I’m a runner. Not a fast runner. But a runner nonetheless.
After years of marathons, I’ve figured out that if I run at a 9-minute mile pace, I can do any distance without bonking or getting hurt.
We should have the same mindset when it comes to finding the right work pace. Your mind and body are a system. Just like in running, if you go too fast for too long, you’ll burnout. But at the same time, you don’t want to go too slow, because then you’re not reaching your full potential.
In many cases, the moment-to-moment work pace is out of our control. When a crisis hits or an urgent request comes in we must do our best to keep up. But across time, our work pace is still up to us.
When we do have autonomy, we should be filtering work in ways that align with our work pace. When we don’t have autonomy, and the work pace is overbearing, you have two choices: you can either hang on for the ride and inevitably crash sooner or later, or you can proactively look for a job that has a different pace.
Find your pace and the job and work environment that supports that pace, and stick with it.
Being a workaholic entails working so much that it becomes detrimental to your personal health or your social relationships. It also entails the inability to slow down even though you know it will have a detrimental impact on your life.
Alternatively, loving your work, working hard, or working long hours does not automatically mean that you are a workaholic. Work can be fulfilling and meaningful. It can also add to our sense of security by way of increased income, reputation, or social capital.
If you simply love your work, but you’re not addicted to it, keep it up. Don’t let others shame you into working less. The goal here is to set boundaries and ensure that your workload doesn’t sneak up on you and become detrimental to your well-being.
If you are a workaholic, it’s important to get to the source of the issue. In most cases, it’s a complicated array of individual characteristics like self-esteem, security needs, and ego, and organizational pressures like unrealistic work demands and flawed reward systems.
Definitions matter. Be honest with yourself - are you a workaholic or a happy worker? This will ensure that you self-regulate in ways that are productive.
Research suggests that, in general, people value flexibility more than money. Why, then, don’t we start compensating people with flexibility instead of money?
Organizations’ biggest push-back against offering employee flexibility is that it’s inefficient, it limits productive interactions with colleagues, or reduces customer response time.
It’s not impossible to quantify these costs. Want to work from home? That will cost you $5,000 a year. Want to cram all of your work hours into three days? That will cost you $20,000.
People don’t need more money, they need more time. To win the talent war of the 21st century, organizations need to focus on flexibility.
Email is a ubiquitous workplace communication medium. And the inbox never stops filling up. To maximize productivity, it’s important to have the right mindset when you check your email.
The goal is not to read or reply to emails, the goal is to “triage your inbox.” Here’s the process (and it goes in this order):
(1) Delete emails you don’t need.
(2) Move FYI emails to appropriate folders.
(3) Answer any emails that only need a one-sentence response.
(4) Tag emails that need more than a one-sentence response to be addressed during deep-thinking time.
Too many of us go straight to #4 when we check our email, but we don’t have the time or space to craft an appropriate response. Instead, triage your inbox and make time for the important emails during designated time frames.
Research illustrates that doing two things at once lowers our applied IQ to both tasks. This means that multi-tasking literally makes us dumber.
We’ve all been there - we’re on a zoom call, we’re not a key presenter of information, and our role is to passively listen because something might apply to us. But you’re busy. Can you check your email? Can you clean up your notes from the last meeting?
I would argue that yes, you can. Why not be honest with everyone? Perhaps be transparent and let everyone know that you have a few urgent items you’ll be simultaneously addressing while listening in. That way everyone knows to ping you and bring you into the conversation more directly when appropriate.
I would also argue that, in some circumstances, meeting organizers should let non-active participants decide for themselves whether they have the time to “sit in” on the call.
The working world has not yet figured out the true potential of asynchronous communication. The meeting organizer should record the video and take note of relevant points for individuals not in attendance.
If there was something pertinent that a non-attending colleague should know about, then they should send them the recording, and direct their attention to the conversation point of interest.
Time is precious. We should respect each others’ time and we should be transparent about how much time we have available.
The goal of appointment scheduling software - Acuity, Calendy, HubSpot, etc. - is a noble one. No more back-and-forth emails trying to pin down a meeting time.
I love it when people let me see their availability and pick the day and time that works best for me. But I rarely use this software for my own meeting invitations.
If time is money, then pinning down a meeting time is a negotiation. If someone lets me pick my ideal time, I win, because I get to pick the time that perfectly aligns with my productivity cadence.
I have a few standing meetings that appear every week or two. My goal is to only schedule ad-hoc meetings that are immediately before or after those regularly scheduled meetings. In effect, what I’m creating is a window of time where I’m in “talking mode” over the course of several meetings.
Having random meetings across the day is distracting, it leads to energy depletion, and it makes it harder to get into a state of flow. I take this to the extreme and try and create talking days for teaching and meetings, and non-talking days for deep thinking tasks like writing and analyzing data.
Scheduling software is amazing, but to my knowledge, none of them are smart enough to accommodate the level of customization necessary to ensure that my days are scheduled the way I want them to be scheduled.
I’m fine with a few back-and-forth emails. The cost of those few minutes pails in comparison to the cost of distractions.
There are four primary states of consciousness. Understanding their differences is a key step in maximizing productivity.
Mind wandering is when our attention jumps from topic to topic. This is our default. Although sometimes we have an “ah-ha” moment while mind wandering, it’s not inherently productive.
Ruminating and fantasizing entail a narrow focus on the past or the future, respectively. Not only are these states unproductive, but they can also perpetuate stress. Replaying your mistakes or thinking through unlikely worst-case scenarios is unhelpful.
The first productive state, mindfulness, entails present moment attention and being fully in tune with what is going on within your own mind as well as being aware of what is going on around you.
The second productive state, flow, also entails present moment attention. It’s akin to being “in the zone,” where time flies by, and our abilities are in perfect alignment with the demands of the task.
Given that mind wandering and ruminating/fantasizing are unproductive, the goal should be to continually come back to one of the present moment states - mindfulness or flow. But which is better?
If there is a specific task at hand that needs to be accomplished, especially a deep thinking task, getting into flow is the ideal. But in all other scenarios, being mindful is the way to go.
Many say social media is a time-waster. For me, it’s an important and enjoyable part of my job - connecting with practitioners, getting a handle on the latest trends, and finding new partnerships.
I agree that social media can be a time-suck, but only if you’re using it at the wrong time. Social media is a form of quick engagement. It doesn’t take long to read 140 characters and then like or share.
Social media is problematic when we use it during time frames that are supposed to be for deep thinking activities. Taking a social media break in the middle of putting together a detailed report, figuring out a coding mistake, or writing a novel, is not a good idea.
Breaks are only beneficial when they are as different from the original task behavior as possible. Continuing to look at a screen doesn’t have the same recovery effect.
So when should we look at social media? When we only have 2 or 3 minutes.
Waiting on someone to join a zoom? Go for it. Going to the bathroom? Why not. Walking up a flight of stairs? Perfect.
We spend a great deal of time in transitions from one activity to another. Although they might only be a few minutes, over the course of a day they add up to a significant amount of time. Try making this your social media screen time. Reserve the deep thinking time for deep thinking tasks.
A little over one hundred years ago, a New England mill instituted the five-day workweek to accommodate Jewish and Christian day of rest observances.
One hundred years later, this five days on, 2 days off cadence still exists but is somewhat blurred. Thanks to the Internet, then mobile devices, and now the COVID-induced momentum towards virtual work, employees are more likely to sprinkle their work across all their waking hours (I.e., not just “9 to 5”)and across the seven days of the week.
Would it be so bad to work every day? I typically put in somewhere between 2 to 4 hours on Saturday and Sunday. Why not? I have relatively little, if any, emails, calls, or meetings on those days, so I’m very productive.
Additionally, because I work few hours during the traditional five-day workweek, I get more time to knock out non-work tasks, take breaks, and most importantly, spend time with family.
I find it somewhat odd that organizations are going the other direction and experimenting with a four-day workweek. This just means even more hours crammed into fewer days. Most of the time it doesn’t work because the marketplace demands quick responses.
I know that not everyone has the luxury of choosing when they work. But I can’t help be curious why more people don’t try working fewer hours each day, but six or seven days a week. For me at least, I don’t “work for the weekend.” I get my work done when I can so that I can live my life every day.
My favorite time management framework is a two-by-two with urgency and importance as the two dimensions.
Tasks that are non-urgent and not important should be removed from your task list. Be honest with yourself. Time is finite.
You should think twice before doing anything urgent but not important. We waste a great deal of time doing things that feel good because they are easy and we can cross them off our list. Just because you crossed it off your list doesn’t make it productive.
Tasks that are urgent and important inevitably deserve your immediate attention. These are the unforeseen fires that need to be put out as soon as possible. It happens. That’s life.
Tasks that are non-urgent and important is where you need to increase your time spend. If the tasks are important they deserve your attention now, before it’s too late. This is where setting aside time for deep thinking is much needed.
Freeing up time to focus on the non-urgent and important also has the potential to *prevent* the urgent and important. It’s a double-win.
Don’t just create a task list. Cultivate your task list through the urgent-important framework.
How often do you have text message conversations with friends and family during your work time? Let me guess - the dozen or so texts are spread out over 30 minutes as you toggle back-and-forth to your work tasks. This is not ideal.
We know that distractions are bad for productivity. However, you can’t ignore friends and family, right?
My colleagues, clients, and students respect my worst-case scenario, 24-hour turnaround time. This is unlikely to fly with friends and family. It’s personal, therefore, it’s rude to not respond quickly.
But what about a compromise? What if we promised to do all of our non-work responses during a specific window of the after-work evening hours? Would that be so bad?
This aligns with the common productivity philosophy of “chunking versus sprinkling.” The more we can chunk together common tasks, the better we’ll be at staying focused on the task at hand.
The downside is that not everyone will be available when we’re ready for our scheduled chunk of communication. Perhaps that deserves a coordination message where you give each other a window of availability.
The upside is that we’ll actually be engaged in the conversation - not multi-tasking with work concerns in the background. Additionally, if we stay focused on getting work done during work hours, we’ll free up more time to engage in more non-work interactions.
It’s late, you’re tired, and your inbox is still overflowing with unread messages. This is the moment where you decide whether it’s better to power through or power down.
On the one hand, you could power through in order to stay on top of things. There is value in that approach because maintaining control limits stress. Further, for better or worse, business rewards productivity.
On the other hand, you could power down to maintain sanity. There is value here in that rest and recovery are critical for maintaining one’s well-being. Further, it prevents burnout, which is connected to major episodes of productivity derailment.
So what should you choose?
Typically, our personal characteristics drive this decision. Things like personality, motivation, and the like.
What we should be incorporating into this decision are situational elements. Can certain people wait for your response? What does your calendar look like over the next few days? How have you been doing lately on sleep, stress, and overall well-being?
When in these moments of deciding whether to power through or power down, consider the context and implications of your decision.
I once saw a pinned tweet that essentially said the following:
“I love my job. I love to work. I’d work 100 hours a week if I could. But I also want to take lunch with a friend at a moment’s notice. And if a family member is sick, I want to take an entire month off and never check my email.”
While this example is relatively extreme, I think it nicely summarizes a paradox of working in the 21st century. Our willingness to work extremely hard is tied to how much flexibility we have.
For many, it’s more likely that we work somewhat hard and we have some degree of flexibility. Organizations aren’t just going to give employees extreme flexibility. That’s too expensive.
But if employees, in mass, staring demanding it - and offering extreme levels of commitment in return - it might just happen.
I’ve worked on several projects in my career where the other party dropped the ball. It drives me nuts.
Typically it’s because they either changed their mind and re-prioritized or they took on more than they could manage.
Maybe it is what it is. Sometimes things just don’t come together.
However, you do have some degree of control and can limit the likelihood that it will happen in your relationships.
To prevent ball dropping, spend more time upfront talking about expectations. Make it clear that you don’t want to start the project unless X, Y, or Z is the final outcome. Then put it in writing - an informal email summarizing the initiative will suffice.
Still didn’t prevent the other party from going missing in action? Never, ever, work with them again.
There are too many people out there doing great things to get stuck on one relationship. If you don’t have that luxury, perhaps because they have been assigned to your team, do your best to not co-own responsibilities.
Ball dropping might be an unavoidable part of work. But it doesn’t mean you can’t proactively manage the probabilities that it will happen to you.
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