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Coming Up for Air

It's time to stop letting your to-do list be the boss of you.



We all have different working styles—some of us thrive in varied days surrounded by people, while others prefer to hunker down in seclusion alone or with a small team. But no matter how diverse our jobs and personalities, when I ask my clients to describe what they want in their day that they currently don’t have, there’s one vision that seems to always seems to come up:


Time.


Spaciousness.


Just one hour when they know they won’t be interrupted, where they can put unimportant tasks aside, and dive into the big, juicy projects, thinking, and creative work that really matters.


When I ask them what this would give them, the answers are moving... sometimes to the point of tears.


“When I have this space, I am so much more capable of solving the problems that truly matter."


"I'm creative. Energized and grounded at the same time. I'm able to do my best work."


“In those moments, I literally feel like I'm doing what I'm meant to be doing.”


There’s something almost… dare I use the word sacred?... when people describe who they are in these times. They know that when they carve out space for intention and presence, they invite their best selves forward. They do their best work. They use the full power of their brains and their creativity to create things that truly matter.



“There’s something almost sacred when people describe who they are when they care out space for intention and presence in their work.”


And their intuition is backed up by research.


Here's the problem, though. Too often, a frustrating paradox occurs. As we try to clear out space for these hours of flow and focus, we set up apps, task managers and to-do lists to get us more organized and help manage our time better. But then, we look to these lists and schedules to run our lives for us.



“As we try to clear out space for flow and focus, we end up looking to apps and to-do lists to run our lives for us.”


We start listening to the inner voices that tell us our worth is directly proportional to the number of tasks we cross off these lists. (Lots more of my thoughts on this here.) We lose our wisdom, our bird's eye view, of what really matters.



Experiment: Detox


I'm just as guilty as many of my clients in letting these habits define the shape of my workday. So in January, I decided to try an experiment to put more intention and presence into my day. To try to step off the hamster wheel and feel in charge of my tasks and my time, instead of the other way around. I resolved to try a 2-week “detox diet” of sorts: to cut back on the tyranny of my to-do list and my addiction to productivity so dramatically that, when it was over, I’d return to work—and life—with a clean slate.


My aim was to minimize my workday, reduce my required productivity, down to the bare minimum required to still sustain my business.



“I resolved to try a 2-week “detox diet” of sorts: to cut back on the tyranny of my to-do list and my addiction to productivity.”


Here's how I did it: I set a timer for 1 hour to ferociously complete my essential emails and tasks (cut brutally short by necessity!) and said no to all unessential meetings and client calls. At all other times, I made myself step away from my desk, ignore my compulsion to look to my email or task manager to dictate my next task, and, instead, considered what I most felt like doing. Sometimes it was housework. Sometimes reading a novel in the middle of the day or going for a blissfully long hike. And sometimes, it was coming back to the computer to dive into the learning and creative projects (hello, writing!) I’d been trying to carve out time for for years.


If you’re as overworked as most people I work with, this probably sounds dreamy, but actually, I was pretty miserable. The experiment revealed for me all the ways the structure of my typical weekday is comfortable, even helpful. Floating without much purpose, I was reminded almost painfully of how much mission-aligned activities can be a source of meaning, energy, and purpose in our days. As my Covid blues came back full force, I saw the extent work can be a healthy break from challenges in the rest of our lives. And as I drifted from one fleeting inspiration to another (read! do dishes! read a different book! draft a blog!), I saw how much my workday can provide structure that holds me accountable to the goals that truly matter to me.



“The experiment revealed for me all the ways the structure of my typical workdays is comfortable, even helpful. But it also allowed me to break the habit of looking to my to-do lists to tell me what mattered in my day.”


But my detox experiment also had its intended impact: It allowed me to break the habit of looking to my to-do lists (and my inner voice demanding constant productivity!) to tell me what mattered in my day. It got me back in touch with the big-picture priorities, values, and goals I hold, and empowered me to prioritize those instead.


And, in turn, my days shifted from feeling heavy, packed, and tiring... to light, spacious, and energizing.



✨ Try it Yourself ✨


Curious to give this a try, but not sure you have time for a detox? Here are a few of the new practices I came away with:



1. Prioritize what matters


Matters with a capital M. One of those things is definitely YOU. What do you need to show up at your best? And, what do you need to prioritize to make progress on the most important projects ahead of you?


Once you've answered that, make a list of daily goals so tiny it would be almost embarrassing if you missed them. For me, this includes 2 minutes at the start of each workday to breathe and check in with my intuition about what’s most important; at least 3 minutes of meditation (yes, I said 3!); and 10 minutes on one of my top three most important projects for the month. If you go longer, great. If not, the impact of 3 minutes versus zero can be surprisingly transformative, and will help you build gorgeous habits.



2. Define boundaries to create spaciousness


The concept of boundaries has been hyped to death, so part of me hates to share this on my list, but the truth must be told! Here are a few rules I follow to create a sense of spaciousness while getting the same (and often more!) done:


Meeting maximums: Set daily maximums for both overall meeting time and Zoom time. If there’s really an emergency, of course you can break it. But otherwise, saying no or suggesting a shorter length, scheduling a different day, or saying “I’m at my Zoom max for that day; how about a phone call while we walk and talk” is a surprisingly welcome invitation to others to reconsider their own boundaries.


Timed blocks for the “little work”: Some people swear by slotting small, miscellaneous tasks into random windows of time between meetings and projects. But as an overarching strategy, I find it's too unbounded, and makes my mind more scattered overall.


I set a timer (most days, 60 minutes) to help me “chunk” my email/logistics/nitty gritty tasks into one or two defined windows, and damn am I productive when that clock is ticking! Collapsing these shorter tasks into a few short blocks creates spaciousness and supports me to be intentional about the big projects I want to sink into during the rest of my day: writing, developing workshops, completing courses. Everyone's job is different, so make your timer as long or as short as keeps you firing ahead. It's probably just right if you aren't quiiiite able to get to everything. 😉


"Tab Time": OK, part of me is embarrassed to share this! Am I the only one who regularly looks up to find I have 63 tabs open on my browser, with everything from interesting articles I've been forwarded, to Netflix/book/recipe recommendations, to the actual definition of synecdoche?


Well anyway, I set a daily 20-minute timer that's literally for closing tabs on my web browser! I read articles people have sent me, process any follow-up actions, and save interesting resources in their appropriate digital home. I also include any LinkedIn and miscellaneous Slack browsing in this 20 minutes. Knowing I have one, brief window dedicated to these tasks keeps me from using them as a proxy for direction-setting when I ask "what do I do next?"


Return to real life at EVERY juncture: Step away from your computer after each task or meeting. Yes. Literally. Do not pass go, do not pause to check your email (that belongs in your 60-minute work timer!) If you have a laptop, shut the screen. A desktop? Switch off the monitor. Take 5 seconds to get back into the real world and your body. What do you need? Water? A stretch?


Then, ask yourself: What's important for me to do next in this day? Try listening to your gut for a moment to take in the big picture, even if you need to then open your laptop back up to get to your to-do list or check in on Slack.



3. Expect the best in others' reactions


We blame ourselves for not being more productive, when the truth is usually that we have too much to do.


This is true for you, and whether they show it or not, it's likely true for those around you.


For those of you who work for others, I know some of these suggestions might sound a little aspirational. “Sure, I get what you’re saying, Meredith, but my clients/boss/business partner would flip if I said I'd reached my meeting quota for the day, or couldn't reply to any more emails until my timer renewed the next morning!"


I hear you.


AND.


As a coach, I can tell you one of most special—and remarkably common—moments of magic is when my clients decide to find a way to make shifts in how they’re showing up... and discover that the rest of the world rises to meet them. By experimenting graciously, with your values at the fore, you might be surprised at how much your subtle changes are a model for others.


Your boundaries may be the invitation others have been waiting for.



What other tips do you have for staying mindful and focused in your work? Share them in the comments below!

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© 2019 by Meredith Bell