After finishing university, my short term goal was to get a decent job in a multinational company, than climb the ladder to prove myself capable to myself that I could be financially independent. I did it, but at a cost I did not expect. My getting-everything-done-today mentality was getting the results (new job opportunities, recognitions, new senior tasks), but at a high cost. I had no free time during the week. I used to work 60-hour weeks, sometimes even more. Going to work overwhelmed and getting home overwhelmed. Thinking about what additional tasks I would need to solve tomorrow and how much more overtime I will need to cope with it.
Normally, if you are getting results at work, you will be requested to tackle a workload that can only be solved if you stay late in the office. This is happening more and more on every level of the hierarchy. As a result of this behavior, more senior tasks are landing on the to-do lists of non-senior employees, making their workload much harder. If you are passionate about your job you could stay the extra hours.
In my scenario, the weekends were passive and although I wanted to rest as much as possible, it dawned at me that those days are not enough to mentally regenerate. But then, due to the work cycles, taking a two-week vacation was not an option and honestly, they would not have help at all. I did not want any plans for Sunday as I was already thinking about my Monday. What would happen tomorrow? What additional tasks I would need to cope with and how long would I need to be in the office? That made me feel stressed all Sunday. So even though I had the weekend to rest, I could not. By the way, did you know this feeling had a name? It’s called the “Sunday Night Blues“. Well, I not only felt it Sunday night, but the whole day.
I decided I had enough of this ‚lifestyle‘. It was deconstructing my entire life.
I decided something needs to change: ME. I am the reason I am in such a state of mind. I was the one who got myself here. I was the one who said yes to a task that clearly did not belong to me only because I wanted to prove myself to my superiors. For this reason, I am the only one who can get myself out of it and address the challenges I face.
I created a framework in theory and started to address each of my weaknesses one at a time.
Thanks to the implementation of the mindset adjustments techniques below, I am now able to do something that I am passionate about, gained control over my workload by working smarter not harder.
But lets not get ahead of ourselves. Here are the actual tactics I used to make work-life balance (or should I say, life-work balance) a reality for myself that resulted in an unexpected outcome.
The 4 Steps
Am I paying too much attention to less significant issues that take up 80% of my time but produce only 20% of the results? Am I managing my time or others do it for me? Am I productive right now or just busy?
These questions are very powerful. Because of them, I made tools that helped me achieve more with less. I had an upload tool made with an IT team to book invoices automatically rather than manually. This have taken me 3 months and some extra work on top of the regular ones but sure it made a difference in the amount of time I spent using this upload method when it was finished. It saved me about 8 hours each week.
I had created MS Excel macros with the IT Team again on some of my reports that took up a lot of my time after migration. I made numerous follow ups with people to make challenging and time consuming processes more efficient, hence with a little input on top of my regular duties, I was able to achieve results at a bigger scale and save myself energy and time. With this mindset, I was able to cope much better with the ever-growing workload deriving from migration and people backup than earlier.
Asking myself: “Am I managing my time or others do it for me?” made me think differently on my tasks and their value. As an additional question, I asked myself, “Which is better: finishing a task that my superior requested from me sooner than it’s original deadline OR replying and helping random people who sent me an email also job related but not strictly related to my desk?” When I had to get-everything-done-today mentality, I was doing both. Can you guess the result of that? No life.
So I had to choose between the two and I choose the first.
I set blocks of time for all the tasks I had to do in my email calendar for the duration I thought they would take. Since I never used my calendar to plan my work before, once I was finished, it made me truly see and realize how much work lay ahead of me for the week. These are the steps I took to be mindful about the workload:
– I tend to forget tasks, so I have written them down in order to see them. At times of chaos, this practice helped me make decisions faster on what to work on right now and what to delay to later.
– I set goals for the next week, so I knew exactly what to focus on by when. This helped minimize my distractions. There are days when I only check my emails twice a day. I.e.: 1 hour in the morning, 1 hour in the afternoon. During the day, I am working on my most important goals.
– I color coded these blocks according to their importance. I used red for critical value, orange for high value, yellow for medium, and green for low value activity. I used blue for meetings. If any ad-hoc activity came up – I could make a better decision faster than without knowing what I needed to do. I could also see which meeting I needed preparation and which were in the no-prep-needed zone. By knowing which meetings to prep for, I was not anymore just logging on the calls, turning out that people expected a report from me already. By the color-code planning, I knew which meeting needed prep work that usually made the meetings much shorter than earlier.
– With the help of color-coding, I knew my goals and I was able to prioritize. What I realized that with exact goals and deadlines written down, I was more likely to achieve them.
– I set blocks of time for my tasks for a period I thought was manageable to get them done. It could be any time period I saw feasible. 15 minutes, 45 minutes, 2 hours, 2 days, etc. I planned consistently.
This was scary, as it looked something like this below. I was afraid what would happen to my planned tasks if one gets delayed.
I had to realize that even a good plan is better than a perfect plan. Making it a very good starting point to plan my activities in advance for the duration I thought feasible. If they turned out to be taking up more time, I rescheduled the affected time blocks. But I still worked on what I planned, making myself focus on accomplishing what I set out to do. The key is to plan and sticking to the plan. This made me work much more effectively.
After getting really good at this, I could finally focus on what I wanted to work on. It was my own job-related activities (regular activities and process enhancement) and requests from the top first, followed by any other request coming in via email or verbally if someone stepped over to my desk and started with questions. Of course I helped them if these questions were easy to answer, but if I could not answer them in 1 minute I suggested the other to schedule a short meeting with me at my desk or theirs to go over their questions ad I did not want to loose my focus. Or let them know to send their request to me by email so I could take a closer look. If they sent me an email I could finally integrate it to my priority list and have the task on my radar.
I created a folder structure for my superiors and setup some email rules to move all incoming emails to those folders. If they sent something, it was usually always important. This way, I did not need to check my Inbox folder regularly but only take a glance at the important folders and see if there is anything unread.
How do I respond to the meeting invitations I receive? Do I have to accept them all? When can I say ‘no’ to additional workload?
Meeting invitations are a bit of a trap in my opinion as usually they are forwarded without any text. These sort of meetings could take up a lot of my time turning our to be not relevant at all. Sent out to me without my knowledge about the topic or without any explanation. What I did is to reply to the sender why did they send it to me, what is expected form me and if there is any way we can not have the meeting by sending me the exact questions. Sometimes I could reply to such questions prior to the meeting and declined it. Sometimes it turned out I was the wrong person.
When I received multiple assignments and my workload shoot up to the sky, I called a short meeting with my boss. Prior to the meeting, I outlined my current activities and their importance. The list was long (it still is). Then I showed him the list and asked for his help to decide which one should I focus on as I have limited time for the day. After that request, he highlighted the key activities that I had to work on. The rest could wait. This helped me hugely at prioritizing. Guess what, if I would not have called for the 20 minute meeting to go over the tasks, I would be working on all of them overtime, with the goal of finishing all of them. Then I knew which ones to progress and which to leave for tomorrow or next week. This resulted in leaving the office on time, if I got the main tasks progressed and done. Most of the cases, I could.
During a quarter, our team had way more work than it was possible to handle. This made me call for a bigger meeting with all my co-workers and superiors in order for the managers to know what sort of tasks their team is working on. Strange right? Superiors not knowing what their team is working on. But it is true. We had project requests coming in from different teams that our superior did not know how much time would each take to finish. These projects were taking up more of our time than what we expected. This was the perfect opportunity to get everyone on the same page and clarify the importance of the tasks.
This is what happened: We had 2 weeks left of the quarter and I gathered all the tasks we were working on. The list was not that big, but the tasks themselves were huge. I started to go over the list and mark the ones our manager wanted to get done in the 2 weeks time. Out of the 9 tasks, 7 of them had to be done. So I asked: can we focus on the most impactful items (Pareto Principle comes in handy) within those tasks? In order to solve 80% of the task in about investing 20% of our time? They said yes. With this method, we could finish all those tasks and get the major items sorted out within the 2 weeks period without any major overtime. If we would have worked on solving all the 7 tasks 100%, we would not have done it even with sleeping in the office. What these meetings did for me is taking off pressure from work, because now everyone knew what is expected. Not something that is always clear to everyone in a fast-paced work environment.
It also helped reduce the pressure as we would not need to be ‘waiting’ for extra work. As sometimes it happened that our manager turned up from around the corner and said to help her sort out a given report and analysis. With having the meetings discussing the priorities, these ad-hoc visits almost stopped entirely.
This made me realize to always ask for help when there is just too much to do. Get my manager on the same page so she could prioritize for me because we might not know what is the focus on their level. And if we ask them what they want to see progress on, they will tell us so they could report that to their superiors.
If I had to say no for additional work, this is how I did it:
1. Said ‘no’ in a polite way
2. Told them why
3. Provided an alternative solution that can solve that task.
“Thank you for considering me with this task but I am afraid I have to say no, as I am currently very busy working on XXX, XXX, XXX (my high value tasks). These tasks take me XXX amount of time and I am still in the middle of it. They are very important, as once I finish them, I will achieve XXX and XXX (the 80% outcome from my high value tasks) that are beneficial not only to me but also for the group. I would recommend XXX person, I think him/her is more knowledgeable on the topic and could solve it much faster than I could.”
If they really wanted me to get that additional work done, I said this:
“All right, everything can be solved. In this case, here is my list of what I am currently working on. Please help me decide which can wait so I can start this one.”
What topic would I love to get more details on? What have I enjoyed the most? These were the questions that made me really work my brain. I had to realize that what is the point for me to keep all the knowledge about managing and organizing stuff in my head and not letting others know about it when clearly there were people around me that needed some guidance.
I started to think how is it possible to solve such work challenges that no one seems to address and offer solutions to at work. Let it be sorting out hundreds of emails in my mailbox after a week on vacation or even the next day; how to prioritize my tasks so I would know what to focus on; what to say ‘no’; how to effectively communicate through emails. I realized that this topic is something I want to focus more of my attention to. I created my website, and also started to publish on my LinkedIn profile. I created a short online time management training that also generated a fair amount of feedback. After that, I wrote two eBooks on the topic.
Somehow, this was not enough after realizing how much I like making things happen and planning my personal time. These certainly helped me explore the unknown territory in life that I’ve never done before to allow myself freedom to share my knowledge that could potentially help others. So I started to think about a real tangible project. Something physical. That is when I realized why shouldn’t I make a planner? A weekly planner in which people could plan their activities on a weekly basis. I started to search for such planners on amazon.com and read the comments. In general, there were three types of negative comments:
1. The days didn’t start early enough and end late enough. People wrote that it was not enough to have a schedule starting from 7 AM to 5 PM, as if they want to use that product and do plan their activities, they’d like to plan all of their activities that often start much earlier in the morning and ended at night.
2. The paper used in the planners were very thin and the writing bled through the pages, making the next page almost unusable. I guess it is something that have to do with the additional cost of a thinner paper.
3. The final category was that people did not have enough room for notes.
I started to search for a planner that could offer solutions to all these points but could not find one. As a result, I decided to make one! I jumped into the unknown.
After 3 months of development and testing, I launched the Productiweekly Planner on Kickstarter that included the solutions to those 3 points above. The project is still live for another 4 days, so if you are looking for one for 2018, you could still grab a copy and help make the planner a reality. It allows people to: plan all the activities for the day and a system to track those activities so they don’t get forgotten; set weekly goals; and accomplish those goals. What was unique about this project is that I documented the process of making ti. If you would like to know about the 3-month process, feel free to visit this page.
All in all, I am much happier where I am at now at life and looking forward to the next jump. This mindset change worked for me.
If you are wondering how I had time for my personal projects while having a full time job check out this article: “Creating A Productive Habit” on thriveglobal.
You can find tips on how to focus at work with “Top 5 Tips For Being Super Productive At Work” on thriveglobal.
And how an early lunch could get you 1,5 extra hours per day via “3 Benefits Of An Early Lunch” also on thriveglobal.