“Life is actually really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” ~Confucius
While I have always piled a lot on my plate professionally, I’ve recently introduced more varied elements. Formerly, I may have devoted a long workweek to freelance writing, but I’m now juggling writing, consulting, editing my upcoming book, and promoting my recent eBook.
I’ve noticed that the biggest complication to my life isn’t necessarily the full, varied schedule; it’s how I think about that busy schedule.
Sometimes I let my to-do list overwhelm me, carrying the weight of the whole through all of the parts.
So, instead of just answering an email, I’m responding, thinking about the blog post I want to write later, worrying about the magazine deadline I might not make, and planning to be more effective so that I can get everything done without having to worry so much.
That’s something I sometimes do.
But on other days, I remind myself that I can’t worry my way out of worrying, and that the most effective use of any moment is to fully do whatever it is I’m doing. The rest will get done later. That, I’m learning, is the most important part of simplifying.
The first step in simplifying anything starts with how we think about it.
Of course, there’s a lot more to simplifying work than that (which I realize is ironic given that the subject matter is simplification).
If you’re also looking to reduce stress and simplify your work life, I recommend:
1. Make decisions in accordance with your values.
Idegy President Perry Maughmer suggests it’s a lot easier to make difficult decisions if you know your core values, particularly shared values within your team, and then weigh your options against them. This allows you to feel a sense of confidence when dealing with challenges, which ultimately saves time and reduces stress.
For example, one of my core values is respect, and I respect my readers’ attention. This means that I always know when I need to say no to a potential partnership—when I don’t feel personally moved to bring it to my readers’ attention.
2. Get proactive with complaints or let them go.
Occasionally, we need to vent to express our feelings about things that trouble us, and sometimes it’s a proactive way to find solutions. Other times, it’s an energy drainer that brings other people down and saps both productivity and creativity.
Save your energy by focusing on creating change. If there is no fix, focus on doing what you do well. That way, you’re more likely to work your way to a viable solution instead of complaining your way further away from one.
3. Learn to prioritize.
Now that I work for myself, I start each morning with an idea of my top three priorities, and then I accomplish those first. This way, I give my full energy and attention to the things that matter to me most, saving less important tasks for the end of the day with full awareness some may not get done.
When I worked for someone else, I regularly asked my boss, “What are the top priorities?” Then I let him know that I would commit myself to doing them to the best of my ability, and that might mean that other things would need to wait or be reassigned. Since I was good at my job, this worked.
4. Limit your time and then strive to work efficiently within it.
Parkinson’s Law states the work expands to fill the time available for its completion. If you allow yourself to work all night, you’ll probably find you always have a ton to do.
I’ve noticed that if I think I am going to work late, I will take more breaks during the day to read blogs and use social networking sites because I know I have the time. If I commit to doing something social at a specific time in the evening, I work more effectively before then.
5. Say no when you have the option.
It’s great to be helpful to coworkers, but no one else can regulate your schedule but you. This might not be easy if you’re like me and feel a compulsion to say yes to everyone. But the only way to create balance in life is to make your own needs and priorities.
That means I can’t always say yes when someone wants my opinion on their blog but can’t afford consulting. One thing I’ve been doing recently is offering a still-helpful alternative—no, I can’t talk on the phone tomorrow, but yes, I can answer a question or two by email within a week.
6. Stay in your own business.
In her recent post about learning to let go of control, Dr. Amy Johnson notes that your business is the realm of things you can directly influence, whereas the things you can’t control are generally other people’s business.
Your co-worker running late for a meeting or your boss signing a client who rubs you the wrong way—these things are other people’s business, so stressing about them is a waste of your energy. Focus on the things you can influence, and then be proactive in addressing them.
7. Organize your workspace.
Studies show that your work environment has a profound effect on both your state of mind and productivity. If you don’t use it regularly and it doesn’t help you do your job more effectively, put it away. Keep a few personal items to feel comfortable, but think Zen and uncluttered!
I think of my desk as my laptop’s sleep space. I would never sleep surrounded by fifty different items I may need in the night, but I keep a box of tissues, hand lotion, a glass of water, a Buddha statue, and a picture frame on my nightstand.
8. Reduce tech distractions.
It seems we’re all trained to respond quickly, sometimes even instantaneously, to all forms of incoming communications. From emails to @replies to text messages, we often feel we need to respond to everything right now, as if it’s all incredibly urgent.
An alternative is to set email alerts only for the people who you need to respond to right away—your boss or an important client—and then let the rest wait. We work better when we allow ourselves to achieve a state of flow, and ultimately that’s why we do what we do: because we love it and want to get lost in it.
9. Simplify email.
Integrate email accounts, respond to all (or most) emails in five sentences or less, and check emails at set times (as opposed to responding constantly to the stream).
Also, unsubscribe to blogs or newsletters that don’t provide you with information that you regularly apply to your life. If you’re reading it but it’s not inspiring you enough to translate into action, it’s not worth consuming.
I recently read an analogy that living effectively is like driving at night with your headlights on: You can only see what’s right in front of you, but most of the time, that’s all you really need.
As long as we have to-do lists, we’re going to feel tempted to try to cross things off more quickly. But this is a deceitfully complex practice. The more things you do at once, the less of your attention you give to each task, which oftentimes means you do it poorly and end up having to do it again.
It’s not always easy to carry full awareness through the work day, particularly when your mind feels even more cluttered than your desk and calendar. If we start from within and then slowly transform without, everything will become a lot simpler.
Photo via kengorgor