Switch off to switch on

Work related stress is an integral aspect of most of our lives. I know it had been one of mine. It led me to bad eating habits, to overweight, to lack of sleep, lack of focus and in general lack of enjoyment of my life. My life was wasting away in front of me, and I was not aware of it. I could not see it because I was really to busy looking at my Blackberry screen. What a waste.

I got lucky a couple of months ago. Thanks to my loved ones I recognized what was happening to me and how self-destructive this had become for me. I had the luck of finding the opportunity to make another choice, and choice for more responsibility but less day-to-day pressure. It enabled me to stop certain practices and start others.

I still have good friends that chase the clock. They are stressed when they call me, they don’t get to dive deep into subject matter, they touch and go without really opening themselves up to the subject matter. They don’t sleep well, they gain weight, their partners are unhappy because they are never there, they’ve lost touch with their children. It’s not what it’s all about.

Looking back over these past five months, in which I have been more productive than before, this is what I learned to do.

Switch off your smartphone

If you can live without one, do it. It may seem alien to most of you, it may seem like a loss of status, but you may find it’s the single best action you can take to lighten the pressure on you now. And let’s be honest … I love my iPhone as much as the next geek, but most of us are not emergency surgeons. Most of our jobs do not require us to react in an instant to any message finding its way to our inbox. Imagine this would be your fixed bakelite home phone of years past. You would not be able to sit down before it rang again … and again … and again. How long would it take you to put that receiver off the hook? Then why do you accept to become a hostage to your blinking blackberry light?
And while you’re at it, configure your VIPs, limit them to you next of kin and kill the ringer for any other profile. Have a nice and respectful voicemail message. Then check your voicemails like you do your physical mailbox.

Switch of all incoming message notifications

Do this on both your devices (blackberry, iphone, ipad, or, heaven forbid, Android device) and your computers. Any type of mail notification will rip you out of the zone you’re in and kill your productivity. With lots of people being confronted with 100+ incoming emails per day, not counting spam, that’s one about every 5 minutes on an average workday. If you know that getting into the zone on an excellent day will cost you upwards of 15 minutes, notifications alone kill your productivity. Because subject lines are often so badly written, you’ll want to go and see what it’s all about … and you will get killed.
Last piece of advice on this: don’t check your email first thing in the morning. You’ll get sidetracked from the main tasks you’ve defined and you will regain the initiative around lunch, if at all. That’s half a day wasted. Not worth it. Check your mail twice a day, then batch your responses.

Stop wearing a watch

This is a recent practice I started when the battery on my wristwatch ran out. I have an omnifocus task sitting in my errands context instructing me to go and get a replacement, but I wait. Not really being aware what time it is, with good reminders set for meetings in my calendar application (the only relevant notifications I use on my PC) I have become more, not less aware of time passing. It allows me to focus more and yet be more aware of overall time. It’s an excellent practice I expect to start paying good dividends real soon.

End your workday on time

Yes, I am an expert. I have been hired for my expertise, and I am expected to deliver this expertise and create an added value. I’m also a manager of a (small) department and I need to manage the internal audit team and ensure we deliver to specs. But I also am a dad and a husband and a friend and an advisor to other people. So while I owe my employer my employment, I pay him in focus and dedication by turning off my email notifications and smartphone and really focus on the job at hand. I owe my employer my full commitment, but he owes me the right to turn my focus to other things when I am not working for him. Which is what I do when I end my workday on time. When I’m there, I’m there all the way (“When you’re a Jet, your …” ;-)) but when I end my workday, it actually ends and does not extend into my personal life.

Watch less TV

We’re a TV generation. We grew up with color TV in the ’70s and ’80s and are now losing ourselves in hundreds of channels, but nothing on. The growth of reality TV is a sad commentary on our time. Reality TV is a contradiction in terms: reality is what happens when you switch off your TV.
We have excellent tools which allow you to capture your favorite shows. Make a conscious selection of what you want to watch and how much time you’re willing to dedicate to that. Then record or retrieve the shows or the programs you want to see and watch only that. Don’t exceed the alloted time you have reserved for that. And don’t overdo it either. It’s a sedentary activity that adds little to no value to your life. How does it influence your life if Brooke has yet again married whomever. My next to last episode of “The Bold and the Beautiful” I saw was in 1993, when my grandmother was dying. Recently, I caught the back-end of an episode and had little difficulty following what was going on. The story never changes. It does NOT make a difference. Hence, why bother. Go and create something.

Go create something

Yesterday I was in the garden, picking up after the kids. They had constructed a camp in the woods behind the house and had a jolly good time with it. It’s been too long since I built a camp of my own. When I was in Benin recently, I took a lot of video footage with my iPhone. I had a lot of fun in the evenings cutting the footage into a short three minute movie of my impressions. It’s not great art, but it’s a highly creative endeavour nonetheless. Find something to do. Write, blog, play with your kids, create … don’t die in front of the television screen. There’s an entire world out there for the taking.

Define three core tasks

A recent practice I adopted which really aids me in defining what is really relevant is the practice of defining three core tasks. I have a multiyear goal set, highly ambitious, which I’ve translated in three objectives which are achieveable in a timespan of about one year and which should lead to getting closer to achieving the multiyear goal set.
The yearly objectives I’ve mapped into an OmniPlan structure where I’ve mapped a number of interrelated monthly goals to them. If I hit those goals, I’ll hit the yearly objectives. The monthly goals are broken down into weekly objectives, in turn broken down into daily core tasks.
The system is not airtight from a project management view, but it’s not supposed to be. I’ve found out that if I don’t have a larger goal, in a yearly, monthly and weekly context, that I don’t get half as much done than if I have. I need targets, and I need the freedom do freely execute towards them. That’s why only three core actions per day drive me in the right direction while allowing me enough freedom to create and be creative. They may be smaller actions, but they need to bring me towards achieving the goal I have set for that week.
A daily core task may be “Sit down with X to talk about Y”. If having that conversation, even for 10 minutes, allows me to go quicker on achieving a broader objective, for example because the talk clarified a lot and allowed that person to give me feedback or to appreciate why we as internal audit adopted a certain position, it’s more than worth it. These things often don’t get done if you don’t specifically plan them.
These actions are often born in OmniFocus during a project review but I explicitly put them in my agenda on that specific day to really be able to execute them and mark them as done that same day.
I don’t want ten tasks, because then I would just move them backwards and backwards. I don’t want one sole task because I would just procrastinate. Three is the right amount.

In the end

It really is all about focusing on what matters most, and really saying no in a loud voice to all that is not that relevant, but may be enticing. You need to know what you want in order to be able to say no to all the interesting things that lead you away from your goal. Good luck!