"And what happens if you just leave?" I remember my business coach asking one afternoon when I felt particularly overwhelmed. "Won't you be able to do your job better if you take some time to care for yourself?"
I looked around me at the piles of work on my desk - the emails to be answered, proposals to be written, work to be reviewed and delivered to clients, and I felt tears of frustration threatening to spill over. "I don't think you understand," I told her. "I have work to do."
She paused and let me really hear my words - the same words that I had been saying in one form or another for weeks on end. Although I was working long, hard days, was it really making a difference? Slowly but surely my life was being taken over by my work. I was trapped on the proverbial hamster wheel - pre-programmed to run harder, faster, better, but never realizing that there was another option. Just get off.
Wow. Even saying it felt wrong, almost like sacrilege. As Americans in particular, we are taught to value and respect hard work. Having the stamina to work 60 or 80-hour weeks is a badge of honor. Skipping vacations means that you're a dedicated and valuable employee. Missed calling your mom on her birthday because you were in conferences all day? You must be at the pinnacle of your career, right? Perhaps, but in reality I've come to see that my coach was right. While we all have responsibilities, finishing every single thing on our list was never the point. Going through life in a constant state of overwhelm is more of a story that we tell ourselves than a productive and healthy way of being.
On that day in my office I realized that it was time for me to make some changes.
The reality of my situation was, like most of ours, that the work would never actually all be done. It's like all the things you have to do are constantly being poured into a magical bucket, and there is no way you can empty this bucket faster than it's filling. And I started realizing that maybe, just maybe, ending up with an empty bucket was never really the point.
My coach told me that to her, the constant influx of work and tasks isn't like a bucket at all, but like a Tibetan prayer wheel. Each turn of the wheel represents a new prayer mantra, and in her analogy your to-do list is kind of like those mantras. There is no beginning and no end, just new tasks coming and going with every spin.
It's beautiful and meditative, and when you take this perspective, it's not so much about "getting it done", which is impossible on a wheel anyway. Instead, it becomes about finding a rhythm, creating priorities, and allowing yourself to add fun tasks onto your list (go for a walk, play with the kids, take my wife to the movies...), because not only are work-related tasks not the only important ones, they are never the most important ones.
So, how can you heed this advice and still be a productive employee or business owner? My coach and I came up with a simple three-step process that I still use today, and the more I do this the more I'm seeing profits rise and stress fall away. It really doesn't have to be hard:
1. Your important list has to fit on the back of a business card. Yes, your actual to-do list may have tens or hundreds of items on it, but your "must do" list should follow the guidelines that Napoleon Hill created more than 100 years ago: you have to be able to write it on an index card (or ideally, the back of a business card). This ensures that the tasks that are really critically important are noted in a clear and concise way- boiled right down to their essence. These are the things that you truly do have to get done, or at least make significant progress on, in order to achieve your goals, and this is where you need to focus your attention.
2. Eat your frog. Mark Twain said that if you have to eat a frog you may as well get it over with, and if you have to eat two frogs, you should go ahead and eat the bigger one first. If there is something you'd rather not deal with - a situation you're avoiding or a phone call you don't want to make - get it out of the way first so that you can focus on things that truly matter.
3. Set a time limit and stick to it. As soon as you truly accept that you physically cannot finish everything on your list, you have to make a deal with yourself that you get to leave the office at a pre-determined time. Ideally you will go and do something that rewards you - a yoga class, meeting a friend for a drink, or in my case, going to ride my horse. It's too easy to think that our "personal to-do's" are somehow less important than "work things" but I've come to see that this simply isn't so. We need to nourish that other part of ourselves in order to do our best work, so consider it an investment in tomorrow's productivity.
In fact, as I've followed these simple steps I've found that I'm more productive, more innovative while at work, and much less likely to feel overwhelmed and out of balance. Walking away took some courage, especially the first time, but now I don't just do it at the end of the day. Sometimes I go out and do a lunchtime Pilates class. Other times I take my daughter out to lunch, "just because."
As I get better and better at walking away, my business has been thriving more and more and people aren't shunning me. Instead they want to "know my secret."
The irony of that is that it couldn't be simpler - just step off the wheel and into the life you're consciously designing for yourself.
This blogger graduated from Goldman Sachs' 10,000 Small Businesses program. Goldman Sachs is a partner of the What Is Working: Small Businesses section.