I’m trying to achieve success at work, and you can too! For the next 5 weeks, I’ll be running a #SuccessAtWork challenge on this blog. Each week’s challenge will follow one of the 7 disciplines I highlight in my new ebook, What the Most Successful People Do at Work. If you’re participating, please let me know in the comments, or on Twitter.
Anandi (who blogs at House of Peanut, and comments here as ARC) worked for years at Microsoft. When her husband landed his dream job recently, though, she decided it was time to become the primary parent at home with their two young girls.
The trouble? Switching to life as a quasi SAHM (she plans to consult a few hours a week) presented some challenges in terms of mindset. At Microsoft, projects had progress metrics and timelines. Three-year-olds and babies don’t work that way. Likewise, since Anandi doesn’t consider herself retired — she’s keeping a hand in, and will go back to work at some point — she was trying to figure out how best to use the down time she had well. “Wrangling 2 kids for 10+ hours a day makes me want to just vegetate in front of the computer when they’re napping or asleep, and then I feel guilty for wasting all that time when I could be finding work, maintaining my network, updating LinkedIn,etc.”
Then there was that other temptation of being at home: housework. “I also need to figure out (and timebox) stuff like laundry and dishes, or I find that I’m doing bits and pieces of them all day, when really I don’t need to. It’s just that they’re THERE and so visible and obvious, that it seems like a natural thing to do.”
So she asked me what I thought. She sent me her time log, which showed a few things. First, she’d figured out one of the big secrets of not going crazy at home with the kids, namely scheduling “Big Outings” a few times a week. She was also getting a fair amount of time to do crafty stuff (check out her Etsy store!). Indeed, the only thing that seemed to be contributing to her statement that “the transition to staying at home has actually been harder than I expected” was the mismatch between her expectations and reality — a mismatch hardly unique to Anandi, or to stay-at-home parenthood, for that matter.
In Anandi’s case, I suggested taking things week by week, and making a (short!) weekly list of activities beyond life maintenance that she wanted to accomplish. An example of a week’s list could be a few scrapbook pages or another craft project, updating LinkedIn, having coffee with a former colleague, and doing a major stock-up grocery trip. That’s it. She could look at what time she had available — while the kids were sleeping, in school, or with her husband — and block those activities in, with a back-up slot. She could do them at the appointed time (if possible), and then surf the web completely guilt free at all other points. Then the next week, she could make another similar list. Then she could repeat. There’s only so much you’re going to get done if you’re taking care of small kids. Even if they sleep a lot, you only have so much energy. But if you do a few things each week, you will feel like you’re getting stuff done. It’s all about progress.
That’s the crux of the third discipline in What the Most Successful People Do at Work. Years ago, when I first started writing about time management, I sort of assumed that people who accomplished a lot had really long to-do lists. Then I started interviewing such people, and realized that many actually aimed to make their lists as short as possible. Chalene Johnson, the Turbo Jam fitness personality I profile in my ebook, puts 6 things on her list per day. Three of those items are steps toward a big, year-long goal, and the others are things that have to get done that day. That’s it. But she holds herself accountable for all 6 things. And if you do 6 things that matter, without fail, eventually it starts to add up. Six things per day is 30 per week. That’s 1500 in a 50-week work year. That’s a lot! Or in Anandi’s case, 5 things a week is 250 in a year. That’s a lot of professional seeds planted and projects done.
When you put a million things on your list — whether you’re in a regular job, or caregiving — you simply can’t finish them all. That makes your to-do list problematic. It becomes a source of frustration and failure in your life. And beyond that, you start to think of everything on the list as negotiable. After all, if you can’t get a million things done, then the list is meaningless. You’re still picking and choosing. You may as well surf the web. Then you feel bad.
A short list, on the other hand, can become more like a contract with yourself. You choose what goes on it carefully. And when it all gets done, you feel like you’re making progress. Progress is actually the key to happiness at work, as Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer discovered in their study of 12,000 work diary entries (which they wrote about in The Progress Principle). It’s also the key to happiness at home.
So what did Anandi think? “I love the idea of a weekly list,” she wrote me. “Setting up a daily one has been a bit overwhelming, so I’m focusing now on just the one thing I need to do that day.” One thing is doable. And when something’s doable, it gets done. And then you move on, facing each day feeling victorious, rather than inadequate.
This week’s challenge: Limit your to-do list. For each day, set a limited number of objectives (let’s say fewer than 10), and commit to doing them all. How does it feel when you succeed?
You can keep a running pseudo-to-do list for things that occur to you, but that you aren’t committing to do that day. Devotees of David Allen call this the “someday/maybe” list. I have my “soon pile” and my “idea pile.” Keep your daily list separate from these. The daily list is a contract. The “someday” pile is not.
How many items are on your to-do list?
Photo courtesy flickr user JogiBaer2. Your to-do list should fit on just one post-it note, not a stack this large.