“Sustained exhaustion is not a badge of honor, it’s a mark of stupidity,” wrote Jason Fried and DHH in It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work. And yet, each day we see more people commit to the non-stop hustle mentality, continuing to blur that line between work and everything else life has to offer.
And nowhere does this seem more evident than in the amount of people who bring work home each night.
For years, I did this very thing. Each night I’d pack up a briefcase of files to handle that evening. Sometimes I’d do it. Other times it just sat there, taunting me throughout the night.
But even when I did it, the quality was never great. Working from 10pm to midnight isn’t my ideal time for focus and breakthrough insights.
Either way, my nights were full of distraction and anxiety. And I wasn’t present in either my work or home.
So I stopped. I decided to take the productivity hit. Because as Bertrand Russel wisely warned, “What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?”
But then something funny happened. I actually started getting more things done. My productivity didn’t decrease after all.
And I realized that I wasn’t bringing work home to get more done. I was doing it to rationalize accomplishing less.
When Did We Stop Doing Work at Work?
“It is not enough to be busy…. The question is: What are we busy about?” – Henry David Thoreau
Blaise Pascal wrote that all of our problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room alone. And indeed, most work environments seem designed to give us every excuse to avoid this very behavior.
Today’s office no longer seems designed to help people get work done. They’re much better suited to the illusion of work, namely busyness and procrastination.
As each day is packed with meetings, broken apart by distractions, and driven by the tyranny of the urgent, it’s easy to run through a day without accomplishing anything of real substance.
Which is great if you’re looking to avoid tackling your tough work. The daily busyness agenda offers a perfect rationalization for avoiding all those difficult aspects of your job.
It helps us tell ourselves that we would have tackled that project, we just didn’t have time. Or, we would have developed that new initiative, but how could we do that with all this other stuff?
Because busyness, ultimately, is easy. It doesn’t require deep focus. It rarely challenges convention. And it doesn’t require us to take a risk and put something original into the world.
Which is the real reason I was bringing work home each night. It gave me an excuse to let busyness drain my working hours and procrastinate away from doing the difficult work. It let me use the illusion of bringing work home as an excuse to be unproductive throughout the day.
Mainly, it rationalized not confronting this problem, merely delaying one day at a time. So instead of using my time to be more effective, I was just perpetuating inefficiencies.
Commit to Getting Your Work Done at Work
“Those who make the worst use of their time are the first to complain of its shortness.” – Jean de La Bruyère
The big secret to productivity is to simply focus on the right things at the right time.
As easy as this seems, it takes far too many of us far too long to start practicing it. And it takes us too long to learn that if we don’t prioritize how we spend our time, someone else will be happy to do it for us.
This all starts with taking control of our day. And using the time we have available to focus on the right areas. Which comes down to a few simple steps.
Make a commitment. Most people drift through their day, passively accepting the priorities of others. The first step out of this mode is to commit to a different mindset. Decide today that you’re going to attack the inefficiencies that occupy the majority of your time each day. As Seth Godin said, “most people spend most of their time on defense, in reactive mode, in playing with the cards they got instead of moving to a different table with different cards.” You have more authority than you think. What are you going to do with it? Offense, not defense. Proactive, not reactive.
Be clear on what absolutely must get done today. Most people create daily to-do lists. But they typically include 20 items, all of which are things you’d like to get done – but few of which must get done. Mixing in less critical items only dilutes the emphasis on those that are – and creates an excuse to avoid those tasks you don’t want to do.
Always identify the next action. We avoid those things that we find overwhelming. And we often become overwhelmed when we can’t visualize how to start. Decide on the very next action. As David Allen wrote in Getting Things Done, “Until you know what the next physical action is, there’s still more thinking required before anything can happen – before you’re appropriately engaged.” Knowing the next step makes it easy to move forward. It helps to build momentum and keeps us from becoming overwhelmed. The most important step we take is always the next one.
Schedule time on your calendar. Most people run their day through their calendar. But with today’s world of shared calendars, it’s easy for others to see your availability and make a claim on your time. Make sure you have first say in where this time goes. Put these priorities into your calendar. Make sure you’re using your time as you need, not as everyone else does. As Stephen Covey used to say that “the key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” Because often our biggest hurdle in taking action is in simply deciding what to do.
Reflect and adjust. A lot of people suggest ending each day with a reflection and plan for tomorrow. Which is good, but rarely enough. If the whole purpose of reflecting is to make improvements going forward, it makes the most sense to shorten the amount of time between reflection and our ability to take the next action. Set up a few checks throughout the day. Give yourself the opportunity to identify when you’re deviating from plan to course correct.
End with a ritual. I was admittedly skeptical of this one. To me, rituals tend to sound a bit too new age – like a group of people in a room hugging themselves. But a ritual can be anything that re-orients your mindset. Try taking a few minutes before leaving work to think about positive memories of when you’re away from your job. Whether it’s spending time with family or friends, or gaining some new experiences, pick something that helps to clear your mind of work.
Don’t give yourself a way out. If you’re not fully committed to getting your work done at work, its easy to let those inefficiencies creep back into your day. Hold strong and resist the temptation to revert back to bringing work home. Holding these boundaries means there’s no safety net to an unproductive day. It forces you to address the problems, or suffer the consequences. Which, if that seems harsh, only demonstrates the importance of not giving yourself a way out.
40 Hours Should be Plenty
“If you can’t fit everything you want to do within 40 hours per week, you need to get better at picking what to do, not work longer hours.” Jason Fried and DHH, It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work
I occasionally hear companies tell me their work “is not your typical 40-hour job.” To which I usually respond, “Well why not?”
Are these places truly that dysfunctional that they can’t have people contribute meaningful work in 40 hours?
Think about it – forty hours is a lot of time. Imagine taking those 40 hours and donating them to a side passion or learning a new skill. I’m sure you’d have much more to show for it than the typical output of a workweek.
We often talk about commitment, dedication, and work ethic – traits that have somehow come to be associated with working more and more hours. But commitment doesn’t mean you pour your life into a job. And work ethic isn’t measured by billable hours. Commitment, dedication, work ethic, and all the rest simply mean that we work hard to do what we say we’re going to do. We keep the promises we make, and we only make the promises we can keep.
Forty hours is plenty. We just need to make sure we’re using it effectively. As Arthur Schopenhauer put it, “Ordinary people think merely of spending time, great people think of using it.”