When the weather is pleasant to enjoy evenings on your front porch, back patio, or balcony and you can kick back with your favorite beverage at a time when you aren’t at the office, does your to-do list have other plans?
If you consistently find yourself replying to e-mails and finishing up reports an hour, or two, or three after you meant to go home, your tyrannical to-do list may not be totally to blame. Bad habits may be sabotaging your best efforts.
As people go through life, we all develop habits and routines that we think will help us succeed. The problem is, many of those patterns probably don’t work for you personally. What’s productive for your coworker, for example, may not work well for you. Or a strategy that was effective five years ago may no longer be viable. Even your instincts can lead you astray from time to time.
The good news is, you can change habits and patterns that don’t serve you. You can refocus your attention, redirect your thoughts, and generate greater motivation, energy, optimism, and creativity—all of which will enable you to build a more rewarding life.
Here are seven strategies that can help you change the way you approach your day so you are able to get out of the office earlier:
1. Get big things done before 9:00 a.m. Ever notice how your morning sets the tone for your whole day? As Sir Isaac Newton famously said, “Objects in motion tend to stay in motion.” So if an object (you) gets a groggy, frustrating start, you’ll probably feel sluggish and behind the eight-ball all day long. If you start your day with positive and productive ideas, actions, thoughts, and feelings, however, you’re likely to gain momentum throughout the day.
An example of this is a top salesman whose daily pattern involves getting up early, exercising, eating breakfast, spending time with family, and accomplishing several meetings or other work activities before 9:00 a.m. By the time his colleagues are settling into the starting blocks, he has already blown through several important tasks on his to-do list, and he’s geared to continue that pace for the next several hours.
The point here isn’t how early the saleman’s alarm rings—it’s that he makes the most of the first several hours of his day instead of snoozing and procrastinating. The truth is this: What you do first matters.
2. Own up to your junk hours. “Junk hours” are a little like junk food: While they provide short-term pleasure, they contribute to long-term imbalance and exhaustion. Junk hours, for instance, might include chasing rabbit trails on the Internet, shooting the breeze with colleagues at the water cooler, checking e-mail in order to avoid doing other work, or even attending an unnecessary meeting.
In order to maximize each day, you need to own up to your junk hours. You need to identify when you’re going through the motions of work, versus when real work is being done. Don’t be ashamed that your junk hours exist, because everybody needs to take breaks and shift gears. Your task now is to exchange your low-value “junk” activities for ones that build greater health and value into your workday.
I know a woman who, instead of taking coffee breaks, sets aside 20 minutes each afternoon to knit. I know another man who decided to spend his lunch hours either with friends or going to the gym, instead of trying to squeeze in more work around lunch. In both instances, these scheduled breaks increased my friends’ energy levels and sense of well-being. They felt less of a need to take low-value breaks and began to experience more productivity. They also began getting out of the office earlier, too.
3. Instead of adding to your to-do list, build a new pattern. Maybe you’re thinking that you’d like to change the way your days look, but wonder if that would involve doing more than you already are. The thought of adding anything else to your already out-of-control to-do list makes you want to stay in bed. If this sounds familiar, take a deep breath. The changes that build momentum are rooted in decisions, not additional tasks.
To build a productive new pattern into your life, you usually won’t have to add new tasks to your day. Instead, you’ll simply do what you are already doing, or want to do, in a way that becomes habitual. If you want to wake up an hour earlier, for instance, so that you can jump-start the day, you simply have to change the time your alarm rings and the time you go to bed.
If you want to be more productive at work, you might have to replace aimless procrastination with scheduled breaks. In both cases, you’re changing the way you perform existing tasks, not adding new ones. Remember, though, it isn’t sufficient to simply trigger the start of a new behavior. You need to make sure that you have a motivating reason to make this change—like being able to enjoy evenings with your family—as well as the confidence and energy to sustain it so that it becomes a pattern.
4. Make a big-box checklist. It’s a given that you have a to-do list. Maybe it’s on paper, on your smartphone, or in your head, but you have one. It’s also highly likely that your list isn’t as useful as it could be. Too often, you get stuck doing the urgent instead of the important.
My solution is to make an actual, on-paper checklist each afternoon for the following day or each morning. Put a box by each task—the more important that task is for you to complete that day, the bigger its box should be.
I focus first on my big-box tasks. I’m no longer distracted by each shiny ball that rolls by—I’m able to ignore them and train my focus on what’s really important. At the end of the day, if most of my big boxes have checkmarks, it’s generally been a good day! Yes, prioritizing a daily list by the size of the boxes on it may sound simplistic, but it helps me feel much more accomplished and satisfied with my day. It has also helped me relax in the evenings, because when I remember the big boxes I’ve checked off, it’s easier to leave work at work.
5. Think about it so you don’t have to think about it. We all have those tasks and obligations that eat up a lot of our time, that we find difficult and frustrating, or both. Figure out where these areas are for you and commit to learning a new pattern. Learning new patterns can initially be tedious and laborious. But once they’ve taken hold—often in three weeks or less—they’ll speed up your performance, streamline your effort, and lower your stress.
By putting in some thought about problem areas now, you’ll save yourself from having to think about them later. Eventually, this method changes once-tedious tasks into the automatic, “I don’t have to think about it” behaviors that save you a lot of time.
6. Fill up your energy bank account so you can make withdrawals when you need them. Throughout life, circumstances arise that are beyond our control. You may experience a major illness, lose a loved one, or be forced to relocate. You may have to occasionally work long days and go without sleep. The list goes on. It’s because of these out-of-our-hands circumstances that we must all focus on controlling what we can.
What I mean is, know your needs and capacities and try not to exceed them on a regular basis. In other words, get enough sleep. Eat nutritiously. Exercise when time permits. That way, when you do find yourself needing to push the limits, you’ll have a healthy margin of energy and motivation to draw on. One night of burning the midnight oil doesn’t have to make you feel like a zombie—and tank your productivity—for the whole week.
7. Forgive yesterday so you can work on today. Most successful, hardworking people are often hard on themselves to an unproductive level. They are their own worst critics and spend valuable time lingering on mistakes and slip-ups. Long after the event—whatever it was—is over, they beat themselves up relentlessly instead of spending their time in a more productive state.
Treat yourself with the same compassion and generosity you’d extend to another person who’d messed up or fallen short of a goal. If it helps, follow the two-hour rule I learned from one of my past coaches: When you have a bad performance or make a mistake, you have two hours to pout, scream, cry, wallow, or do whatever you think will help you deal with the disappointment. But when 120 minutes have passed, it’s time to start moving forward again.
Remember, nobody is perfect. We all make mistakes. What sets “thrivers”—people who work hard, meet or exceed expectations, and enjoy high levels of personal and professional success, accompanied by lower stress levels—apart is the fact that after a fall, they forgive themselves faster, get back up, and continue the journey forward. In the coming months, make it your goal to not let regrets haunt your otherwise-perfect evenings.
Andy Core is author, Change Your Day, Not Your Life: A Realistic Guide to Sustained Motivation, More Productivity, and the Art of Working Well, Fayetteville, Arkansas (Wiley, 2014, ISBN: 978-1-118-81598-4, $23.00, www.andycore.com. The book is available nationwide, 800/225-5945; Canada, call 800/567-4797. For more information, visit www.wiley.com.)