Lighten Up

March 21st, 2006

Are you overwhelmed by overload?
Despite all your time-management and list making, do you find yourself in a constant crisis response mode?
Is your mind weighed down by piles of projects, constant email alerts, and interruptions?
When you are not listening to the endless internal task master inside your head does the constant drone of others’ demands drown out your ability to focus?

You are clearly not alone.

Nearly everyone I work with is looking for respite from the pressures of productivity. Recent articles in the news inform us about the dangers of being in a constant state of high alert resulting from urgency addiction and multi tasking. Reuters reported a study indicating that Americans are working more and accomplishing less. Sue Shellenbarger noted last week in the Wall Street Journal’s “Work and Family Mailbox” that anxiety and perhaps even emotional depression can result from too much multitasking and fatigue. When your mind and body are constantly overstressed, hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol go into overdrive.

Sometimes, as with the injured conductor James Levine, a scheduled several month sabbatical presents the opportunity to create life-changing improvements. For those of us who wish to avoid such dire situations, there are numerous blogs and books offering methods to lighten up while achieving. While no one “system” is appropriate or sufficient for all situations, combining ideas and tools can help to lighten your load.

Recently, I listened to Getting It Done, by David Allen and then checked out his web site. Allen recommends expanding on goal setting through a process which involves an entire work-flow/life planning overhaul. He emphasizes the importance of a system to tear through all of the massive tasks and projects that clutter your desk and your mind. Allen’s technique is that people identify the “next action” for everything in their “in box”, organize stuff in project files and lists to be reviewed regularly, and do anything immediately that will take two minutes or less. It is very satisfying to get through those nagging tasks. However, I think that the risk in Allen’s system is that if you do everything in your in-box that takes two minutes right away, you can eat up a whole day with small tasks, eliminating the time to work on your long term initiatives and commitments. Unaddressed projects and goals will then hang over your head exacerbating stress–not to mention limiting your career.

In contrast to David Allen, Steven Shapiro, author of Goal-Free Living has posited a very interesting concept that questions our goal setting preoccupied culture. See whether you are a “Goalaholic” by taking his quiz . His idea is that rigid goals often limit creativity, exploration and innovation because goal related stress interferes with a willingness to open up to new ideas, to explore and feel flow in our work/lives. Rather, he suggests that people articulate their thematic passions and question goals that are not self-generated. Living for and measuring yourself against achieving a future goal, according to Shapiro, is not only stressful, but limits your potential. His blog is worth investigating.

I’ve summarized my favorite lighten up tips here:

1. Start with a clean sweep. Spring is a great time to get rid of all of those unattended projects, piles and visual distractions that weigh heavily on your mind every time you see them.

2. Don’t start your day in overload: Plan your days in advance and include time to handle unexpected demands, interruptions and crises. Build in flexibility, recovery and think time.

3. Spend 10 minutes each evening or morning to organize your workspace, review and revise your schedule and file away extraneous papers.

4. Evaluate the “incoming and “add on’s” to your plan rather than just doing everything that presents itself. If you have to add something, trade off something else.

5. Examine your own expectations and other’s demands. You cannot function in constant triage with impunity.

6. Avoid unnecessary interruptions. Plan to read email at three designated times during the day, and respond only to what is urgent. Register interruptions, your own mind memos and others’ requests in your to do or task list and then commit to a time to address them when you can properly focus.

7. Commit to sufficient time to think through and complete tasks without interruption.

8. Plan some down/fun/relaxation/reflection time every day. Even a short break will help you lighten up!

Please share your tips and comment!

2 comments on “Lighten Up

  1. Kirsten Dixson on said:

    Great post, Sheryl. Technology has added to our constant interruptions and can be more of a hindrance than a help if not managed properly. Another great time management expert is Mark Forster. We had him as a guest in a recent Reach Branding Club teleseminar, and I enjoy his realistic approach. I’m trying to make the time to finish his book, Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play.

  2. Kat Bailey on said:

    Sheryl, you write like a magazine writer! Very impressive! I’d read your blog (or an article) in a magazine any day! That’s a gift to have those kind of writing skills! It’s a perfect subject as I think on our campus a lot of us are suffering from overload! I know I am, thanks for the tips and i will truly try to follow them! That be “interruptive” free thing will be a challenge, but I’m looking forward to shaping things up for less stress and more happiness! Thanks for writing!

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