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12 Steps Closer to Your Ideal Work Day

12 Steps Closer to Your Ideal Work Day
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What would an ideal workday look like? While there might not be a single answer across the board, all of us can relate to the fact that many of our workdays are not designed for optimal productivity. We complain about too many meetings, not enough pay, travel that saps your energy and did I mention the hours? Why not take some time today to consider what an ideal day at work might look like?

Start the afternoon before. A clean space makes for smooth work. To the degree that you can, neaten up your desk and put things in order for the next day. Do a quick “what do I need to work on tomorrow?” and write it down. This little step plants seeds of productivity that will spill over into the following day. Get home at a reasonable hour- your loved ones will thank you for it. I’ve found that my family likes my work more as a result of working less when I can. The competition between family and work shrinks when both are in balance.

Start the night before. This might seem obvious but so many people burn the candle at both ends. It makes sense to get to sleep at a reasonable hour in order to get in 6-8 quality hours of sleep. Some need more, few of us need less. Become a sleep expert and routine your bed time for optimal waking the next day. Another secret is to do a ‘media audit’ of your free hours prior to bed. If you find yourself zoning out via TV for no good reason, turn the tube off and read, work out or talk with friends.

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Practice early morning rituals. A strong start to the day is key for designing your ideal work experience. When you get up early, it’s as if you’ve already accomplished something. Throw in a coffee ritual (but not too much!) and you have another reason to get up. I’ll admit, I enjoy a good 7 minute snooze button as much as the next guy, but only to a degree. Put mind over mattress and get moving in the AM.

Crank when you can. When you’re at work, work. In the time-windows when you know you can really crank, get things done. This may involve closing your office door or telling your secretary that you need 30 minutes of uninterrupted time. My guess is that you can accomplish more in a half hour of dedicated work time than you could in 3-4 blocks of stop-and-go work.

Remember, interruptions happen, now what? Sure, we need to crank out our work but interruptions do happen. The key is to absorb them instead of bristle when they come up. You may have to coach those around you as to how you would like correspondence and when you are most free. Some people use door signs as subtle reminders of their work: green means come on in while red implies that work is going on. Find what works for you. I once heard of someone who hung a sign on his cubicle that said, “Power hour in progress. Enter at risk.”

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Take your breaks. A good stretch and walk around the block is good for the body and the mind. Step away from the computer, leave the Blackberry at your desk and just walk. Take five minutes and read a chapter from that book that you put in your briefcase. Breathe some fresh air. Get some water. It’s that simple.

Create real human interaction. While digital correspondence is at an all time high, our moments of genuine human interchange may be at risk. A simple rule? Whenever you can, interact. As long as you’re getting your work done, keep it human and stay on task. I think that they can go hand in hand- human interaction and getting things done.

Speed matters. As you’re going through your day, remember that speed matters. Move with purpose and swiftly act on things that are in front of you. Walk briskly and others will sense that you are a person of action. Their step will pick up too!

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Food is your friend. A few months back, I looked at the scale and realized that I had lost about 10 pounds without even trying. I saw that my eating habits had been spotty and my body wasn’t getting enough of what it needed in order to keep going. Take the time to prepare a decent set of 4-5 smaller meals instead of binging at the end of the day. Now I try to keep a supply of energy bars in my desk just in case.

Take note of the final hour. The final hour is key to an optimal work day. This is a good time to process any excess in your in-box, prepare things for the next day and clear your mind.

Remember what’s really important. Getting out the door at a reasonable time (and it probably differs for each of us) is good for you and for those you care about. When you arrive home from work, take 10 seconds to remind yourself that you’re now at home and need to be fully present for your spouse, kids, and whatever else requires your attention. It’s not easy making this transition but vital nonetheless.

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Begin again. The good and bad news of an ideal workday is that it requires mastery and repetition. Don’t be too hard on yourself if things only went 75% well today because tomorrow is coming. You’ll get another shot at success.

An ideal workday is something towards which we can work. In my field of education, I tell young teachers to aim for the “3 Day Rule”: strive to be on your game for 3 out of 5 days and you’ll start to turn the tide of how you work. Eventually your 3 days will turn into 4 and every once in a while, you’ll see a solid 5 days of productivity.

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Last Updated on July 8, 2020

3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

This is why setting priorities is so important.

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3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

1. Eat a Frog

There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

2. Move Big Rocks

Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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3. Covey Quadrants

If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

  1. Important and Urgent
  2. Important and Not Urgent
  3. Not Important but Urgent
  4. Not Important and Not Urgent

    The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

    Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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    You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

    Getting to Know You

    Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

    In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

    These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

    More Tips for Effective Prioritization

    Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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