Prioritizing Beyond Work

To keep work in its place, envision your priorities holistically

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Our lives are inundated with people selling us ways to be as productive as possible. Planners, podcasts, and life coaches often have the same message: you, too, can be a veritable machine of productivity, and we’ll teach you how for this low price.

They’re not lying. There are, indeed, better and worse ways to organize ourselves, and there are very different ways we should approach each day depending on our inner workings. 

But what worries me is that, as this pandemic has taught us, work can be ceaseless in a world undefined by the office. In other words, when we can (and have to) work from home, we must develop sharp boundaries around when work begins and ends, and what we give of ourselves to our careers each day.

In many way, as a society we still think of work in terms of the kind of factory shift that was created by and for the industrial revolution. That way of thinking about work defines it as continuous if finite — as having to be in one place making the widget — and endlessly replicable within that time frame (meaning that the time between when I punch in and punch out is the right amount of time, with breaks, for me to press the button that makes the widget over and over without loss of quality control).

However, very few of us do that sort of shift work anymore. In my case, I am a professor and I am a writer. Both are jobs that require little physical energy, but tons of mental energy. My mental acuity, meanwhile, is finite. I have only so much mental energy that I can give to grading, or writing, or revising. When that’s sapped, it’s sapped. Yes, I can do less mentally strenuous activities after that (like organizing my files or cleaning my office), but there’s not a ton of activities I do that don’t tax my little grey cells. 

My point is that, many of us approach our planner or to-do list as if it were all encompassing. We write down everything we need to get done, and then we start going down the list, adding to it as things come up. And because we’ve got this ingrained sense of work as shift-work, as a set time in which we work or do not work irrespective of what we actually have to get done (as the list is endless), we try to do as much as possible in those eight hours (or more) that we’re at work. Now, take away the physical boundary of going to and leaving from work, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster: your external demarcations of your shift beginning and ending are erased, and your shift can become endless.

So how do we combat this work creep?

For me, the pandemic made me redefine my own boundaries around work. It’s made me think a lot harder about what I need to do versus what I think I should do. I have that Calvinistic urge to prove my self-worth through the appearance that I’m so busy, but in actual fact, my best work is done with a fresh mind. That requires smarter planning of when and how I work, not how much I work. The papers I grade or the paragraph I write after 7 1/2 hours of nonstop work are NOT well-written or well-graded. In fact, I’m better off doing four hours of really intense work a day, and doing things that refresh me for the rest of that day. That doesn’t mean bonbons or bubble baths for four hours, but it does mean putting aside the computer and reading articles, listening to lectures, catching up with colleagues, etc. 

One way to look at this equation is that I have to put something in for everything I take out. I have to refill the well. 

So now when I think of planning my work, I try to do it holistically. I look at my month, and I think: What do I need to do THIS month? Then I look at my week. What do I need to do THIS week? Same with my day. The trick is not to let what I can do next week creep into this week. I want blank squares in my planner, to use for restorative activities: a block of time to read; a block to watch that lecture on pedagogy I’ve been meaning to get to; a block to have coffee with that friend who is doing that thing I find interesting. 

I also make sure to give myself time to exercise, to rest, to play, to volunteer. These are priorities. They make the quality of my work better. They make me a better writer and they make me a more balanced person, so that I can interact from a place of calm and patience with my students and colleagues. They are not indulgences.

Repeat after me, if you need to: Exercise, rest, play, and service to your greater community are priorities. They also refill the well.

Some weeks are busier than other weeks, of course. And some weeks, I don’t have a ton to do. No matter what my week looks like, however, I schedule in all of my priorities, including REST and REFILLING THE WELL. 

So as you plan your day today, think about what you really need to do. Not should do, but need to do. Then stare at the list and cross off whatever looks fishy.

And make sure to write in at least one or two of the following, each day: take a walk, take a nap, go to the gym, read a book, listen to a podcast, make a nice lunch, call a friend, go get a coffee, do a spot of gardening, or whatever else floats your boat. Better yet, make these rewards for getting something Big and Daunting done: “I get to garden for 30 minutes if I grade these 4 papers.” “I get to walk over to the café and get a coffee if I start this project and work on it for 40 minutes.” Bribery works!

The fact is that we are not robots. Even people who actually do shift work need to decompress during their shifts, and have time built in to do so (or at least they do if they have a good union). For those of us struggling in this new world of work-from-home (and who probably struggled with work creep before now, if we’re honest), we have to be our own union. Advocate for your rest, for your refilling of the well. Recognize that you are a whole person who needs to NOT work a lot of the time. And if you discover you have a job that genuinely requires you work 24–7, that might require a re-think of career.

What I’ve discovered is, now that I’m not pretending to be busy all the time, I get the same amount of real work done, and the quality of that work is better. I’m just a lot healthier, happier, and nicer to be around while I’m at it. 

So try prioritizing yourself and see how much better your work, and life, can be.

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