Two New Year’s resolutions to help you do good work better in 2016

By Sara Veltkamp, Sr. Associate, Minerva Strategies  ̶

I’m obsessed with articles that promise the ability to “do more with less.”

From decorating tips for small spaces to maximizing time spent exercising, I read them all.  Ironically, most of the articles about saving time are a waste of time. So, as a gift to you in the New Year, I’ve compiled all of the best advice I’ve found on maximizing work time and productivity topics and distilled them into two simple – not easy, but simple – New Year’s resolutions.

Many of these tips can be found in Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build your routine, find your focus, and sharpen your creative mind, a book that compiles the wisdom of productive and creative writers from Seth Godin to Leo Babauta to Steven Pressfield.  I highly recommend picking up a copy if you are as into saving time as I am.

New Year’s Resolution #1: Optimize your daily routine.

Burnout and its cousin, boredom, are two of the most common work struggles. Boredom, in my opinion, is an indicator of impending burnout.  We tend to be bored when we are not fully engaged in the work we are doing, and we tend to not be engaged when we’re doing too much work, or not managing our time well.  I love the work I do, but I don’t love to do that work 70 hours a week, over the weekend, or when I’m not feeling well. One way to counteract boredom and eventual burnout is to personalize our daily routine.

Step one: Pay attention. Notice when you have the most energy and recognize the quality of that energy.  We can learn to read patterns and make them work for us. For many people, myself included, tasks that require creation are best accomplished in the morning.  My mind is fresh, I am able to focus, and I have the highest amount of energy.

Work to protect your high-energy times. Schedule it in your calendar like any other important meeting. Turn off all notifications and silence (hide?) your phone.   Let your colleagues know that you’ll be unavailable during these times.  Please note: you won’t be able to do this perfectly.  Sometimes life cannot be scheduled, but make an effort, and then celebrate getting work done, uninterrupted.

Step two: Know your limits. You can probably do everything if you kill yourself doing it, but you definitely can’t do everything well. Plenty of research shows how ineffective people become when they try to multitask.  For nearly all of us, working on one thing, finishing it and moving on to the next produces better quality work, more quickly.

In addition, breaks are important. Research suggests you may be able to fit more in one day, or even one week without breaks, but over time your health, well-being, and productivity will suffer. Good things to try are a quick walk, call to a friend, ten minutes of guided meditation (I love Headspace for the variety of exercises and durations), headstands, or anything that clears your mind.

Step three: Start small. It is unrealistic to believe that you can figure all of these things out and immediately set up a perfect daily routine. Life is messy and your energy levels are not always predictable.  This process involves trial and error and learning about yourself, not just once, but every day.  Try one change that works to align tasks with your energy levels, see how that feels and repeat, varying the time of day until you find your sweet spots.

New Year’s Resolution #2: Stop checking your email.   

Email plays into another big work frustration: the tyranny of the immediate. The things that are the most recent and feel the most urgent trump your bigger picture work goals and strategies.

Frequent email checking exacerbates this problem. When you get an email notification, it is tempting to click over to your inbox.  When you discover that it isn’t urgent – because 99 percent of the time it isn’t – you go back to what you were working on.  Meanwhile, your brain has gone off track and it takes a minimum of a few minutes to switch back.  Now multiply those few minutes by every email that you get in a day. If you are like me, that is a lot of wasted time.  This is also true about notifications from social media, text messages, and calls.

Why do we feel compelled to check email so frequently?  Clearing an email from my inbox is like eating candy – instant gratification.  There was something I had to do, I did it, and now it’s done.  It’s like a gold star – nice, but often meaningless.  I still have tasks that require focused energy and time on my plate.

What can we do?  Similar to the advice above about protecting your high energy times, include checking email as a task in your schedule during lower energy periods or immediately before a renewal activity.  This means closing your email server unless you are specifically checking your email and turning off any notifications. Then, at the scheduled time, check your email, note the ‘urgent’ messages, take a break and come back to your inbox refreshed and ready to prioritize in light of your overall goals for the day.

I know some people will hear this and say, “Well that’s fine for you, but I need to be available at all times for my clients, boss, colleagues.” Unless you’re an ER doctor, that likely isn’t true.  Also, I’m not suggesting that you never check your email, only that you check your email intentionally, instead of reacting to notifications.  This can be once every hour or half-hour, if your job requires it.  The goal is to see email as a tool, rather than a taskmaster.

New Year’s challenge: As your very last task of a workday, choose one thing that you need to accomplish the next day that will take anywhere from 1-3 hours to complete.  When you wake up, do not check your email from your phone.  Do not check your email when you arrive in your workspace. Begin your day by completing that important task.  Revel in your accomplishment, knowing that the most important thing that you needed to do for the day is already done.  Then check your email.