I get asked a lot about “how I do it”. How do I balance work, more work, time to go out, time for myself, sleep and to be able to completely unplug when I want. “Easy”. It’s called “time management”. Sure, you’ve probably read a ton of articles, books, etc. on this subject, or even received lectures from bosses or gurus, who claim they “know” how to do it. But what if you are “unstructured” and you’re more comfortable NOT being ruled by a calendar? Or, what if you simply see your job as a “job” and nothing else? Unfortunately, this puts you in the category of employees that managers see as being “unproductive” or “not serious about your career”. So how do you change this so that everyone is more or less satisfied?
Let me illustrate my answer with a few stories.
Story #1: Whether You Like it or Not, “Mom” is (Mostly) Right.
Growing up, my mother perfected the art of teaching my sisters and I not to be lazy. We’ve all been guilty of leaving our dishes in the sink for our parents to take care of. We’ve also all been on point to have a perfectly good Saturday morning ruined by having to do chores. My mom would say things like, “It takes two seconds to put a dish in the dishwasher.” (It actually took one second until I was lectured on rinsing it off first, which added at least another six seconds to the process. And by the way, don’t ever correct a parent on “time”.) Or she would say, “If you and your sister can each clean half the bathroom then you can go outside and play the rest of the day.” (She would usually have to assign tasks after that because we’d argue over who got the toilet or the bath tub for a good five minutes until mom “had enough”. And by the way, drawing a line across the bathroom never works.) Usually in both cases, we didn’t do it up to expectations. We’d try to cut corners (she said RINSE the dish, not scrub it but scrubbing it was what she meant) or we’d fake an ailment (I didn’t feel well at least every other weekend – usually bathroom cleaning week). Still, we knew that if we didn’t do things well, the allowance would be taken away or worse yet, we would be forced to sit in our rooms.
Bottom line, she wanted us to understand that if we just got it done, we would be rewarded with something we LIKED to do, and things would be clean in the process. And, in turn, a happy mom = a happy child and a happy day.
Although amusing (and making some of us realize how “easy” it was to be a kid), your parents have done nothing more than set the stage for the rest of your life. Bosses function a lot like parents. You are assigned to a list of tasks, you do them well, you get paid for doing them, you get praise, promotions and sometimes bonuses.
Slacking off gets you in trouble, your boss becomes unhappy, you get lectured and you promise not to do it again (rinse and repeat).
Lesson #1: As painful as it is, weekdays are for working (for most of us). Each time you’re about to slip into post-lunch/post-coffee/post-gossip break/post-Facebook break coma, set a goal for yourself. If you just get “x” done, you can take a break and reward yourself with something for YOU – whether it be 5 minutes, 10 minutes, or something more generous. For me, since I’m lucky enough to work from home, my reward is an hour at the gym or 30 minutes to watch something I recorded on DVR. Since I work a fair amount, those little breaks help tremendously in being productive. Since my schedule is varied from day-to-day, these breaks are not at the same time every day and honestly, I think that’s better. I don’t like it when two days are the same for me!
And P.S…. my place is always clean.
Story #2: West Coast is Definitely NOT East Coast
I moved out west for four years – two years in Seattle and two years in San Diego. During these glorious four years, I learned a lot about how people work. When you’re on the west coast, there is a TON to see and do – so much beautiful nature, so much fresh air and so many happy people. You WANT to explore – you WANT to be healthy and be outdoors.
My two years in Seattle were spent working hard during the weekdays/weekday evenings so that I could enjoy my weekends, exploring. When I moved to San Diego, the companies I worked for gave us all desktops because they wanted their employees to have evenings and weekends off. (This might be attributed to the huge economy fail in SoCal a full year before everyone else.) Still, I learned an important lesson – a work/life balance is a good thing or else your burnout rate is much higher.
Lesson #2: It’s okay to unplug. You have to look at this as you being your own worst enemy – you inevitably get in your own way. Sure, there are some weekday evenings/weekends where you will have to work but set a precedence for yourself. Mondays and Wednesdays: stop responding to emails and other forms of communication after 6/7pm. Tuesdays and Thursdays after 7/8pm. Fridays after 5pm. Saturdays and Sundays – if you have to work, do NOT send out ANY emails until Sunday night. The reason: People EXPECT you will be accessible at any time. And let me tell you, it does not USUALLY merit a raise or a promotion – it only merits more stress, less sleep and a less well-balanced life.
If communicating for work is unavoidable, at least tell yourself it is OKAY to take evening breaks. You are not a robot of any sorts – you NEED a break! See the next section to figure out how to do this.
Story #3: The Burnout – When I Learned to Say “No”.
With the aforementioned economy failed in SoCal, I made one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make in my life – I moved back to DC to take on a job that really should have been split into three jobs. Leaving company names out of this (they are a software giant), in the vertical I was in, I was running their partner marketing practice. I was an “army of one”. Ask me how many times I went on vacation or how many consecutive 90-hour weeks I was working. While the salary seemed stellar at the time, after doing some quick math, it occurred to me that I was barely getting paid that of an entry-level marketing manager. Add to that some unusually self-over-hyped, unbelievably judgmental bosses (they know who they are) and it’s a recipe for snapping. Basically, I broke Lesson #2 for an entire year.
I will never forget the day I burned out – it was August 14, 2009. I was about two weeks away from my year anniversary there and had just completed three consecutive weeks of travel for conferences. At this point, you really don’t want to talk to anyone and would rather go on a solo vacation, somewhere in Tibet where no one talks. (This was not an option.) Anyway, I received a rather disturbing call from one of my bosses, complaining about something trivial and insignificant (this was usually the case, because I really do believe they feed off of others’ misery) and when I hung up the phone I curled up in the corner of my bathroom and started hyperventilating. This had physically never happened before (and thankfully, has never happened again). All of a sudden, an entire year of sleepless nights, more stress than one could imagine, thousands of hours of meetings, travel and the like, all seemed to collide together in one big massive explosion, causing my brain to malfunction. I couldn’t cry hard enough, I couldn’t breathe and I certainly could not get my heart to stop racing. It was at that moment I knew I needed to resign. I didn’t know what would come next, but I knew that working for a large corporation would never happen again – I don’t care if I ever made great money again either – my health was more important.
Lesson #3: Although making money to live is important, do not LIVE to work. I was more than happy to give up my six-figure-a-year job for the sake of my long-term sanity and health. It was at that moment that I would have been more than happy to trade in all my worldly possessions to have just an ounce of happiness. Thus, I’ve been a lot more picky and realistic about what I want to do with my life and HOW I do it. More money does not necessarily equate to more happiness.
Learning to Take Control and Say NO!
After resigning from said corporation, it literally paved the way for me to figure out what I wanted out of my own life. I started a marketing consulting company, I started this blog, I started working out more and socializing more. I began having a well-balanced life. Still, with all this new-found time, I was so used to being so busy that I started saying “yes” to everything in the evening, not giving myself even one day to breathe and just “be”. This went on for close to two years.
In late 2011, I took a job with a Silicon Valley startup and started winding down my own business (it’s still in existence but now I have help). I decided that my life was shifting into more of a “I need to invest in myself” mode, which included less socializing and more time focusing on my future. For close to the next eight months, my nose was back to the grindstone only this time, I was completely re-invented.
Lesson #4: Spending all of your free time socializing doesn’t leave much room for your health. You NEED to rest, you NEED down time. The social life will always be there. I always liken it to a soap opera. You can get right back into it at any time and the stories and people haven’t really changed.
For those of you panicking on this point, there will come a time (and it will) when you realize that you are an adult and as such, looking more at your future and less in the “now” is sometimes necessary. You can’t bank on someone to take care of you. You need to be able to set yourself up to be comfortable. Honestly, you will thank yourself later. Thus, it’s okay to say “no”.
And, no, this doesn’t mean you shut down your social life entirely. I decided that one day a week I would go out and maybe one weekend night to start and, I’d add in/subtract days as needed. You have to be realistic about over-extending yourself.
The Bottom Line
You life should never be about one thing. I always say that I want people to remember me as having a full, fun life – never a dull one. So here are some tips to help you start practicing better time management:
1. Never leave work without putting together your “to do” list for the next day. Trust me, on the days you are dragging yourself into the office, you will thank me.
2. Unless you are going from place to place in the morning, use your drive time as “your” time – whether that be listening to NPR or death metal – don’t cheat yourself of that. (Being ready for the work day is important to not feeling sluggish and overwhelmed.)
3. When Friday strikes – shut everything down. You at least deserve Friday off. (This is now in “managing your personal time mode”.)
4. Weekends – treat them like mini vacations – the work will always be there. By Sunday night, you will have felt as though you haven’t seen work in ages – it’s good for you. (This is now in “unstructured time” mode.)
5. SLEEP. It’s amazing what it will do for you. You absolutely need this to be fresh and energetic for a new day!
6. Take breaks – even if it is for five minutes. If you ever watch a golfer step back to look at the next hole before swinging, sometimes they need that mental break to clear their head before they take a shot. If that feels like you are wasting time, you’re wrong. These breaks are what keep you going – and more productive. (If you feel like it derails you, see number 5 because it’s usually the reason.)
7. Have things to look forward to on weekends, months out. Make sure you do at least ONE fun thing. I have a girlfriend who plans her next vacation when she gets back from one – even if it’s for six months later – so that she always has something to look forward to. (This might loosely relate to time management and yes, I know it would derail some people but having goals to work towards keeps you productive.)
8. Have a hobby. I don’t care what it is. For me, it’s this blog. It’s not work when it’s a passion. (When you fill up the spots in your life with things you love, you learn to manage your time even more efficiently.)
9. Socialize responsibly. Pick one night a week to go out, as well as one-to-two nights a weekend. You deserve it and NEED it. (But remember, under rules of time management, you DO have to go to work in the morning so see number 5 for instructions. As for weekends – that falls under unstructured time.)
10. Don’t plan to have a plan – you will never do it. Start writing things down – write down goals, tasks, etc. – everything you need to be successful at this. I promise that the more you manage your time overall, not only does it get easier but you begin to realize how much fuller your life really is.