We just celebrated Labor Day, a tribute to the contributions that U.S. employees make to the workforce. On the Tuesday afterwards, I asked a number of folks what they did over the long weekend. Some said they spent time with family or enjoyed the outdoors. But others talked about how they used the time to catch up on their work.
I asked if anyone had actually caught up, and of course, no one had.
With the advent of enhanced technology and our 24/7 culture, it is becoming increasingly difficult for employees to ever feel they have all their work done. In fact, as Tony Schwartz, Jean Gomes and Catherine McCarthy note in their book, “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working,” today’s work ethic of “more, bigger, faster” creates a trap for many in the global economy. Technology can create efficiencies but also overwhelm us and sap our creativity.
“We have more customers and clients to please,” they point out. “We have more e-mails to answer, more phone calls to return, more tasks to juggle, more meetings to attend, more places to go, and more hours we must work to avoid falling further behind.”
Rather than worrying about whether we have caught up, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy, we can try some of the following activities to restore ourselves and feel better about what we are accomplishing:
Let it go. Acknowledge that we can’t do it all, and that some things might not get done. If we keep telling ourselves we will get totally caught up, we may overly stress ourselves out. I’m not saying give up. We just need to be realistic.
Sleep. More and more research is coming out illustrating the importance of sleep in our lives. We need to refresh and renew ourselves so we can perform at peak levels when it matters.
Enjoy a little recess. Taking breaks throughout the day can help a person recharge. At least once every morning and afternoon, get up every and walk around without your cell phone attached to you. Give your mind a stretch break.
Call the pros. Are there things you can outsource so you don’t feel as overwhelmed? Can you learn stress or time management techniques? Can you give some of your least favorite activities (such as housecleaning) to others so you are saving your time for things you enjoy doing?
Lean on your team. Maybe you don’t have the training or resources you need to be successful at work. If there are things you don’t understand, get help from colleagues or mentors. Figure out what roadblocks you have in front of you, and build a support network to help you navigate around these.
Get focused. Prioritize the one or two most important things you need to accomplish each day. Then make sure those things get done. As Steven Covey points out in his book, “First Things First,” we should consider whether tasks are urgent and/or important. Focus on the urgent, important items first, followed by the important but not urgent. If time permits, we can tackle the urgent but not important items or the issues that are neither urgent nor important.
Just say no. While tough to do at work, it is necessary to set boundaries. We can’t possibly do all the things we are asked to do, so sometimes we must say no. Pushing back on what is on our plates may be one thing that can help us the most in feeling caught up.
Celebrate wins. Give yourself a reward for accomplishing a goal. For example, I have talked to employees who treat themselves to a break to listen to music or read a book or go shopping when they meet a goal. Others take themselves out to a nice dinner or get some dessert.
One and done. Try to review e-mails and other messages only once. Instead of reading a message several times, try to take action the first time you read it — whether this means responding to it, flagging it for follow-up or deleting it. Avoid the trap of reviewing e-mails all day long.
Clear your schedule. Set aside a catch up day or week where you can cut back on your regular work to get as caught up as you can on things that stress you. You will feel like you are more in control of your work when you remove the heaviest items from your checklist.
Getting caught up completely will always be elusive, even on Labor Day. So next holiday, resist the urge to check your in box or sneak into the office. Instead, try opening a good book, exploring the outdoors or visiting relatives. You earned it.
Joyce E. A. Russell is the vice dean and 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 and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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