Spring Cleaning: Take Inventory of Your Professional Habits

How well do you feel you manage your time and energy? There’s a good chance that as you advance – in life, your career, and age – your responsibilities only grow more numerous and significant. And that’s great! It is, after all, what most of us want. However, time is finite and growing demands often outweigh our capacity to meet them.

If you feel overwhelmed, it may be time for a little Spring cleaning. It’s important to step back every once in a while and take inventory of our professional habits. What should stay and what should go? Is more really better, or is less truly more?

Manage Your Energy
Tony Schwartz, CEO and founder of The Energy Project, says, “The ethic of more, bigger, faster generates value that is narrow, shallow, and short-term. More and more, paradoxically, leads to less and less.”

As responsibilities grow, time and energy shrink. But there’s an important distinction between these two constructs. While time is finite, energy is renewable. We can’t make more time, but we have a hand in controlling our energy levels. Schwartz notes that while “most large organizations invest in developing employees’ skills, knowledge, and competence,” ironically, “very few help build and sustain their capacity – their energy.

A Habit to Keep: Systematic Scheduling
One way to manage your flow of energy is by developing a systematic schedule. Sit down, consider your to-do list, and create a plan for yourself – a “road map” to check in on at the start and end of each day/week. Which tasks are of the highest priority? Are you required to complete specific tasks by a certain time? Write all this down, or even write and send it to yourself in an email. Just the act of getting it all out on paper can help you focus more effectively.

Next, think about when you are at your best. Are you someone who does their best work in the early morning? If so, create your “road map” the night before so you can jump right into work the next day. If you’re a night owl, take your meetings in the morning, and dedicate afternoons and evenings to more critical work.

Give yourself limits and deadlines to work within. Our brain’s love structure. Deadlines help keep you away from mindless scrolling, click-bait articles, daydreams, and plain old procrastination. This kind of scheduling usually means dedicating less time but more energy to work. For example, you might decide to work in four 90-minute increments per day with 15 minutes downtime in between. During your free 15 minutes, take a walk, listen to music, or simply rest. It’s important to do something to take your mind off the task at hand.

Feel free to experiment until you find the best routine for you. It’s taken me years to tailor my unique schedule. I got there by watching how, where, and when I was most energized, journaling the results, and designing my days around that information.

Commit to a daily shutdown. Try saying, typing out, or mindfully thinking, “I’m shutting down for the day. I’ll pick up again tomorrow,” or a version of that. Naturally, your mind will bounce back to your to-do list – at least when you first start this practice – but each time it does, gently remind yourself that you’re in shutdown mode.

A Habit to Lose: Addiction to Distraction
Certain habits drain your energy and reduce your ability to deliver. Addiction to distraction is something you need less of in your life. Most of us know we should make an effort to distance ourselves from social media, but that’s not the only distraction we face.

Distraction can disguise itself as work – repeatedly checking and re-checking your emails, scouring your website analytics, even “researching” relevant news. As Schwartz says, we have a tendency to “surf [ourselves] into a stupor.” If you ask yourself whether or not a task is valuable and the answer is no, the next question is, “What could [you] be doing that would feel more productive, satisfying, or relaxing?”

We crave constant stimulation, especially from the internet, but this exhausts our working memory. Schwartz says that as we reach cognitive overload, “our ability to transfer learning to long-term memory significantly deteriorates.” He compares the brain to a cup of water; once it‘s full, any additional water spills out.

A Habit to Build: Adapt a Framework
Cal Newport, professor and author of Deep Work, suggests working in a 4-part framework – a method that seems to be inspired by the Eisenhower-Matrix (Urgent-Important).

  1. “Focus on the wildly important:” This first part is relatively simple. It suggests you focus on fewer goals of more importance. If you feel like this is impossible, think about ways to delegate work to those who may be excited or energized by the prospect, and delay certain priorities to focus more on the now.
  2. “Act on lead measures:” According to Newport’s framework, you can measure your “deep work” with two metrics – lag measures and lead measures. Lag refers to your output. For example, you completed X amount of outstanding projects. Lead measures, which Newport believes should be your focus, include “time spent in a state of deep work dedicated toward your wildly important goals.” The key is to find a way to measure the activities that help you focus on your most critical work.
  3. “Keep a compelling scoreboard:” This requires you to track your progress in a visible way – anything from post-it notes to notes on your calendar. Anything that works for you and is something you can see.
  4. “Create a cadence of accountability:” Regularly review the progress you’ve made toward completing your wildly important goals. I suggest a more regular cadence at first, weekly or monthly until you get into a rhythm. If there’s someone else in your life who is trying to maximize their time doing meaningful work, use them as a check-in partner. You’ll be amazed at the insights they can offer!

Less is More!
The truth is, we have limited time, discipline, and energy. Fortunately, we can manage (and restore) our energy. If you’re in the middle of Spring cleaning – taking inventory of professional habits and aligning the way you invest time and energy with your goals – Meddlers can help. Sometimes, less is more.