A couple of weeks ago, I was feeling overwhelmed with my workload. I always leave the office at 6:00 p.m. in order to have dinner with my family. Then I typically get back on my laptop and catch up on my email. I shoot to be in bed no later than 10:00 p.m.
However, for several nights in a row, I did not get to bed until almost midnight. As a result, I slept in longer and stopped running. I became irritable and started losing focus. It was clear that I needed to change something—and now!
My experience isn’t unique. Every where I go, people seem to be overwhelmed by the volume of their work. With layoffs in many businesses, employees are pulling double-duty. It’s time to get serious and triage our workloads.
Late one night, I caught myself saying to my wife Gail for the third time, “Just a few more minutes, Honey. I’m almost done.” Immediately, I realized I was lying to her and to myself. I closed my laptop and jotted down a list of ten things that had kept me from completing their work. Do these apply to you?
- Too many meetings. How many of meetings actually advance my agenda and the reason I was hired in the first place. Too often, meetings are simply a way for people to procrastinate and avoid taking responsibility for their decisions. It’s much easier to let “the group” make the decision. Some meetings are legitimate, to be sure. But how many issues can I handle without resorting to a meeting? I need ask, “Do we really need a meeting to address that issue?”
- Mindlessly surfing the web. When I was growing up, television was the big time-waster. Now it is the Internet. You look at this Web page, click on that link, visit another page, and then click on another link. Before you know it, you have wasted hours and hours and have nothing to show for it. It’s time to limit our time online. I think I might even try scheduling my Web time.
- Being distracted by online pings. I shoot to have my inbox at zero by the end of the day. But do I really need to respond to every message in real time? Do you? Unless you are in customer service, probably not. You can accomplish the same goal by “batching” your inbox processing into distinct blocks of time. This includes Twitter, Facebook, and other social media services.
- Allowing people to drop in without an agenda. I usually work with my door open. I want to be accessible to my people. But some people abuse this. They drop by without and agenda and eat up time I don’t have. I always feel badly about bringing the meeting to a close. But if I don’t say “no” to them, I will have to say “no” to more important projects—and perhaps even my family. I am willing to chat for a bit, but I have to be more courageous about standing up and walking my guests to the door.
- Being consumed by the urgent. Modern culture is addicted to urgency. People demand an instant response. It is part of our increasingly me-centered world. Everything revolves around my agenda and my priorities. But how much of it is truly urgent. My daughter Megan often reminds me, “Dad, you’re not saving lives; you’re just making books.” Nothing like a big dose of perspective!
- Being a perfectionist. Honestly, this is my besetting sin. (Or I should say, one of them.) I am constantly tweaking my projects. The problem is that it always feels like the change is smaller than it really is. This will just take a minute, I think to myself. Two hours later, I am still working on the same project. I like G.K. Chesterton’s quote: “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” In other words, not everything has to be perfect. Just get it out the door!
- Refusing to delegate. This one is also tough for me. I can’t argue that I don’t have anyone to help. I have plenty of resources available. But I kid myself into thinking it will be faster if I just do it myself. I don’t want to take the time to explain to someone else how I want it done. Frankly, my own arrogance is probably at the root of this one. I need to take my own advice.
- Not starting the day with a to-do list. I am so much more productive when I take ten minutes and actually decide what tasks I want to accomplish TODAY. I use a software package called Things, and it is perfect for this. I can take any of my tasks and assign them to the “Today Focus.” (They also have an iPhone app that syncs with the desktop.) When I just launch into the day without a to-do list, I pay for it later—in spades.
- Not committing to an end time. As the old adage goes, “Work expands to the time allotted to it.” This explains why the week before your vacation is one of the most productive weeks of the year. You have a fixed end-time, and that forces you to be efficient. However, this also works with your daily schedule. I have a rule that I observe religiously: I leave the office by 6:00 p.m. My problem is that I sometimes take work home and then allow my evenings to become a buffer for the overflow. This has to stop.
- Not scheduling time to work. If I don’t have a plan for my day, chances are, someone else does. On Sunday evenings, I go through and schedule blocks of time that I call “Office Work.” These are essentially appointments with myself to get specific projects done. When other people check my calendar, these blocks show up as “busy.” If someone asks me if I am free at that time, I can legitimately say, “No, I’m afraid I have another commitment at that time.” This has been one of the most helpful tools in my toolbox.
If you are feeling like your work/life balance is out of kilter, maybe it’s time for you to make a list of the reasons you aren’t done yet. If you are reading this after hours, that could be a clue.