e-mail as it came in saved time and lowered stress. But if I had a day that started with 30 emails and 50 more came in later, it was a different story. If the 1st required me to complete a half hour task in order to respond but wasn’t urgent and the 25th needed an immediate answer that would take five minutes, OHIO was a terrible idea. Not only would I give poor service to the client who sent No. 25, I’d feel extremely stressed while I spent half an hour on a non-urgent task without knowing what those other twenty-four emails required. Someone in another kind of business, though, might find OHIO useful in most circumstances. This shows that, with any rule or idea, including the suggestions above, it’s important to see how it fits your work habits and your life. And, as important, see how you feel as you go through your day. If it works, great. If not, you can make adjustments.
What’s helped you both relax and be productive?
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