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Career Coach: When work becomes a runaway train, how to put on the brakes

By Joyce E.A. Russell
Monday, August 9, 2010; 17

By Joyce E.A. Russell

Picture it: You're up late finishing a project which is due the next day and your spouse or kids ask you to watch a movie or play a game. You say, "There's no way I have time for that right now," and you look at them as if they must be crazy. How could they possibly ever think you had any free time?

After all, can't they see that you have a ton of work to do for the next day? If fact, if they just looked, they would see that you have piles of projects just sitting around waiting to be done, bills to be paid, camps to be organized for the kids, pets to be fed, laundry to fold, home repairs to make, dishes to wash, flowers to be watered, cars that need to be serviced, and the list goes on and on. "Free time?" What is that, anyway?

But, for a moment, they got you thinking -- hmm, watch a movie, play a game, have fun, that would be nice. And you wonder, why can't I do that tonight or even tomorrow or the next day? In fact, you start to wonder when you will ever be able to slow down.

Does this sound familiar?

Join the party -- it seems that many of us are feeling overwhelmed these days with so much on our plates, and time that seems to be evaporating in front of our eyes. Feeling overwhelmed, overworked, overloaded and stressed is all too common nowadays. The problem is that these feelings are actually compromising our effectiveness, productivity and efficiency. We get things done but at a cost to both the quality and quantity of work we produce, and at a cost to our physical, mental, spiritual and emotional health.

There are some things you can do to help restore balance in your life. Here are a few places to start:

Set goals

Stephen Covey, the author of "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," also wrote a book called "First Things First." In this book, he points out that you need to set goals for yourself first based on what is most important to you. For example, if your family is on top on your list and you want to make sure you have time for several vacations with family members next year, then block those times first on your calendar and keep those times sacred. Don't let anything else interfere with those times.

Similarly, if being physically fit is important to you, then schedule time for your exercise plan. I know many busy executives who work out several mornings a week (no matter how early it is) to make sure this doesn't get bumped off of their calendar for the day. If you have an assistant who does your daily scheduling, then you need to push back to make sure he/she doesn't overschedule you.

Manage the clutter

We all have clutter -- at our homes, our offices, in our closets. Having clutter around us can make us feel like we are never progressing in completing our "in box" since it looks like none of the piles ever go down.

Schedule some time to eliminate some of the clutter in your life. Being in a clean, clutter-free zone will give you some sense of peace that you have control over at least part of your environment. And try to keep it clean -- that is, don't let newspapers, magazines, letters and more accumulate. Make it a habit to get rid of things that no longer serve a useful purpose. Aim to keep at least a section of your work space or desk clear at all times. Clutter will inhibit your thinking and productivity and add to your stress.

Disconnect

Give yourself some time each day and each week when you disconnect from the demands of work. Quit checking your e-mail and turn off your BlackBerry or iPhone for a period of time. You don't need to be a constant conduit for information. Even CEOs turn off their connections each night. You need this off time for the rejuvenation of your mind and body.

Researchers tell us that a vacation with constant connections back to work does not serve as a restful break, and we come back to work even more stressed. Several executives I have coached deliberately go places where they know they can't possibly get cellphone service or are required to turn the phone off in order to have time to reflect and rest their minds.

Say NO

Perhaps the most important thing you can do for your own future health and well-being is to say no to demands placed upon you. Remember, when you say no, you're turning down a request, not a person. There are several ways to say no effectively -- I'll go into detail on this next week.

Ask for help

Finally, don't be afraid to ask for help. Don't suffer in silence. Often, your co-workers, family members and friends would be happy to help if they only knew that you needed it. Ask for their help before it gets to the point at which you have a meltdown.

Dr. Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.

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