When things-to-do are coming at us from all directions, and seemingly nothing is under our control, I've found there ARE some factors I can control - and I am more productive and less stressed when I regularly manage to do so. The key for me has been knowing what disrupts my best thinking and what stresses me out; determining strategies for avoiding or mitigating those things; and then sticking to my resolve to do so.
In a nutshell -- I have have gotten really clear with myself about my own personal rhythms and acknowledged them as important to my emotional well-being and my productivity (as opposed to feeling like I am being a wimp if I honor them and say"no" or "not now" or "here's when I can").
Here is what I've learned about myself over time, and finally started honoring - in how I schedule my work and how I respond to requests for pieces of my mindshare and my time. I lay out these admittedly gory details in the hopes that it might give you a bit more permission to identify and honor your own!
(One commentary before I get started with the list. I can already hear your reaction, probably about 3 bullets in: "But I don't control all this, other more powerful people set all the meetings etc. that tank my days." I understand and will offer some thoughts on that. But first, I hope you'll read my personal list with an open mind, looking for ahas like "oh yes, i hate X too, really disrupts me, never thought of trying to schedule that differently!")
Here we go - Cinda's personal rhythms/effectiveness/work-schedule-wants:
- I hate taking calls on Monday morning. Period. My brain is not back fully in from the weekend yet (because no matter what, I give myself at least some "totally off" weekend time now.) So I never offer Monday mornings as an option, and only agree to Monday morning calls IF something is truly stupendously time-critical, and/or truly it's the only time someone can do a critical meeting.
- We have our company check-in/project meetings on Tuesdays at 1. Not only do I not like to take calls on Monday mornings; I often want to be left alone totally on Mondays - to get into the week in a really thoughtful way, get some writing out of the way, do strategic thinking. This actually works well - clients and partners and our site users are usually same, using Monday's to get back into THEIR maelstrom :-). We don’t start until 1 on Tuesdays because some of us have morning workouts on Tuesdays, and we want to honor those.
- I leave Fridays free as much as possible for "finishing" work and thought work. Friday afternoons for sure. It's a great time to reflect on the week, wrap up items, plan for the following week. And a side benefit has revealed itself along the way. I can also use some of Friday afternoons for personal stuff if need be. Sometimes, when I know I have to work substantial time over the weekend to finish a deliverable, I will purposely take part of Friday afternoon off and go run errands. This feels absolutely delicious to do so and sends me into the weekend with a great attitude. It's very rejuvenating. And guess what, I often end up thinking about work in a relaxed manner during the afternoon anyway, so I get double benefit.
- I’ve realized how many interrupts I was taking in the middle of the morning and afternoon, doing calls. I need blocks of time multiple times during the week, to write, think through a problem, etc. I decided to try to protect 2-3 hr chunks of time as much as possible – i.e. 8-11 or 9-12 in mornings, 1 to 4 or 2 to 5 in afternoons. I don’t mind doing calls over my lunch time; that’s my break time between thought work anyway; I can take a walk AND do a call before I dive into another block. I also don’t mind getting up early to do calls with the East coast. I actually prefer it, because it gets me up early and then I’ve gotten a jump on the day. (But guess what, no one was suggesting times that early, to be courteous to me. So I told my partners and clients that I am FINE doing calls starting at 6 or 6:30 a.m. my time and actually welcome that instead of mid-morning or mid-aft calls. Everybody wins. It’s working really well.)
- I give my cell # to key people and tell them to text me if they need me urgently. That way I never worry too much about answering the phone every time; they feel they have privileged access and feel comfortable they can get me when needed; and everyone is happy. Even though a text is a kind of interruption, if it comes during a 3 hr work chunk, it’s much easier on my psyche to take a quick peek and decide what to do and how fast to respond, than it is to switch from thinking/writing mode right to speaking by answering the phone. And if I do need to call back quickly, I get to breathe a few minutes, shift, and think about what I’m going to say.
- At least a couple of days a week, I only look at email first thing, lunch time, and end of day. What a relief and a focus-booster to not be a slave to the send-receive button. This alone is good for massive reduction in distraction and going off track onto multiple tasks just because they were staring at me from my inbox.
- Closely related to the previous items, I set email response time expectations with key people. It might be that certain people know it may take 24 hours for me to get back to them. Others who I work with more regularly might know about my focused work chunks and non-continuous email checking, and that if something truly needs turnaround faster than 4 hours, they need to text me.
- In the name of being responsive and fast to turn stuff around for other people, I was committing to delivering things faster than they could even look at them, and thus making my life hard and stressful for no good reason. I’m now tastefully asking when someone needs to have an item back in hand for review, which helps them quote a more true need time, and then I promise to make or beat that. 8 out of 10 times, I get extra days to work on it because they are slammed themselves, and/or their group doesn’t move that fast anyway.
- I’ve also gotten better at recognizing what mood I’m in, and tailoring what work I do on a given day or half-day to take advantage of it. I’ve even used a sneaky little maneuver I call “productive rebellion”. For example, say I had one day slated to be writing some new marketing literature. I get to that morning and can’t even stand the thought of having to get my head into that space right then. Before, I used to flog myself at my own recalcitrance, try the 10 minute just-get-started rule, still hate it and get nowhere. (Sometimes the 10 minute rule works. If it does, I keep going). But if it didn’t work, or I was so determined not to write marcomm that day that I didn’t even try, I’d get all worked up negatively, berating myself for being weak. Then, a couple of times I found myself in this situation but thinking.. “hmmm, what I COULD do is go write a blog post instead. I need to do that too, and that would actually be fun.” (now on other days, it could be the BLOG post I’m avoiding!). So I let myself go write the blog post. I get triple benefit – the fun little frisson of getting to rebel a little and NOT do that painful marcomm task that day, AND the excitement of of picking something fun (at least that day) to go do, AND the reward of feeling like I have indeed done something important that day.
- I do some of my best work in the middle of the night when facing an upcoming deadline - and now capitalize on that. I used to berate myself for needing to pull a late night to finish something. Then I realized that I was attaining incredible focus and efficiency, working in the dead of night or wee early hours to finish something - and actually really enjoyed being at that level of "flow". So instead of berating myself for being a procrastinator, I decided to use that "personal rhythm" to my benefit. Sometimes I will choose to go to bed at 10 and get back up at 2 a.m. and work on something that is due soon. (I also know that I am terrible at working after dinner. Absolutely hate it. So I don't do it. I'd rather sleep 3 hours and get back up in the middle of the night :-))
- Sometimes I treat myself and take my computer and notebook to a favorite restaurant and do tasks or thinking work there. A reward, reinvigorating change of scenery - works great! During some periods I have awarded myself one night a week to go sit in a restaurant with all my stacked up work-related reading material. What in my office is a pile of undone work staring at me and making me feel bad, becomes an absolutely blissful and nicely-paced task.
- I am taking multiple short walks per day - even just 5 minutes. On some walks I just zone; on some I carry a work issue with me and think about it at a slower pace. I last longer physically with more energy and feel more relaxed all day. It did take me some time to get over the obstacle of “Oh I don’t have time, I need to get on to that next task!” I’m getting better at having the countering internal voice that says “Really? 5-10 minutes? Give me a break!”
- I’ve stopped believing I have to kill myself to fly home the same night after an all day meeting or class somewhere. I personally hate doing so. Hate the rush, the worry about security, the crowds, not to mention the worry and sometimes actuality of missing the last plane out. But I had for a long time dutifully done the night time trek home, feeling like I was abandoning him extra by having a nice night by myself with room service before flying home the next day, while he was coping with kid and dogs and his own crazy work schedule. But finally I admitted the stress, and talked to my husband about it. Turns out, that was ME making that rule, not him! He liked that I cared but gave me permission :-). (And then of course it was always an option for us to say, well this time I really DO need to get home that same night, for whatever reason.)
I know this is amazingly minute stuff that might seem kinda namby-pamby or overwrought micromanagement to some. But these tricks have TRULY reduced my stress considerably. I’ve essentially tried to tie my commitment-making and communication and scheduling to what I’ve learned about my own psyche, personal rhythms, stressors and strengths. It has really worked.
I’ll also say that perhaps it sounds hard to pull all these things off, especially protecting the chunks, protecting Mondays and Fridays as I describe. I actually don’t have a 100% success rate, I don't achieve all of the above all the time. But I've discovered that I don’t actually need 100% success - I’m probably fine with 75% or even 60% success! But here is the key for me-- the only way to get to even 60% success at this time blocking etc., is to start with the mindset that these rules are ‘inviolate’ - and then only back off if absolutely required.
Back to my promise to address your possible challenges, including all the meetings others schedule you into and the deadlines that are dictated and seemingly inviolate. First, I bet most of the people around you are experiencing the same thing, and if someone else spoke up and requested some group or team norms, they'd be thrilled. Sometimes you just have to ask (for norms like "let's declare Tuesday morning a no-meeting zone") Sometimes you just have to tell (e.g. "On Thursdays I'm heads down and won't respond to email until X"). Sometimes you even may need to just HIDE. (e.g. find a remote conference room in a different department and get some great work done with no walk-by interruptions!)
I’m thrilled with how well the techniques above have worked for me. And much of it resulted from ME setting some limits to what I agree to, and proactively scheduling when I work on certain things, with my own unique personal productivity drivers in mind. I didn't do all this at once; I've evolved my list over time as I saw what was possible and what helped.
I hope you'll consider the list, think about what YOU need to thrive at your tasks while actually enjoying your work days, examine the obstacles you perceive to making some changes, and find at least a few things to try!