In our career series we’ve been focusing on work-life balance. We’ve discussed how the concept behind work-life balance is a myth, and gone into the tactical steps to improve how you’re spending your time. This week, we’re talking about how to make the most of the time you do spend in the office.
Now that you’ve decided you want to create a little more “me time”, what can you do to stay productive while you’re at work so you don’t feel guilty at the end of the day?
1. Prioritize what you really need to be doing
With a laundry-list of things to do, how do you know where to start? There are plenty of models people train on to help this process, but one of my favorites is the Eisenhower decision matrix of urgent versus important. This model has you sort your work by urgency and importance, as shown in the example below. Another way to do this is to consider what will happen if you don’t get each of the things on your list done. Whichever item has the biggest “downside” to not getting done, start there. You should always speak to your manager if you’re unsure of your priorities, but the biggest thing I recommend is just knowing where to start. So often people try and do everything on their list without considering what would have the biggest positive impact on them. Don’t do just to do - work deliberately.
2. Delegate what you can
In that same vein, if there is certain busy-work that you can automate or delegate - do that! Whether it’s using an app to more efficiently complete your expense reports or asking for someone else on the team to take over a client call, this is a big one. You can make so much time in your day by doing the work that you can have the biggest impact with. For the items that are not in your realm of greatness, try and think about a third route where you can move it off of your plate all together. In that vein...
3. Learn to let go
Many people struggle to delegate because of patterns they’ve learned in the past. If they receive praise for always being a team player, for example, it’s understandable to pick up some bad behaviors. Especially in this day and age where many people answer the question, “how are you doing?” with “good, but so busy” that it’s somewhat become a status symbol. That leads many professionals to feel like they have to take on every task and can’t ask for help out of fear that it won’t be done to their calibur. Perfectionism runs rampant in the work world, but really when you refuse to delegate you’re not only hurting yourself but you’re hurting your team. You’re taking opportunities to learn and grow from someone more junior who would love the experience, so try delegating one thing and seeing how much of a win it is. You’ll free up time in no time and be able to focus on the work you can contribute to the most.
4. Think before accepting
Instead of immediately accepting any work in a group setting or from your manager, take a moment to consider what you have on your plate. It’s in everyone’s best interest for you to say yes to only what you can handle. One tactic I used to employ was creating a list of everything on my plate. If a big new project came up that I knew I could offer a valuable contribution to, I would share my list with my manager and ask her what I could de-prioritize to focus on the new task. You can’t have 10 top priorities! Along with thinking before you accept, also give other people the opportunity to consider. With high-achievers, I often see them immediately offer their help in a group setting when there’s even a moment of silence for volunteers, and then resenting it later. They wish they didn’t take on the task, but didn’t think anyone else will offer. As tough as this is, it’s important to wait for other people to step up. In the past I’ve employed the idea of counting to ten in my head before offering up my support to give someone else a chance to step up.
5. Set up habits to hold you accountable
Do your best to force yourself to leave by a certain time, and respect your time as a non-negotiable. I used to always schedule a 5PM workout class so that I would be forced to leave the office. Even if I had to get back online later, the workout allowed me to clear my head and come back to my list of to-dos with a bit more perspective. I’d typically be able to cut my list down from 5 things that needed to be done that night to 2.
6. Set up mini-sprints
Give yourself breaks when needed. Set your work up as mini-sprints and put the pedal to the metal during those work sessions. One tactic I’ve read about and employed successfully is the Pomodoro technique. It recommends you determine your tasks for the day, set a timer for 25 minutes, and work uninterrupted those 25 minutes. Mute your phone, silence your slack notifications, and don’t click out into random emails. Then, you get a 5 minute break! This sounds simple, but when I started using this tactic I realized just how much time I was wasting by jumping around on items. Focused mini-sprints allow you to do your best work so you earn your break.
7. Log those hours and ask for help if needed
Last but not least, keep track of your overall time and how you’re spending it. Start having conversations with your manager if you feel like the amount of work you’re being asked to do is too much for a single person and warrants another hire. If you’re getting serious about it or feeling like you may burn out, it’s your responsibility to talk to them and make it known. You can log your time and come to them with a business case to get the ball rolling. Maybe they’ll surprise you with approval.
With all the tips above, start having the conversations and putting the tools in place to respect your own time at work. Once you’re freed up to do the things you love, work-life balance won’t feel so impossible.