10 Steps to Simplify Your Work Life

Office Buddha

“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.

10. Single-task.

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

About Lori Deschene

Lori Deschene is the founder of Tiny Buddha and Recreate Your Life Story, an online course that helps you let go of the past and live a life you love. Her latest bookTiny Buddha’s Gratitude Journal, which includes 15 coloring pages, is now available for purchase. For daily wisdom, follow Tiny Buddha on Twitter, Facebook & Instagram..

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  • Hi Lori
    Really enjoyed this post. I particularly like the 3 priorities first thing in the morning. I probably do this to some degree already as mornings are when I am the most productive but I could still do with some fine tuning in this area. The other one that would really make a difference is having a more organised workplace. I really like your idea of having a laptop sleep space. For some reason I am a paper magnet. By the end of the week I am always surrounded by papers and books. It can get very distracting and affect my productivity if I do not keep on top of the clutter.
    Thanks again for the great tips.

  • Gosh, that was inspiring. For me, I never try to simplify my work. I keep it hectic and burdened. I sometimes think I’m wrong but then again, I value and enjoy the simplicity when I’m not at work.
    By the way, I’m simply loving that laughing buddha. Is he wearing an iPod?

  • Great article! I’ve also found that setting priorities, turning off email and other distractions to achieve focus and flow, and doing the most important stuff in the morning are key.

    In addition to Lori’s excellent posts and ebook, I also recommend “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working” – (I think they recently changed the title to “Be Excellent at Anything”).

  • SuJ

    It’s very deliberate and mindful to say No when you have the option to. I often find myself saying YES to everything – whether it’s to advance further, push myself, or to know that I can do it, just maybe I shouldn’t need to.

    Thank you for this wonderful post on simplification.

  • Amazing.

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  • Geoff Hansell

    I have read this list, and I must admit- I love it. BUT, it is not for me and the job I have now… HELP!! I need a job that I can incorporate ALL of these ideas. Some I can put into practice right now, others just will not work. Thanks tinybuddha!!

  • Tonym

    Great posting. For those of you feeling overwhelmed by all the competing priorities I can recommend Getting Things Done by David Allen. It reduced my stress levels under times of pressure enormously. TonyM

  • Nice post! It’s good for me to remember what my priorities are, because I forget them very often.. Have to work on that part! 🙂

  • I know what that’s like! It’s so easy to get distracted and sidetracked. I find it helps me stay focused on my values and vision just to repeatedly ask myself, “What are my priorities?”

  • Thanks for the recommendation, Tony! Sounds like a fantastic book.

  • Hi Geoff,

    It sounds like what you’re saying is that you need a different job. Is that right? This is likely a bigger conversation than can take place within comments, but I have a few questions for you (not necessarily to answer for me–just to consider):

    -Which ideas can you incorporate now? A little simplifying is better than none,
    -Do you feel that, underneath the stresses, your job provides you with a sense of joy, purpose, and satisfaction?
    -If not, what can you do today to start moving toward a job that might better allow for balance, meaning, and happiness?

    It’s a simple line of questioning, but these are the things I asked myself when my work felt complex, stressful, and, at times, even impossible. I hope this helps!


  • Thank you. =)

  • I know that feeling! Sometimes it feels wrong to say no (for me). I know this is just mental conditioning from my past, so I work to challenge why I feel the need to say yes–am I solely trying to be helpful, or is it coming from a place of fear? If it’s fear, then I know that what I really want is to challenge myself.

    Thanks for reading!

  • Thank you for the book recommendation! Recently, there were some conversations along these lines at the Wisdom 2.0 Conference–how our work culture often sets us up for burnout. It’s such an important conversation to have. I think we’re trained to feel that we’re not doing enough (and well enough) if we’re not exhausting ourselves and constantly running around feeling harried. There’s something immensely healing about feeling willing and able to doing less but more effectively.

  • I don’t think anything is inherently is inherently wrong if it works for you! I’m not sure what he’s wearing, but it is cute, huh?

  • You’re most welcome. I’m glad you found this post helpful! I know I always need reminders to keep things simple. It’s funny how sometimes complicating things is the default behavior, at least for me!

  • Great post. 🙂

    First of all, doing things in accordance with your core values is absolutely essential. Many people drift through life super busy, but never actually work on things that matter to them.

    Secondly, to-do lists suck! I have eliminated most of them from my life, and it feels great. Sure, some might say that they need them to get things done. But honestly, if your life is so complex that you need lists to manage it, you may want to relax a little and simplify what you’re doing.

    To me, lists and structure is so contrary to what life is supposed to be.

  • Lori, This really struck a chord for me. I too find that it’s the way I think about my tasks that bring more stress than the tasks themselves. This is an excllent tic lists for ways to simply. I can’t help but wonder how you balance your contemplative life with you active life.

  • Catherine

    Thank you so much for this post, Lori. I am a Marketing intern and recently have been making myself so stressed out from work. Telemarketing and having people hang the phone up on me isn’t the easiest thing in the world. I am going to keep my head up and relax. I know how fortunate I am to have work in this economic climate. I love all your entries. You always help me through the day 🙂

  • Hi Catherine,

    I used to be a telemarketer, so I know exactly what you’re talking about! I did both cold calling and warm leads. It was a huge exercise in learning not to take things personally (which I often did). I’m glad that this post was helpful for you. I hope you’re enjoying the weekend! =)


  • Hi Sandra,

    I find they’re somewhat integrated for me. When I’m writing, I get into that state of flow where it becomes highly meditative. I also practice yoga right from my home (where I work), so I often take a mid-day break to do that.

    I guess you could say I fit my contemplative practice fits into the cracks of my everyday life. I’d love to learn your thoughts on this. How do you create a balance between the two?


  • Beautifully said! I admit that I have lists here and there, often because they give me a sense of control. But I have recently been aiming to cut out a lot of those little tasks that aren’t really essential so that it’s less about a list of busy work, and more about using my time to create.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

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  • These are all great suggestions…I especially utilize the one where you get proactive about complaints or just let them go! That one helps me the most! Many thanks for this post…clear and concise and helpful!

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  • That one’s been the most helpful for me, too. Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m so glad you found this useful!

  • Tory Syracuse

    I was just having a conversation with a friend last night about work-life balance, and we discussed many of these strategies! Thanks for putting them together so cohesively and insightfully.

  • This is definitely a common topic, and so difficult to do sometimes. I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

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  • “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.”

    Amen, sister. I sometimes find myself feeling so overwhelmed that I don’t even know where/how to start & I lose all efficiency in my work. You’re completely right — focusing on one thing at a time (“single-tasking”) and just letting the rest go until you have full time/energy to spend on it is the way to go.

    I’m really working on simplifying my life (I recently graduated from PSU & it’s very refreshing not to have constant classwork, so I figured I’d try to simplify the rest of my life too). This post is awesome; thank you 🙂

  • That’s great! I’m so glad this was helpful to you. I find that multi-tasking and stressing are really hard, not just on my mind, but also my body. There was a time when I measured my worth in productivity–if I got more done, I felt better about myself. Once I slowed down a bit, it took me a while to actually enjoy slowing down (instead of feeling bad about what I wasn’t getting done). I have to say life is much more enjoyable when I allow things to be simpler AND give myself permission to feel good about it.

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