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The most common concern I hear from leaders of all stripes is, “There’s never enough time!”

No time to respond to emails, follow up with people, attend every meeting, and indeed little time for an extra workout or catching your kid’s Zoom recital!

Pause a moment to examine your expectations.

It’s common to believe that you’re supposed to be engaged constantly – tethered to technology, exercising daily, meeting OMG deadlines, learning Italian while running for public office, keeping up with friends. Right?

You’ve bought into this common lore too (no, I won’t tell), and can see that you’ve set yourself up to do the impossible, certainly more than is healthy or sustainable.

You’ve come to think it’s normal–but it’s not.

So then, when you can’t keep up, do you feel like you’re failing, despite doing more than you’ve ever done before? Thought so; you’re not alone.

The dilemma: in our competitive, complex, and even volatile work environments, leaders and organizations need more from their people than ever.

Determination and the drive to over-commit and overwork has always been part of America’s history. Yet, what’s different today is that those same forces shaking up businesses are jacking up fear, creating overwhelm, and compromising the ability of good people to work effectively.

It’s unsustainable.

Employers work in this environment too. They can’t see what they can’t see (like a fish in water). Research shows that most people in the workplace are asked to do more than is psychologically or physically possible, including you!

So, they’ve overlooked the research that’s repeatedly shown that the average person’s ability to focus on work tasks hovers between 3 to 4 hours per day.

Yes, only 3 to 4 hours!

This has become a “problem to solve” instead of an accepted reality of our human capacity.

Instead, we’re seduced by these expectations, work harder and put in more hours, leaving you stuck in a vicious cycle of overwork and overwhelm.

This isn’t just a phenomenon in the U.S.; even world-wide attempts to boost “productivity” have failed.

We clever humans will find ways to get the respite that we need, either by pretending that we’re working (which is incredibly common), scrolling on social media, catching up with co-workers, or creating moments of rest so our brains and bodies get what they need.

Plus, COVID’s shown us that we can get more done in short spurts given the space to do so, even unasked for space.

 

The lesson from this research?

It’s important to remember that we’re human, not machines, and understand that staying in a rut of constant productivity won’t help you produce more. It will fast-track you toward burnout, rob you of being present, and create greater stress.

Don’t give up hope that you can learn to grapple effectively with this kind of overwhelm.

You can reclaim the power you do have to shift out of unrealistic productivity expectations by focusing on what matters most to you. You’ll regain control of your time and calendar, your energy and well-being, and your priorities.

The good news is that it only takes a few simple steps.

Believe it or not, the shift begins in your mind, not ‘out there’ in the stratosphere somewhere. Developing self-awareness will be what reshapes your time.

No planner, online messaging system, detailed check list or TED Talk is the solution; if they were, this state of time poverty wouldn’t be so universal.

 

Begin with these steps to reset your mind, your mood, your day.

  1. Determine what matters most, right now.
  2. Direct your energy.
  3. Transform costly distractions.
  4. Schedule proactive time
  5. Name your must win.
  6. Set an end of day ritual.

 

1.Determine what matters most

Begin taking back your time by using your values as the scaffolding for your day and week. You can’t control all the items that get added to your calendar, however, you control how you prioritize and protect your time.

Stop giving away control of your schedule to people and situations that don’t fit with your values, intentions, or goals. Begin by determining what you want your work and personal life to look like, to feel like.

Next, a) Name your top 5 values, b) View your calendar then reflect on how your values can guide your activity be this week (progress, not perfection), and c) Adjust your calendar and time to better align with your values.

 

2.Direct your energy

If your attention’s scattered or confused, your energy will reflect that state and you’ll feel it in your body. Over time, without positive energy practices, you’ll find productivity and mood waning.

As a leader, good energy is important, infectious even. You can direct your attention and stop your energy leaks. Begin by, a) Setting your own expectations. (Worst-case, someone’s disappointed, though it won’t be you.

You’ll shine), B) Say ‘no’ for the sake of a bigger ‘yes,’ and c) Build in time for practices to address your energy needs based on whether you need a boost or a discharge.

 

3.Transform costly distractions

Jealously guard your attention and time. Make yourself inaccessible for blocks of time; it’s essential to increasing your focus and lowering your stress levels. Being constantly reachable on numerous devices — checking work emails on your day off, cycling through social media feeds, responding to text messages at all hours — is costing you time you don’t want to give away.

It’s simple. Distracted, your attention fragments, fatigue, and stress ratchet up negatively impacting performance. If your stress level rose just with this mere suggestion, begin with smaller blocks of 25-minutes, and build up to no more than 90-minutes at a pop.

Expect to find yourself becoming less reactive and more present in no time.

 

 

4.Schedule proactive time

Another stress reducer is reserving time blocks for work that is highly important, but not urgent. This breaks the cycle of only spending time reacting to everyone else’s urgent needs.

Setting up proactive time blocks in your week gives you the space to create, innovate or improve upon services/products (make improvements based on customer feedback, revise the employee evaluation process, develop the pilot for a new mentorship program).

Proactive time blocks also prevents you from focusing only on the next deadline, getting bogged down with less meaningful work. You’ll feel more energized and accomplished.

 

5.Name your must win!

Start the morning by taking 10 minutes to plan and review the day ahead.

Your to-do list may be long, so to avoid being overwhelmed before you begin, identify a must-win for today. Name the must win that you need no matter what — and then pursue it at full steam!

Staying focused on your top priority, your must-win, is a real accomplishment. Research says your resulting sense of achievement is likely to have a significant impact on your happiness. Now that really is win-win!

 

6.Set an end of day ritual

Fun fact! In Germany, the Feierabend is a daily evening celebration marking the moment when work is switched off for the day (often accompanied by a hearty German beer).

Whether you finish the day with a beverage or jigsaw puzzle, going for a run or calling a friend – choose something to look forward to by selecting a ritual that will mark the end of your workday.

These daily routines help you celebrate what you have accomplished during the day (rather than what still needs to be done) and bring your life more meaning and happiness.

Remember to extend gratitude and kindness to yourself, not only for what you did, but for how you engaged with others.

By ending each day on a high note you reclaim some time and increase your ability to relax and enjoy your well-deserved free time.