Work Smarter, Not More-er
Breaking the cycle of "not enough"
It was a Sunday evening and anxious to get ahead for the week to come, I fired up my laptop and started to crank through my to-do list for Monday, sending a few emails to my team, my clients, and to my manager. That’s when I heard the familiar ding, glanced down at my phone and saw my boss’s name pop up with the words: “chill with the emails.”
Ah the age old question “how do I know I’m doing enough?” If you’re a woman, there tends to be no limit: no hard enough work, no long enough day, no accomplishment too great. We’re continually in a state of wondering if I just run faster or put in a little more, will that get me to the thing I want?
In battling this question my entire professional life, and let’s face it, academic career (so since I was LITERALLY five), I have more than once been looked at as the person who just can’t put down the pen or close the laptop. While part of me wishes I could work the way that works for me, and people judging it could just mind their own business; the act of being on a constant hamster wheel of productivity doesn’t always serve me.
First, there is the evidence backed fact that creativity requires rest, it requires us to step away and come back to something later after we’ve given it some space. This was never a big pitfall for me when doing my day job of program management, cranking through my never ending list of action items to chase down, but when it came to writing a book, it was a whole other story. I had to learn a new strategy, I couldn’t just write an entire chapter in one sitting and it be perfect - my ideas had to sit and marinate. And when I tried to rush through them, they were disjointed and unclear, even after two or three revisions. What turned things around was writing for a little while, taking a break, stepping away, and doing something totally unrelated. Then when I’d return to my writing, I’d have a whole new set of ideas, and think to myself “WTF was I thinking when I wrote this?”
Next, being always “on” puts a lot of pressure on other people to meet you there, and it can cause resentment. Again, while I kinda wish people would mind their shit and just let me be me, when working in teams, and certainly as a people manager, sending emails in the evenings, early mornings, and weekends can make others think, “is she expecting me to be doing this too?” Bosses can start to wonder if they’ve put this pressure on us, or if we’re feeling blocked and were hoping for a response; employees can feel like we’re expecting them to also be on the clock, even if we include a trusty line in our email signature “I work at off hours, and my emails outside of business hours do not require a response.” People still think you kinda would like a response. Hence the fateful “chill with the emails” text. My boss wanted to not think about work on his weekend too, and it was kind of a buzz kill checking an email, looking out for any emergencies, and seeing a bunch of non urgent emails from me. Life hack: schedule send. Learn it, live it, love it.
Last, we can burn ourselves out before we even realize it has happened. I believe you, you can totally handle working at 150% for a LONG time, and that is awesome. But there will likely be a moment when something hits and you can’t continue at that pace, and you’re stuck. The longer you’ve been working at 150%, the more other people expect that from you as your baseline. In doing this, you don’t get any extra credit, you don’t get any gold stars, you just get MORE WORK. I am notorious for working myself over capacity, and then the moment I want to do something other than work, like take a few days off work, binge watch a new TV show, do something creative, it’s really hard to make the time.
How do we break free of the “is this enough” cycle, and always keep a little something for ourselves? My biggest tip is to plan our work ahead, ensuring we’ve factored in breaks and moments to rest, so that we have a good sense at the start of a project how long something will take. When it comes to avoiding that Sunday evening “get ahead for the week” window, I now do that work on Friday afternoon, during business hours, so I don’t put pressure on those around me to feel like they have to be available. As a backup, I tend to keep the first hour of the day on Mondays free of meetings so I can do that email triage work then, on the clock, instead of during my free time FOR FREE. Planning our work ahead means we have a sense of what accounts for a full day or week so that we don’t just keep saying yes to more and more and more, only to realize we should have said “no” like three “yes’s” ago. I even plan time for my creative/down time, thinking about what I want to do, and how much time I will need so that it feels restful and not like I was kind of half doing it while still totally thinking about work.
I hate to say it, but you know it already anyway; people will always want more from us. More time, more work, more effort. So it needs to be up to us to set the boundaries, to feel comfortable with an “enough-ness” that we set to actually be enough, to be proud of ourselves when we finish something instead of ruminate on how much better it would have been if we just had more time.
Think about a project that you finished and felt really proud of (work or personal, either one). It’s fine if it wasn’t since the third grade, still counts. What did it feel like to be done? To feel like the work was great? Like you had put enough time into it? Channeling the feeling of past successes can remind us how to tap into that feeling again and again. And if a past success only felt done because you busted your ass to work around the clock, visualize how you want done to feel—the levity, the freedom, the sense of completion—and work to achieve that.
Sometimes the more we have going on, the more we think we can handle. I mean who else gets more overwhelmed by the act of going to the UPS store to drop off an Amazon return on a day where we have nothing else to do, than on a day when we’re over scheduled into 5 minute increments? There’s something about that “just get it done” mindset that can allow us to move mountains. But as you’re doing that, remember to know when it’s enough, and when it’s too much, so that you always have the space you want and need for you, the amazing and wonderful and productive (but not too productive) you.