There are a handful of situations in your life when you are legitimately extremely busy but it just doesn’t make sense for me to be hyper-stressed and continuously engrossed in things all the damn time. I’m talking about the state when you are not even able to hold an interesting or potentially important conversation or haven’t done anything even remotely playful in weeks.
It’s a sad phenomenon that the majority of the jobs and the (at least) 8 hour workdays don’t reward effectiveness but the mirage of a hardworking employee. Thousands of people get away with looking permanently engulfed in work, or anyways, in something that looks like working and it is spreading far and wide. Somehow it became undeniably cool to sleep only 3 hours a night, not be able to sit down for a normal midday meal and having to reach for the calendar anytime you try to have a night out with friends. Even though we are all aware what stress does to our system and brains.
It was a normal state for most of my colleagues and myself in my ad agency years and apparently now the high street is ready to embrace the spirit of times.* For €17.95 at Zara you can demonstrate how super busy and therefore important and valuable you are.
It would be a way more beneficial to learn how to work smarter, not harder.** I’m probably in luck thanks to years of learning to be a better project manager, but I still struggle to construct daily schedules that are balanced and work well. Here are some of the thing I try to get better at:
1 – learn to prioritize
Years ago a pretty unsuccessful job interview made me realize that I actually suck in prioritizing long lists of things to do. I always found myself trying to get rid of small, fast and urgent tasks first – or as they landed in my mailbox. This meant that big and important bricks of projects were only doable in the evening, the office becoming silent and empty, not to mention how important, but personal items got always delayed on my lists. I still enjoy working during the night but I try not to hold of scary, difficult or really important things for that time, simply because the pressure from the job not being done messes with my whole day.
I understood finally that the let’s just quickly get my inbox in order first, will get to that workshop program later approach doesn’t work and I need systematic planning instead.
2 – learn yourself
There is not one universal rule system, we all have little quirks that need to be acknowledged to be able to build better schedules. I’m for example aware that I need 8 hours of sleep and it is clear that a switch between fundamentally different tasks is very not easy. Not to mention the crushing realisation that multitasking actually doesn’t exist – no wonder I needed to mute the music I’ve been listening to to speed up the writing a bit.
What I do today, based on what I know about myself thanks to 3 years of working alone and for myself, is building blocks. I try to look at my week as a unit, instead of my days and focus my efforts on similar things on any given day. There are days for meetings and others for writing tasks. I try to separate admin and creative tasks and leave enough warmup space for the latter. I’m aware that I need one day a week when I don’t do anything productive but I also know that research somehow doesn’t count. And the plans have space for yoga, reading, games and language learning.
I still steer from my schedules too easily, which suggests that I should really just quit being online on Skype all the time, but I’m getting way better at catching myself and instead of embracing stress, pulling out and starting over.
3 – focus
Easier said than done of course in a culture where multitasking and being busy is so sexy, though mindfulness and simpler living slowly seeps into the mainstream.
I spent years of fighting back a sort of detachment and learning to stay in the now and here, after I understood how it is hurting my relationships and performance. Still not there, but there are some things that help. I cook lunch even if I’m alone. I spend some time on the sunny afternoon terrace and stay silent. I try not to work when I’m with my family, start the morning with yoga, play games and go to exhibitions whenever I can. And I aim to say no when something is demanding my attention when in the middle of another task or project.
I know you are busy and I understand you are stressed. We all are and I’d rather you’d never be around me when I simply scream out of sheer frustration. But it’s probably time not to flaunt and embrace it but make steps for healthier, more organized and happier approaches.
* I’m aware that there is probably a decent amount of irony in any piece of clothing like this. It still transmits a wrong message.
** James Altucher helped me out here to have a super simple goal in mind, from Choose Yourself.