A few months ago I was sitting in my garage, frustrated. It seems like every time I had to get ready for a fishing trip, I would have to go through dozens of boxes looking for gear. And I was always forgetting something important. Why is this so painful?, I thought, rummaging through another unlabeled box of mismatched junk, hoping not to end up with a rusty #4 hook embedded in the ball of my thumb.
It all came to a head on a river rafting trip last August. It’s OK, I told my friends at the launch, a raft is never full. But after we loaded everything on, I felt much less smug about things. The gear and boxes were piled up so that it teetered over my head at the back of the raft, nearly tipping it over, and the sides of the boat were barely above water. This was on a stretch of river that was known for having some truly frightening rapids, and as we gingerly eased ourselves into the raft, a small crowd gathered to watch the show. No one said anything as we paddled the wallowing boat out to midriver, and I remember one older gentleman taking off his hat. It was one of those trips where the best you can say at the end is, “Well, we survived.” The tipping point for me was when a family of four, with a dog, came by with one quarter the gear we had – floating high and dry while we barely stayed afloat. The father looks us over a little and kind of cocks his hat, and asked us when the garage sale was.
Getting home I refused to put any of the boxes back until I had gone through everything and separated out the essentials, and moved everything else out to Goodwill. Suddenly what was six boxes of miscellaneous and jumbled junk became one box. Hmmm, I thought. That’s interesting. Then I took my fly boxes – a mishmash of fur, hackles and hooks – and laid them out in order, as you see below, and took out anything that I’d bought on a whim that would never see a fish. Suddenly, my boat was a lot lighter –and I was spending a lot less time rummaging through gear and fly boxes every trip.
My flies all tied up and ready for a fun day on the river.
By not taking the time out to do a little tidying up and reorganizing, I was costing myself valuable time. I’ve found the same thing to be true at work. Time is a diminishing resource for most of us. For me to keep my head above water at work, I would need to learn how to focus on the important things and let the rest of the clutter slide. Below are three tips that I’ve used over the past six months that has dramatically increased my happiness and reduced stress. I hope you find it of value!
Tip #1 – Taming The Savage Inbox
How many times have you gotten into work excited – today is going to be a great day, I’ve got all these cool things to do – and decide, while your coffee is brewing, well, I guess I’d better check my email – and the next thing you know, it’s 10 a.m. and your daily slog of meetings is beginning, and you haven’t really gotten anything done? The biggest tyrant of our time by far – besides runaway meetings – is email, by a mile. If you’re not careful, you’ll be sucked into a reactive cycle of compulsively checking your email almost constantly. Your company is paying you to be productive – and responding to emails within minutes is NOT adding business value. With very few exceptions, emails can and should wait on the back burner so you can address them in a batch. Our goal should never be too have a “clean” inbox at the end of each day – but to as efficiently as possible pick out the emails that are truly important from the pack and knock them out quickly without allowing it to dominate your workday.
So do yourself a favor. Only check email the afternoon, never the morning – and turn off your email alerts. Set expectations with your customers and close partners that your SLA for emails is within one business day, and that for urgent issues they should call you. And take the time to identify that one special thing that you want to get done each day in advance – and don’t check your email until it’s done, finished, kaput. This one tip alone will quadruple your productivity and your work satisfaction level – and make you feel like the master, not the slave, of your own time.
Tip #2 – You Come First
As a team lead I was always running around every day, harried, stressed. I would look at some of my developers at the company gym, working out or hitting the treadmill, and think bitterly – I wish I had time for that. Over time though I noticed something – the developers who took the time out every day, usually in the morning, to exercise, go on a walk, have a healthy breakfast – they were consistently the top performers. Somehow, by putting themselves first and ignoring all the urgent deadlines and project pressures we had as a team, they were able to get more done than others like myself, slaving away at a hot keyboard for 10-12 hour days. So, I started to walk in the mornings, and took a few minutes to make a good healthy breakfast instead of that Egg McMuffin and a coffee to go. Guess what? I was happier – and midway through the walk I would often get clarity on how to solve a problem that was nagging me at work. Difficult things suddenly became easy. I lost weight and felt happy and healthier – and I got more done.
In the end you have to remember that, even for those lucky few of us that work for great companies – we may love our jobs, but they don’t love us. In the end work is a large but ultimately rather meaningless part of our life. It has to be kept in perspective. Put yourself first with a great morning ritual – a walk through a wooded area, a nice healthy breakfast and a shower, a few minutes to meditate or read. You’ll be amazed at how much more you get done when you treat yourself with compassion.
Tip #3 – Reflection
One of the best things I liked about Scrum and Agile techniques as a team lead is the opportunity to reflect a little. “What did we get done? What will we shoot for next? What could be improved?” We would write these up and email it to the team and partners – and I can’t even tell you how many mistakes this prevented me from repeating, and how much more on-target our development activities became.
To stay on course, first thing in the morning write down the three most important things that you want to do today. If it helps, put them on sticky notes on a whiteboard. (It always gives me a nifty little feeling of satisfaction when I rip one of them off the board and crumple it up.) In the evening, cover in a journal the three reflection points I mentioned above – “What did I get done today? What will I do tomorrow? What could have gone better?” I usually put this as a reminder in Outlook for me, as – if I don’t block out time for this meditation – it often gets crowded out. Spending a few minutes reflecting really helps me keep my focus on the important things that can slip away with the chaos of each workday.
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
For too many of us, sometimes our life becomes a little like that. There is a ticket out of that very frustrating and unproductive cycle though. You don’t have to do all of the suggestions above at once. Try one or two for a week or two – and if it works, keep it up. For all of us though, learning how to control interruptions like email, building a healthy morning routine, and spending a few minutes reflecting will help you feel more in control of your life – and perform better when it counts.