You don’t have to work like a drudge to progress your career. Penny Fray discovers the art of just doing the important stuff
Do you often fall into bed exhausted at the end of an impossibly busy day?
Perhaps you got a lot done. But is it stuff that really matters? Or is it just stuff?
That’s the question that I had to ask myself recently after a friend bought me a book about the power of doing less. It seems that I was needlessly sacrificing my social life and sanity trying to clear endless to-do lists instead of doing the smart thing of just saying ‘no’.
Before I knew it I had created some diary space to enjoy the moment and be creative. This didn’t last long, of course. Within a week, a snake had entered my paradise and it was called guilt. I couldn’t help but associate doing less with being lazy or not being a team player. As far as I was concerned, leaving the office on time was wrong if others had to stay late.
I’m not alone here. According to studies, peer pressure is often to blame for our growing compulsion to work around the clock. Last year the Department for Business Innovation and Skills’ work-life balance survey revealed that 71 per cent of employees cited ‘workload demands’ as their main motive for working overtime. Other reasons included staff shortages, the expectations of their boss and the guilt that they might be doing less than their colleagues.
Guilt is an incredibly effective driver; a 2010 university study showed that women feel guilt more intensely than men. So if our colleagues are working on weekends, we’re more likely to.
So how do you break the cycle?
“Any time you have a guilty moment, write down exactly what it’s about, why it occurred, and who’s involved,” says project manager and writer Fergus O’Connell. “Then see what kinds of patterns emerge from this. Are there always certain people involved? Are there certain situations when guilt occurs? Try to understand why these patterns are happening and figure out things you can do to stop them.”
Change is important if you want great swathes of leisure periods opening up to you. You will have to be in control of time rather than being a slave to it – because if we’re honest there’s a choice to do or not to do.
“Just think about this for a few moments,” suggests O’Connell. “A new you is at work doing an outstanding job and still having a life. That life will be full of the riches that you’ve always wanted – the people, the ambitions and hopes and dreams that you have. And you know, you might end up actually prolonging your life.”
It might not sound like much but experts warn that even minor tasks like firing off emails could have negative effects on your wellbeing, as our minds are never fully disengaged from our day job.
Professor Cary Cooper, who has studied the effects of overwork on the human body, says that in an ideal world no one should work more than 48 hours a week. His research has found the stress of permanently being ‘on’ can impair your immune system leading to more frequent colds and flu, stomach problems such as irritable bowel syndrome and even depression.
“We should monitor our overtime in the same way we monitor our calorie intake, because overindulging can be just as damaging,” he explains. A study by the European Heart Journal found that employees who worked 10 or 11-hour days, instead of the standard eight, had a 60 per cent higher risk of heart disease, as a result of having less time to exercise, relax and unwind.
“If you don’t invest in the people in your home, then things will go wrong there and that unhappiness feeds back into your work, making you feel less effective and secure at work. It’s a vicious cycle,” concludes Cooper.
So how do we regain control? The short answer is to simply stop doing. According to O’Connell, you need to learn to say no, ditch the guilt, prioritise, down tools and just do the things that really matter to you.
“With the rubbish out of the way, you should be in a pretty good position to do the right stuff with a clear mind. Even if they’re huge, every journey begins with a single step. Petit a petit, as the French say – little by little. Now it’s time to get started.”
You may be in a job where you have to say ‘yes’ most of the time. But you’ll find the world won’t stop turning if you occasionally say ‘no’ – in fact, you may even feel less stressed and much happier if you do. Scared? Experts suggest making a game of it. For instance, decline every second irrelevant request that shoots your way, even if it comes straight from the boss. You can choose to go for it or not. If you succeed and save time as a result, why not reward yourself with the weekend off?
WHAT THE EXPERT SAYS:
“Overloaded? Ask yourself whether you really feel burdened by your workload or whether it’s about perception; are you trying to get noticed by your boss or distract yourself from a personal problem? Maybe you’ve got into the habit of working long hours. It’s not easy to break bad habits so ease your way in. If you drop by the office every Saturday then promise yourself you’ll only do it once a month or that you’ll only look at your emails four times a day instead of every 15 minutes.” Dr Roopa Koshy, Consultant Psychologist at Top Medical Care, Muscat.
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