When I coach executives on work-life balance I start by asking one simple question: What would you do if you had an extra hour in the day?
Hundreds of people have answered this. No one has ever answered ‘work’. Not one. Some have said ‘exercise’ or ‘spend more time with my family’. The majority just laugh and say:
We talk about all the reasons why they don’t get enough sleep, what they are doing when they should be going to sleep, what keeps them awake at night and why they feel exhausted.
Here’s a typical case
Miranda has two young children and works full time. Her children are her greatest source of joy and motivation. They make her tired, but not in a way she can’t cope with.
Is her work the problem?
Actually, no. She is proud of what she has achieved in her career and has a supportive manager and a great team around her. Her problem is not her work, but how she works.
Miranda works extremely hard and is busy all day but struggles to get her important work done: projects that she is appraised on.
Her problem? She’s a slave to her inbox.
It dictates her priorities, not the other way around. She starts her day responding to emails, she gets responses to them, and her precious time is hijacked by other people’s demands.
She likes to please people, grateful for having a role that allows her to work flexibly and feeling she should be constantly available to prove that she is still committed despite having personal priorities.
How she manages her emails has created another layer of work on top of her real work. Her own priorities get postponed until later in the day. She starts them at 3pm, sometimes later, when her energy and cognition levels are dipping. Child-care permitting, she stays later than everyone else to get her work done. Or, she rushes to collect the children, feeling stressed and frustrated. Either way, she will be logging on when her children go to sleep in order to finish.
You know the rest: late nights, no down-time, no digital sunset, 4 am phone checking, waking up feeling exhausted.
Does this sound familiar?
Here’s some fixes:
Check your emails early in the morning or on your commute, then switch it off and work on your priority tasks, uninterrupted. Tell people to call you if something urgent crops up.
Block out time in your diary for tasks as well as meetings; let everyone know what you are up to. Schedule a location too, if you need to move to a quiet office to avoid interruptions.
If you write emails at the weekend, delay sending them until Monday morning. Otherwise you are setting up a habit for people to expect you to be online 24/7.
Signpost when you are available to your team so they don’t interrupt you. ‘Let’s have a catch-up at 3pm so I can answer any queries.’ Would scheduled 1:1 meetings save you time in the long run?
Just because a client has emailed you doesn’t mean they expect you to respond NOW. Acknowledge the email, telling them when you will send a full response.
Change your office policy on holiday emails. Increasingly corporates are sending out of office responses to say that all emails will be deleted as X is on holiday, so please resend your email on X date. Inevitably, people will have solved the problem by then.
Use your email system properly by setting up filters and folders, so emails don’t all go straight to your inbox.
Phone people. Walk to their desk. Talk to them. Email is not for building relationships or thinking through problems. Get out of the habit of making it your standard form of communication.
Get clarity on your personal objectives and what’s realistic to achieve each day. Don’t confuse efficient inbox management with doing great work.
Imagine doing some deep thinking at work, uninterrupted by the bing of new emails. How long has it been since you’ve had that luxury? Working effectively is a crucial aspect of our wellbeing. It gives a sense of achievement, autonomy and purpose.
Digital emancipation is do-able, even if we start with chunks of an hour or two each day. What difference would it make in your organisation if people could actually focus on their most important tasks?
Zena Everett is a London-based motivational speaker, executive coach specialising in career confidence, work goals productivity and performance issues. Her book - Mind Flip - is a must-read career manual for anyone looking to change jobs, achieve promotion or find more fulfilling work. Written for all career stages from Graduate to Granddad, including Mum Returners, disabled workers, over 50s, women in business and the new self-employed, it is the culmination of Zena's many years of working in recruitment and career coaching. Mind Flipping is to flip your focus away from yourself and instead look outwards - on to the value you add and the problems you, uniquely, can solve for other people. Graham Norton believes that this philosophy will help you transform the way you look at your career - for ever! The book provides you with everything you need to fire up your career, including a foreword by the DeeDee Doke, Editor of Recruiter Magazine, on the future of recruitment and talent management.