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How to Simplify Your Work Life

Today’s workplace can feel like a constant assault on the senses. Think of all the tasks confronting you during a typical workday: emails, texts, phone calls, messages, answering questions from team members barging into your workspace, and so on. And that’s before you even begin to tackle actual work. It’s enough to make your head spin. But you can master your work life, your workload and your work environment with a few simple strategies.

The Blackberry Jungle

For many reasons, today’s workers are far more stressed than ever before. Long commutes, more work, longer hours, and new technologies all conspire to make us stressed and overwhelmed. Despite promises to the contrary, modern technology has actually increased the amount of work we have and do, and it reaches us 24/7. Think about how much more is done electronically, and how many more interactions you have on a daily basis because of technology. Blackberries (or the equivalent) at the ready, we are all barraged with a constant stream of texts, tweets, e-mails and messages. It’s more work, it’s more immediate and it never ends.

Six months ago, everyone talked about how to achieve “work-life balance.” But today, with a faltering economy and unemployment nearing 10 percent, it is increasingly hard to talk about work-life balance when there are millions of people who would give their right arm to have a job and the problem of balancing their work and their lives.

But that doesn’t change the fact that workers are still stressed and overwhelmed at work. Many people are overloaded by technology and by the environment in which they work. And it is causing an unhealthy imbalance in the working lives of many, both on the job and off. You do need to simplify your working life, not just to find balance, but also to do a better job. You may need to simply your working life if:

  • You feel completely stressed at work
  • You feel overwhelmed with too much on your plate
  • Your productivity is decreasing due to an inability to handle your projects
  • No matter how many hours you put in, you don’t seem to get out from under your pile of projects
  • You find yourself spending too much time on things that just aren’t priorities
  • How many things are on your desk?
  • How many things are on the walls of your office or cubicle?
  • How cluttered is your computer desktop?
  • Are there piles of things on your desk or your floor?

But there are simple ways to simplify. Here’s how.

First, create space

Studies show that your physical environment has enormous impact on your wellbeing, productivity and intellectual abilities. Your workspace should work for you, not against, and this is why this is a perfect place to start. The very first thing to do is to simply your work environment. Think of it as spring cleaning – get rid of the clutter, organize your workspace and jettison things that are distracting you. Not only will simplifying your workspace help you become more productive, it will also provide a powerful psychological support system for keeping your work life simplified. Very often, clutter begets clutter, in your organizational skills and in your thinking. So, by clearing out the clutter, you will be less distracted and more focused. This is a good place to start, in large measure because you will see results immediately.

The key to simplifying your workspace is to streamline, edit and minimize. Your workspace should be as minimal and efficient as possible. It should have few distractions and no clutter. Look around your workspace: If you have a lot of clutter, chances are it is creating or contributing to inefficiencies and distractions in your work life. The key is to create a clutter-free distraction-free, stress-free, and productive workspace. First, organize your computer desktop. Move things off that do not need your attention. Too many files on your desktop are visually confusing and a sign of poor organization. Only keep on your computer desktop the files you are using that day or need the most. Move the rest off. And organize them while you’re at it.

Next edit your walls and the surface of your desk. Does all that stuff really need to be there? Yes, you want a few personal and inspirational items, but you only need a few. Pick two and get rid of the rest. What papers or files are on your desk? Decide what you need and file the rest away. They will be close at hand if you need them, but they don’t need to be on your desk, do they? Also, organize your tools. Do you really need a stapler, tape and paper clips on your desk? Put them in a drawer. Move as much as you can off your desk. Keep only the things you absolutely need in front of you, and a personal item or two. That’s it. Put the rest away.

Now, Prioritize Your Work

Once you have streamlined your work environment, you can get back to work. And you must start by prioritizing your workload. Setting priorities is absolutely essential when you have too much on your plate. Look at all your projects and determine the method of prioritization. If you are self-employed, use whatever system aligns with your business. For example, most of my work is based on a deliverable – facilitating a conference, a meeting or a workshop, delivering a keynote address, etc. So due dates are my big thing, and I prioritize my workload based on due date of the deliverable and the amount of time each project will take. Many projects have more immediate dates, but don’t require much work, so my priority list isn’t always in order of due date. I also reevaluate the list often.

If you work in an organization, your supervisor or manager should direct or help you prioritize your workload. You should meet with them to go over your projects and find out what the company or department’s priorities are. When a new project is assigned you should bring up existing projects, go over your workload and reevaluate all of your priories. You should always, always have a clear understanding of this, and you must work with your manager to stay clear on your priorities. People who are afraid to have this conversation with their supervisors are not going to be able to simplify their work life.

And it’s a simple conversation, not a complaint that you can’t get something done or a demand that they give you less work. What you are doing is asking for clarity. Make a list of your projects or workload, go in to see your supervisor and simply say, “I have a lot going on right now and I would like to go over everything with you so that I am sure I have my projects prioritized properly to meet your expectations.”

You also need to fully understand the project in order to understand the amount of time it will take to deliver. You cannot accurately and effectively prioritize unless you have a clear idea of how long the project will take. As a consultant, I see many people who complain that they are unclear about priorities but, in fact, the real problem is that they failed to correctly assess the amount of time required to complete a project or the importance of the project, and then they are in a constant state of crisis. Make sure you understand the project, how long it will take and then and make sure you understand where it falls on your manager’s priority list.  

The Technology Trap

If technology is supposed to make our lives so much simpler, how come we are all working more? And how come we are plugged in all the time? Well, you don’t have to be. Like the clutter on your desk, you have to be judicious about the type of technology you use and how and when you use it. You can simplify here, too.

The first thing to do is take a good hard look at the different technologies you utilize to complete your work. Now, ask yourself this simple question: does this make my work life easier or more difficult? Does it save me time or does it take longer? Which technologies make your work life simpler, more efficient and more effective and which ones actually make it harder or take up too much of your time unnecessarily? For example, is your new PDA really making your life simpler or is it adding a new level of unnecessary complexity? Ask yourself, do I really need to text, e-mail or call John in accounting? Can I walk down the hall and ask him the question? Do I need to start what could be an endless and unnecessary stream of electronic messages when I could have my answer in a minute with a little physical effort or a phone call?

There is a mini backlash going on right now, where people are forgoing fancy tech gadgets for old-fashioned methods – like getting up from their desks and meeting people face to face, keeping day timers, using Rolodexes and index cards, keeping to do lists on notepads, using the telephone, etc. The problem with technology is that you fall into a trap of relying on it for things that may be better and more efficiently handled the old-fashioned way. Decide what actually works for you, and use it. Lose the rest.

Personal Strategies

In terms of your physical work habits, the most important way to begin to simplify your work life is to be realistic about what you can accomplish, both in terms of time and skills. You must know what is important and what isn’t. Then, focus on what is important and let go of the rest.

You also need to learn to say no. If you are completely swamped, say so. Perhaps you can renegotiate the projects you already have or get someone to help with your workload. Just don’t be afraid to say no, whether it’s at work or at home. Be wary about making promises. It is easier and far better to say no at the beginning than to get out of an agreement later.

When you do have a project, seek clarity on assignments and expectations. Find out exactly what they expect from you and what will satisfy their requirements. These are called the conditions of satisfaction, and you should understand them from the beginning. 

If you are working with others on a project, you have to determine who is the point person, and if no one wants to take charge, think about stepping up to the plate. Everyone should be on the same page, in terms of what the project is, what the conditions of satisfaction are, who is doing what and when, and when the project is due. Make sure you and others on the team are crystal clear about timelines, expectations, and the criteria for success and completion. In order to succeed and work effectively, you have to be able to communicate properly with each other. And if you have a problem with a member of the team, don’t go over their head. First, talk to them about what you see as the problem.

By simplifying your work life with these strategies, you can be far more productive and much less stressed at work. Start small – maybe start by cleaning off your desk and organizing your computer desktop. Then build to a point where you can prioritize your projects and work on them with focus and clarity. Minimize distractions – physical, visual, technological. By simplifying your work life, you will increase your productivity. And your sanity.

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