A Simple Solution to the “I Work All the Time” Stress

Last night at 10:30 p.m., I replied from home to an email from a client, who was responding to my 7:15 p.m. email, which I sent from my office. The same client asked a question yesterday morning that required a couple of hours of analysis and ad hoc reporting. So, his top priority immediately became my new top priority.

Sound like your work day? Interruptions, urgent requests and the buck stops with you?

From a practical standpoint, it’s a wonder this blog post is getting written. Not only does my company work with a dozen clients, but there have been 10 emails so far this morning from clients or vendors working on client projects, all requiring my time. And since I run a service business, each has received an immediate response, and in some cases, action.

However, this guest blog post is the No. 1 project on my to-do list today. It’s the project that I WANT to do, and so it has priority. That means it will get accomplished today. Yesterday, I finished my tax preparation. And Monday I did a very detailed, well-researched report and analysis of a social media campaign.

Obviously, it’s not that I have only one thing to do. It’s that I am finally making time for what’s important, and prioritizing MY objectives along with the urgent tasks that pop up.

“The Only Time Management Tip That’s Worked for Me”
That was the headline from Paul B. Brown’s blog post on Inc., and it certainly got my attention. Haven’t we all tried touching a piece of paper only once? Or cleaning off our desk every day? Or labeling a pile of folders to allocate projects across a calendar month of imagined empty time? We’re eager to improve our own performance, and just like we want to read the latest, most innovative new business books, we want try the next big thing that comes along.

So my current strategy of crossing off projects one at a time, with a single Post-it® of things I want to work on, is pulled entirely from this one blog post from the best-selling author Paul B. Brown, author of “Own Your Future”. It’s very similar to Jim Collins’ story about the 20 mile march, where consistent effort over time achieves the difficult objective. But what I love about this is the simplicity. And the fact I don’t have to read another business book!

Another article that grabbed my attention was an HBR blog post titled, “Unpredictable Work Hours Are Stressing Too Many People Out,” by Morra Aarons-Mele. Now that I am definitely, undeniably middle-aged, the fact of daily stress (I’m up to 130 emails a day) should be a health concern.

The most relevant example to me were the employees at the Boston Consulting Group, who underestimated the time they spent working on any given day by 30 percent. “When consultants woke up in the morning, they literally had no idea how many hours they would be putting in that day.” So, hoping that today would be different, they probably estimated 9 hours and put in 12.

As a self-employed marketing consultant, I could easily make that mistake. Urgent tasks never stop coming.

Your Unpredictable Hours Kill Time Management, Too
I’ve worked closely with lots of different companies, both small and midsized. And I recognize the stress you’re working under–the pressure of quarterly performance measures, difficult board members, or the frustration surrounding an inability to communicate a clear vision of where the company can go, when employees don’t feel like part of a whole team, or you’re missing a key player. But we employers can also create the same kind of stress for employees who have even less control over their time.

High income or low income, I believe we all take satisfaction from a job well done, and that there’s a benefit to attitude and mental health from accomplishing a task. For your employees, you have a great opportunity to build up the team and lead more effectively by recognizing and appreciating good work. That will lead to more job satisfaction which, in turn, has the dividend of client satisfaction.

Leading from the front may be the most important thing you can do for your business. To do that more myself, I’m committing to two things: helping my people grow by sharing more management responsibility and by outsourcing some “essential functions” that I have always been responsible for. This new method of creating a solvable problem for myself every day is creating more balance. In a few weeks, we’re taking a vacation…the first one in more than 10 years. That’s an important activity that was always put off because work was more urgent. Doesn’t it seem like the sort of personal priority you want on your list?