When Work Interferes With Life…Don’t Blame Your Plan. Look At Your Execution.
There is a scene in Aaron Sorkin’s classic series The West Wing where Toby Ziegler, The White House Communications Director is working at his desk and a co-worker interrupts him and asks “Do you have a minute?” Toby answers “Would it make a difference if I said no?” The co-worker continues with the interruption without answering. Most of us feel like Toby at some point during our work week if not every work day. It’s an all too common complaint among workers; Why can’t I get anything accomplished…it seems like I make a plan every day and at the end of every week I am further behind. Why? Perhaps the plan isn’t the problem but your execution of that plan that needs to be changed.
Work interruptions occur every day and even when we attempt to “Plan them in” they can still derail the best of your intentions to have a productive day at work. Add in looming deadlines that creep closer and you have a formula for added stress and for your work life balance to be thrown out of sync once again. The problem is everyone you work with plans their day and they often don’t care about your plan…they care about theirs even if it interrupts yours. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Below are some of my suggestions and tips that have enabled me to put more life back in my own work life equation.
Go Early, Stay Less Late
Read any creative “help” guide (thinking writers here) and you will see a common theme: The best hours of the day to work on their writing is before the sun comes up. This is certainly true for me and I have made it an (irregular) habit when I need to crank out some serious work…the kind of work that requires quiet and concentration and not having someone ask me if I have a minute. Think about it, when do most people arrive to work? The vast majority show up between 8 AM and 9 AM. If you arrive at 7 AM you could probably get in a half hour to forty five minutes of uninterrupted work. For me that isn’t enough. If you arrive at 6 AM now you have an hour and a half to an hour and forty five minutes to really get something done.
When I was first starting out as an HR generalist for a large family owned construction company I was charged with creating from scratch a salary structure and job description book for every salaried job in the company. They did not have one and I did not know how to create one. I had two months. My typical work days were filled with phone calls and panic stricken emails along with many people wanting “a minute” of my time. My house was filled with a new mother, a new born, a toddler and a lunatic dog. Work at home was not happening. So I did the only thing I could think of…I arrived at work every day at 5 AM until I completed that project. Three things happened. I got the project done on time and very well. My work days from 8 AM to 5:30 PM were much less stressful because my big project had been attended to that day already. I got a whopping raise because two of the VP’s noticed that I was beating them into work on a regular basis.
The key is to find your “Go” time and leverage the heck out of it. If it is morning do what I did. You should find you are able to accomplish some amazing work. The other key…I always left by 5:30 PM. Twelve hours give or take was more than enough and as I always say, most people who stay after work are waiting for traffic to clear not to get much work done.
Sometimes we can’t start a routine or even an irregular habit of getting to work before the sun comes up. Perhaps it is family obligations in the morning, a transportation issue or even more common…some people are horrible morning people and the dark hours of the morning are meant for sleep not work. I understand that. In those cases when your peak hours may occur in the middle of your work day or much later in the day after work you simply need to find a quiet place where you can concentrate.
For me, I used to need to do a ton of busy work (reviewing dozens and dozens of performance appraisals prior to setting merit increases as an example) and I did not want to devote the early creative hours of the day to that work…it was wasting my creative time in my opinion. Nevertheless I needed to get a lot done and not be interrupted.
The office was out even if I closed my door (yes they had doors back then) because the phone would ring and the email would pile up while I had one eye watching that happen. Home was now filled with three kids and a different more stable dog but work again was not much of an option at home. When these times occurred I would head off to the public library, find a big table to myself, spread out the work and turn off the phone. I still do this from time to time and I would say my productivity level is double or triple to what it is in the office (which is now a home office). I know many people feel this way about going to Starbucks to “work” but unless that work needs to be with other people I find it simply too distracting. Regardless, when you can find that solitude you might be surprised how much you can get done in a short amount of time…in essence you are giving yourself back some valuable life hours by being more efficient at work.
Deal With It. Postpone It. Reject It.
I get emails and calls all the time for work where people want my help. This is a nice feeling except sometimes (many times) my help may not be needed or it may not be needed right then. Sometimes I am actually needed at that specific moment. Based on these scenarios here is what I do:
If the issue needs my attention and it is truly time sensitive I will deal with it right then. Stuff happens and you cannot just ignore it because it interferes with your well thought out plan for the day. In those cases, dig in and handle the issue.
Often times the caller or emailer wants your help because they want to work on this issue right now because it has landed on their desk but it is not subject to a specific deadline. They just want to move it off their to do pile. If I don’t have time right then and it is not urgent but it is important I let them know when I can help them by first asking when this item or project is due. Beware! Some people create false senses of urgency and say “Right away”. I always ask, then why are you just calling me now? This is a bit tough but it signals to the caller that you know they do not have their act together and they almost always back down. I follow up with when is the real deadline? Inevitably there are a number of days available. I then set an appointment based on my availability and move on.
Many times the caller simply wants my help on something I have already asked them to do. I am fine with some guidance but not with them delegating the work back up to me…if they do that I don’t need them. Neither do you. In those cases I provide what guidance is needed (sometimes at a later time based on my schedule) and send them on their way. Sometimes they will ask me to review a “draft” which I find really means review some half-baked work in the hopes I will complete it. I don’t ask for drafts because what you usually get back is a poor effort…after all it is only a “draft.” I ask for a finished project that we may tweak. The results are usually better and I don’t have to do the work someone else was assigned to do.
Say NO A Lot More Than Yes
I get invited to a lot of meetings. Some require me to get on a plane some are by phone or webinar. Since I travel roughly forty to forty-five weeks a year for business, I guard my time carefully. Over the past couple of years I was invited to a series of recurring meetings that took place every two to four weeks. One set had over twenty-five people on it. Another was just as easily accomplished through a PowerPoint sent by email. I attended each set of meetings twice. When it was confirmed this was a nice to do (for others not for me) and the business was not going to grind to a halt if I opted out…I did just that. A few months later someone asked me if I was on “All those calls.” I said that I had opted out. They were jealous and confirmed again many people were meeting to meet. This was not efficient and while it made some people feel good, in reality they were getting nothing done that could not be accomplished in a group email.
Opting out or saying “No” saved me countless hours. You can’t do this for every meeting but before you commit, make sure you know if you are essential or just invited “In case something comes up you could help with.” If it is the latter, tell them to call you when that happens and skip the time wasting meeting.
Fully Utilize “After Work Hours”
I work in what many people consider to be a stressful job. I negotiate Labor Agreements for my Company with Unions. Primarily Teamsters. When I tell people what I do I am often asked “Do you drink a lot?” My answer: Sometimes. My work often requires that I fly to the location where the contract needs to be negotiated. I cover the United States and we have over one hundred fifty contracts. In any given year I negotiate twelve to fifteen contracts and get involved in other “union related projects” that also require quite a bit of time. My job requires me to engage in confrontational discussions on a nearly weekly basis and it requires that I think on my feet and talk…a lot. So when I get home or back to my hotel I will admit three fingers of a premium whiskey over ice seems like a fair trade off for what I deal with on a regular basis.
Here’s the thing. Everything in moderation…whiskey certainly falls under this as does any alcohol. Not trying to preach here but if you find you are losing the hours at the end of the day because you are just too tired to do anything more ask yourself this. Am I truly using the hours after work to enjoy my life and/or manage my life to the fullest? It doesn’t have to be whiskey. It can be Television, Netflix, surfing the web mindlessly (I opted out of Facebook a year ago and have never looked back) or even just answering work emails.
The point is if you leave work and get home by 6 or 7 PM you still have two to four solid hours to not just exist but live. Exercise, cook a great meal, get some work done on that house project, hang with your kids (as in really pay attention to them) or take some time just to calm down and be quiet and introspective. It can pay dividends the next day as you might just feel less “over worked.” Sure we all like a cocktail or have a favorite series we pop on Netflix but if you find these hours of your day are lost more often than lived, you might want to rethink how you use them.
I don’t think I have laid out anything overly groundbreaking or “new” here. But I do think we all need to be reminded that we actually do control much of our work and personal lives. We all need to take a step or two back and look to see where we, not others, are creating undue stress and fatigue because we have fallen into some poor habits or routines. So do yourself that favor and take a step back now and take a quick inventory. You just might find you have more time than you think or at least that you can create some more time with some simple adjustments.
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