Overwork doesn’t come just from the boss or the big project, it may not even come from the realm of work at all. Overwork can arise from any number of sources: personal goals, career, office politics, family, relationships, social circles, community involvement, and so on. When two or more of those sources are funneling too much to-do into your life, use these tips to cut back on or altogether avoid overwork so you can still have a life.
1. Put it all on your calendar.
When you have multiple inputs, keeping track of all the stuff that gets added to your life can get complicated. And if you can’t quickly see all the things you’ve said yes to in one place, you’re likely to keep saying yes to more things.
Use one calendar, whether digital or paper, to funnel all the inputs from the various areas of your life to a single viewpoint. You need to see that on a single day you have committed to doing the big interview, planning a bachelor party, baking two dozen cupcakes, and picking your cousin up from the airport. When you start seeing all the tasks and activities in one place, you can start seeing that you don’t have room to add any more.
2. Put the burden of follow-up on the person asking.
As a business writer and productivity blogger, I get frequent requests to review books and apps. If it is something I am interested in but not able to tackle right away, I request a follow-up.
Instead of saying, “Sure, I’ll get to this in two months,” I ask them to follow-up in two months. This takes it completely off of my plate: I don’t need to add a reminder to my calendar, or even do anything at all. Instead, I depend on the person who was asking in the first place to follow-up when the time is right.
3. Automate everything you can.
Much of the mental burden of work is in logistics: making decisions about what is going to happen when, how it will happen, who is going to be responsible for it, and what will be needed to do it, and so on. Save yourself a huge mental load by automating everything in your life that occurs on a regular basis. If it repeats, there’s almost always a way to automate it, or at least some aspect of it. For example:
- Finances. Set up automatic payments, transfers, and online billing.
- Email. Save templates for frequent emails and reuse. Use a service like Boomerang to schedule emails in advance.
- Social media. IFTTT and Zapier make it easy to automate almost everything online, one way or another.
Automating means that you have to do a lot less planning, organizing, and working: it just happens the way you’ve set it up. You can also “automate” things like vacations, a night out, new reading material, new clothing, even new snacks by a) setting a regular dates for events (“Every second Monday of the month is girls’ night out”) and b) using subscription services.
4. Alternate types of work.
Your brain and body get worn out when you ask them to do the same thing over and over again. Think about how easy the first sit-up is, and then think about how difficult the 20th or 50th is. So give yourself a way to recover by alternating the types of work you do.
If you’ve spent some time in mental work, it’s time to go tackle something physical. If you’ve just wrapped up a very interactive team meeting, it’s time to do some work in solitude.
5. Give defined options instead of open-ended agreement.
When you’re faced with another request for your time or help, and “No” isn’t an option, use this method. Instead of just agreeing to help, which leaves your commitment rather open ended, provide defined options for how you will help.
For example, you’re asked to help on a big project for a new client. You say, “Sure, I would be happy to help. I can take care of ordering the materials needed for XYZ aspect.” If the person asking you says, “Oh, I was hoping you would oversee the design of all the material,” then you say, “Well, I can order the material, or I can contribute an afternoon to helping design the materials; which would you rather have me do?”
6. Determine the core actions for your important work.
Many times, overwork comes not from too much work but from the wrong work. It can be hard to see this problem, however, if you haven’t taken the time to define the core actions needed for your most important work.
Look at your most important tasks and projects, and make a list of the core actions needed to complete each one. Remember that you need to focus on the core, the essential, not all the possible options or every single detail. If you have trouble, pretend you’re in a scenario when you have only a few hours to finish: what would you do to get things done? Those actions are your core actions.
Focus your work time on getting the core actions done, and don’t worry too much about the optional details. If you are doing the core actions, you are getting the work done, and that is more important than doing all the other possible, tiny, distracting, and ultimately unimportant tasks.
7. Build buffer room into your life.
Pushing yourself to the edge of your capabilities, your time, and your finances over and over again will wear you out. Don’t do it. Instead, expect that things will take longer, cost more, and that you will need transition time.
Give yourself time between appointments, time between deadlines, and time between major endeavors. Spend less than you have to, not as much as you can. By not squeezing so much into life, you will find yourself better able to deal with the demands upon you. But when you’re maxed out, even one little slip can cause a tailspin into total collapse.
8. Believe in your own abilities.
Mental self-talk of the negative variety will make even simple tasks much more difficult than they need to be. If you’ve taken on a task, a project, a deadline, a new client, a new relationship, home ownership, or some other major endeavor, chances are you’re hearing that little voice often. It’s the one that goes something like this: “You can’t do it. What are you thinking? You’re doomed. Get out now.”
All of those doubts and fears will cause you to hesitate, agonize over decisions, and waste energy. Work on ignoring the voices, or answering them directly: “I can do this. I’ve got this. I’ve got help. I’m making progress.”
9. Respect your own limits.
Capable, you are. Superhuman, you are not. You need sleep. You need food. You need human interaction. You need to shower. You’ll find that human interaction goes a lot better after you shower, too.
Ignoring your own needs in order to do more work isn’t an admirable habit, it’s a stupid one. Know your limits and respect them, or you’ll work yourself into a mental breakdown.
10. Practice the fine art of saying no.
This is really the best and most effective way to cut down on unnecessary overwork: say no to it. If you need to downsize your obligatory to-do list — and who doesn’t? — then this tip is of utmost importance.
First, remember that saying no isn’t evil. It’s allows you to be honest. There’s no possible way you can do everything you’re asked to do, and saying no is you communicating that. Pretending you can do it all is dishonest and unfair to yourself and others.
Second, learn to say no with clarity and kindness. Don’t say maybe when you mean no; say no. But don’t feel that you have to be aggressive or rude. Simply say no in a kind way, and repeat your kind, gentle, and clear no as often as you need to until it gets through.
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