by Karl Staib
“Draw the art you want to see, start the business you want to run, play the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use – do the work you want to see done.”
How are you managing your work? What do you focus on? Are you overly anxious? Way too stressed out? Or just in need of a little more mindfulness?
I’m here to tell you that a bracing dose of self-awareness could be just the trick. To that end, I’ve culled together 10 powerful ideas that will help you tame your stress levels, persevere through uncertainty, boost your creativity, and get more of the right things done with a smile on your face.
1. Dedicate time to playful exploration.
In 2006, students from Xavier High School were given an assignment to write to their favorite living authors – several students chose Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut’s response, the only one the class received, encapsulates essential insight on the importance of playful exploration as it relates to doing great work:
“What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.
Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.”
Although Vonnegut’s response was for young students to motivate them to start learning and exploring new ideas and skills, it’s easy for all of us to limit ourselves to one specific domain, like writing or coding or design. We get comfortable and never stretch our creative and intellectual muscles. We never become all that we can be.
So keep the idea of playful exploration in mind and dedicate time to implementing it. Try new things for the sake of stretching yourself, making your soul grow and keeping things fresh in your life. The realizations you encounter during these activities can then be transferred over to your primary work, which will eventually make all the difference in the world.
2. Track and appreciate every small step of progress you make.
It’s in our DNA to want our hard work to matter… to know that our efforts made a difference.
It’s why, believe it or not, janitors at hospitals have a fairly high job satisfaction ratings. When they walk into a dirty room they know what they need to do, how it should look when they leave, and the positive impact their work will have on others who use the room. Then as they leave, they look around and feel a strong sense of accomplishment.
Your progress might not be as easy to see, but the more you appreciate your hard work, the more productive you will become.
Try looking at what you’ve been able to accomplish at the end of each day, and be aware that acknowledging even the smallest wins is very important. Keep notes and write down at least one thing you made progress on each day and why it mattered. Do this consistently for 30 days and watch how it affects your happiness and productive output.
Also, consider adding mini celebrations to your routines. Too often you probably finish a task and then just move on to the next thing. I catch myself doing this all the time. I might have just written a very intricate email that required a lot of thinking and planning, but the moment I send it off, I’m already moving on to the next thing.
Next time you catch yourself doing this, take a quick moment and celebrate your hard work. I try to make my celebrations fun, energizing and healthy. Here are five simple ways you can celebrate after some hard work on a project.
- Listen to your favorite song.
- Take a short walk and appreciate the fresh air.
- Call a good friend or colleague and tell them about a particular accomplishment.
- Eat a small piece of dark chocolate.
- Write a couple lines in your gratitude journal.
Simple celebrations like these keep you feeling positive and will grow your motivation for the next task ahead.
3. Find meaning in your tasks and projects.
Each task you set out to do can either add to or subtract from your happiness. It can be something that helps you build a better career or something that annoys you. Each task has a purpose – even the smallest ones. If you feel like they really don’t have a purpose that’s meaningful to you, it’s time to find a way to stop doing it or get someone else to do it for you. (We’ll talk more about this in #7 and #9.)
Not all tasks were created equal, so look for ways that your tasks and projects are helping you accomplish your bigger goals. If you are asked to stuff thousands of marketing bags with corporate flyers, like I was asked to do at one point in my career, then understand the “why” behind it.
Why are you choosing to accept this task? It could be as simple as your boss asked you to do it and you want to keep earning your paycheck to feed your family, or something more subjective like you are doing it because you hope, believe, or know that it will make future customers happy. When you can visualize the reaction that your hard work will have on others, it’s easier to stay motivated.
Bottom line: By finding meaning in your tasks, you’ll do a better job and usually enjoy each task a lot more.
4. Seek out ways to deliver a smile.
Connection is a big part of why you do what you do. If you work hard on something and get a smile for doing so, that’s visual proof that your work matters.
So next time you have low energy while working on a task, see if you can try switching to a task that will help deliver a smile to a colleague, customer, or boss. You’ll get a natural boost, and the next task will be easier to tackle.
5. Leverage your motivating triggers.
Everyone has motivating triggers that can help them when they need to take their energy up a notch.
One of my triggers is music. I like to listen to classical music when I write. Mozart puts a little pep in my fingers. This motivation trigger helps me get in the zone and stay focused so I can get a large chunk of work done.
Music may not be your motivating trigger, but you have to figure out what works for you. You can try something really simple like a couple deep breaths before you start a task to center your focus before you dive into the work. It can help you work better or make wiser choices. The best part is that if you keep doing this, it becomes a habit. It triggers your “zone state” so you can get into your zone much quicker and get more work done efficiently (we’ll talk more about this in #10).
6. Schedule recharge breaks.
You don’t have an endless supply of energy. Think of yourself as a battery that needs to be recharged throughout the day. Most people hit their peak energy output about two hours after they wake up, and it lasts for about three hours. Then their energy plummets, especially after lunch.
You’ve likely suffered through an afternoon slump more times than you can count. This is when most people go for a caffeine or sugar boost, which is not healthy.
So what’s a good alternative?
Schedule short recharge breaks to help you keep a more consistent energy level, and will also help you avoid unhealthy snacking.
Try scheduling your breaks when you know the energy slumps usually hit. You might schedule a walk and a healthy fruit snack, and take the time to breathe and regroup for 10 minutes before you go back to work.
7. Ask for help the minute you need it.
If you are a type-A personality, this especially pertains to you. You may be good at a lot of things, but you can’t do it all, all of the time. Other people have skills that can help you accomplish more work and make your efforts more effective.
It’s important to lean on other people when you are feeling fatigued or overwhelmed. Try asking for help when you need it. The funny thing about asking for help is that most people actually love to help others when given the opportunity. They get a boost by helping you smile, and you get a boost by not having to do everything all by yourself.
8. Flip the script.
One of my clients, Amy, loathed doing performance reviews. She always procrastinated until the last minute on finishing the performance reviews for her employees, and the experience was equally bad for her and her team. She hated doing them because she didn’t feel like her team needed them or wanted them.
So she flipped the concept on its head and asked her employees to review and develop a career plan, with her guidelines, for the next 12 months. It worked. They all collaborated and invented a better process that her employees were excited about.
If there’s some task or project in your life that is troublesome, try finding a fresh way to tackle it. It might take a few tries to find a better solution, but if you can find a way to enjoy a task that you dislike, you’ll be happier and so will the people around you.
9. Learn to circumvent tasks that don’t excite you.
Simply learning to say “no” is one of the major components of doing more work that you love and creating a happier life in general.
If there’s a project that’s a bad fit for your skills, you need to figure out a way to say “no.” The key here is to put your foot down without making the other person feel rejected. For example, if your boss comes in with a project for you to do that doesn’t excite you or fit your strengths, then it’s your responsibility to find a better solution to her problem. So instead of just saying “no,” give her another option that solves her problem so she can say “yes” to you.
Everything is negotiable. Be a creative problem solver and everyone wins.
Another powerful idea, which I will quote from Marc’s recent Forbes interview:
“Invest a little time to save a lot of time.
How can you spend a little time right now in order to save a lot of time in the future? Think about the tasks you perform over and over throughout a work week. Is there a more efficient way? Is there a shortcut you can learn? Is there a way to automate or delegate it? Perhaps you can complete a particular task in 20 minutes, and it would take two hours to put in place a more efficient method. If that 20 minute task must be completed every day, and a two-hour fix would cut it to 5 minutes or less each time, it’s a fix well worth implementing. A simple way of doing this is to use technology to automate tasks (email filters, automatic bill payments, etc.). Also, teaching someone to help you and delegating work is another option.
Bottom line: The more you automate and delegate, the more you can get done with the same level of effort.”
10. Block out time to be in the zone.
Getting in the zone quickly is one of the most important habits for highly effective workers. If you can get your important work done early and efficiently, it leaves you time to relax or to test out new, creative ideas.
Getting in your zone can start with leveraging tip #5, motivational triggers. If you can use triggers to help you get into the zone quicker, then you’ll get more done each day. The next step, and one that’s maybe even harder, is doing the right things when you’re in the zone. And that means not allowing any distractions to get in your way. To this point, I will again quote Marc, from his recent Forbes interview:
“Anyone who wants to achieve their goals needs to do two key things. First, focus on the right things, and second, be ruthless about eliminating all distractions.
Several research studies have shown that people never get more done by blindly working more hours on everything that comes up. Instead, they get more done when they follow careful plans that measure and track key priorities and milestones. So if you want to be more successful and less stressed, don’t ask how to make something more efficient until you’ve first asked, “Do I need to do this at all?” Simply being able to do something well does not make it the right thing to do. I think this is one of the most common problems with a lot of time-management advice; too often productivity gurus focus on how to do things quickly, but the vast majority of things people do quickly should not be done at all.
Once you know you’re actually working on the right things, eliminating all distractions for a set time while you work is one of the most effective ways to get things done. So, lock your door, put a sign up, turn off your phone, close your email application, disconnect your internet connection, etc. You can’t remain in hiding forever, but you can be twice as productive while you are. Do whatever it takes to create a quiet, distraction free environment where you can focus on your work.” (Marc and Angel discuss this in more detail in the “Productivity” chapter of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)
Please don’t try to work on all 10 of these ideas at once. Check in with your gut and notice which one spoke to you the most. Maybe it’s the one that scares or excites you the most. That’s probably the one that will be of the most benefit to you right now.
The next step is to make this one idea actionable. Write down the first three steps you are going to take to make it happen. Then pick the first step and write down when and how you’re going to do it, and schedule it.
Just to make it really concrete: What is your first step? When will you do this first step? How will you do it?
For example, if you want to get yourself in the zone quicker in the morning, your first step may be to write a list of three distractions that you want to try to eliminate. Then pick the most distracting one and envision how you will solve this distraction.
So if people interrupt you all day long and it pulls you out of the zone, then you need to find a block of time to get in the zone. Maybe the first step is signaling to your co-workers that you need time to focus. You could put headphones on from 9am – 11am everyday. Or perhaps you could add a little message to the footer of your emails and a quick sentence on your voicemail about working on an important project every day until 11am. This is your time to get in the zone. Own it.
I’m curious… Which idea above resonates with you the most? What other ideas would you add to the list? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts. I promise to read it.
Author Bio: Karl Staib is a career strategist and speaker who helps people level up their careers! You should check out his free Unlock Your Career Passions eCourse so you can build the career of your dreams.
Photo by: Chris Owens