As hard as I work every day, shouldn’t I have “arrived” by now? It’s a question that nags at you as each day, bound to a to-do list, one eye on the clock. It seems all you do is work, but you have only mediocre results to show for it. Once, you had big goals and the confidence to achieve them. Now, all you feel is tired, stressed, and overburdened.
As you go through life, you develop habits and routines that you think will help you succeed, but many of those patterns probably don’t work for you personally. What’s productive for a coworker may not work well for you, or a strategy that was effective five years ago may no longer work.
You can change habits and patterns that don’t serve you. You can become a “thriver,” someone who works hard, meets or exceeds expectations, and enjoys personal and professional success, and all with less stress.
Figure out what’s doable in a day. Make small, doable changes that would, over time, create an unstoppable momentum. You must set realistic boundaries. You must create goals that can be accomplished in the space of a day. Remember, nearly all problems, challenges, and needs are best faced if they are brought down to the scale of “what can be done right now.”
Get big things done before 9:00 a.m. Sir Isaac Newton said, “Objects in motion tend to stay in motion.” If you get a groggy, frustrating start, you’ll probably feel sluggish and behind all day. However, if you start your day with positive and productive ideas, actions, thoughts, and feelings, you’re likely to gain momentum throughout the day.
Do first, then know. Most people believe that the knowledge that something is important should make you want to do it. Not true. So, why don’t we do what we know we should do? If we know spending less time on Facebook will make us more productive, why won’t we just commit to spending an hour less on the site each day? If we know setting aside 30 minutes to walk or jog each day will make us healthier, why aren’t we jumping up off the couch right now?
You must do something to know something. If you experience positive feelings, attitudes, and results because of your action, you will learn that whatever you just did is good, and you’ll want to do it again. Over time, you’ll develop a new habit.
Own up to your junk hours. “Junk hours” are like junk food: Surfing the Web, shooting the breeze with colleagues, or checking email to avoid work may provide short-term satisfaction but will contribute to long-term imbalance and exhaustion.
You need to identify when you’re going through the motions of work, versus when real work is being done. Everybody needs to take breaks and shift gears but you must exchange your low-value activities for ones that build greater value into your workday.
Quality Time Over Quantity Time
Instead of adding to your to-do list, build a new pattern. The changes that build momentum are rooted in decisions, not additional tasks. To build a productive new pattern into your life, you usually won’t have to add new tasks to your day. Instead, you’ll simply do what you are already doing, or want to do, in a way that becomes habitual. If you want to wake up an hour earlier so that you can jump-start the day, you simply have to change the time your alarm rings and the time you go to bed. If you want to be more productive at work, replace aimless procrastination with scheduled breaks.
Remember, though, it isn’t sufficient to simply trigger the start of a new behavior. You need to make sure that you have a motivating reason to make this change, as well as the confidence and energy to sustain it so that it becomes a pattern.
Start with one thing. Then add another. Then another. Losing weight is one of the most commonly made New Year’s resolutions, and one of the most commonly abandoned. That’s because people think of losing weight as a singular change. It’s not. To lose weight, a person will need to eat healthier, eat smaller quantities, and become more physically active. That’s three changes.
Don’t take on more than you can handle. Break each goal down to its smallest components, then pick one of them to tackle. Pursue this change until it becomes a habit, then move on to the next one.
Make a big-box checklist. Maybe it’s on paper, on your smartphone, or just in your head, but you have a to-do list. It’s likely not as useful as it could be because you get stuck doing the urgent instead of the important.
Make an actual, on-paper checklist each afternoon for the following day. Put a box by each task, and with the biggest boxes for the most important tasks to complete that day.
Focus first on the big-box tasks. At the end of the day, if most of them have checkmarks, you will have focused on what’s really important.
Perspective and Prospective
Think about it so you don’t have to think about it. Everyone has tasks or obligations that that we find difficult or frustrating, and consume a lot of time. Figure out where these areas are for you and commit to learning a new pattern. Learning new patterns can be tedious and laborious, but once they’ve taken hold (often in three weeks or less) they’ll speed up your performance, streamline your effort, and lower your stress.
Infuse your work with meaning. Doing meaningful work does not mean that you will “love” it. “Meaning” can be a recognition of what you enjoy about your work. With that understanding, , you’ll be more motivated, productive, and satisfied.
Focus on what gives you the greatest joy and meaning at work; Reflect on how you are making a difference; Reflect on the meaning of your work as it relates to your core values; and then eek to increase what you enjoy. The mundane chores required of you and other unwelcome tasks will become easier to do and get completed more quickly if you focus on what you do find exciting, rewarding, or fulfilling.
Seek to serve, not shine. We all want recognition. But in many situations, the desire to shine can cause you to get in your own way. Ironically, the key to shining is putting others first. People who channel their efforts toward making others’ lives easier are nearly always respected, included, and considered valuable.
Store energy so you have it when you need it. Throughout life, circumstances arise that are beyond our control. You may experience a major illness, lose a loved one, or be forced to relocate. Occasionally you may have to work long days and go without sleep. Because of these out-of-our-hands circumstances we must focus on controlling what we can.
Know your needs and capacities and try not to exceed them on a regular basis. Get enough sleep. Eat nutritiously. Exercise when time permits. That way, when you do find yourself needing to push the limits, you’ll have a healthy margin of energy and motivation, or whatever to draw on.
Forget the future. The future can be an inspiring thing, but it can also be a scary and misleading one. Doomsday thinking can paralyze you with anxiety. Making incorrect assumptions can send you down the wrong path. Aside from setting goals for yourself, you should try not to let your mind wander into future outcomes.
Nobody can predict when or how the future unfolds. The only thing a person can do is to focus on the processes of today—and to execute them well. That’s not only going to produce personal peace, it’s the best preparation for whatever the future holds.
Forgive yesterday and work on today. Most successful, hardworking people are often hard on themselves to an unproductive level. They are their own worst critics and spend valuable time lingering on mistakes and slip-ups. Long after the event, they beat themselves up instead of spending their time in a more productive state.
Treat yourself with the same compassion and generosity you’d extend to another person who’d messed up or fallen short of a goal. Remember, nobody is perfect. We all make mistakes. What sets Thrivers apart is the fact that after a fall, they forgive themselves faster, get back up, and continue the journey forward. By making small changes in how you approach your day, you can begin to take back your to-do list and accomplish the big goals that will really help you thrive.
Andy Core is a lecturer, author, TV host, and expert in human performance and motivation. His book — “Change Your Day, Not Your Life: A Realistic Guide to Sustained Motivation, More Productivity, and the Art of Working Well” — is available at bookstores nationwide, from online booksellers, and from the publisher at 800-225-5945. In Canada, call 800-567-4797. For more information, please visit www.andycore.com.