People today are being asked to take on additional responsibilities, handle new projects, and do more with less. Schedules are tighter than ever. Customers demand quicker response times. More reports must be completed. And more meetings are added to your calendar. Despite working 10-hour days, plus weekends, you still feel overwhelmed. With no end in sight.
If this description hits close to home, then take this advice: schedule some downtime.
Before you dismiss the idea, here's what I mean by "downtime". It's not a vacation. A vacation requires planning, travel and spending money. Some vacations are so much work, you need time to recover afterwards.
What I mean by "downtime" is a workweek that's only 5 days long with 8-hour days. A workweek with less than half of your time spent in meetings. A workweek that includes spending time away from your desk to eat lunch in a cafeteria or a restaurant. A workweek where you leave work at the office at the end of the day. And spend time resting and enjoying life.
Impossible? A pipe dream? Not really. Remember, the advice was to schedule some downtime. Use your calendar instead of it using you. Plan ahead two or three weeks, and begin to fill out time blocks on your calendar. Add entries so others can see that you're busy. This is important if you have an online system that's visible by your coworkers and your manager.
What activities do you put on your schedule? During your downtime week, you'll want to work on important projects, catch up on your reading, reflect on your future, as well as just relax. Since these activities may not be appropriate for your calendar, you'll need to be creative with your entries.
For time dedicated to a project, schedule a small conference room for a meeting with that project as the subject. Work on your planning and tasks in the conference room, so you're not distracted by the phone or emails. Use the whiteboard to brainstorm and capture new ideas. If possible, bring along a laptop to complete any documentation.
For reading time, schedule a "meeting" with the author. For example, my calendar has meetings with Emily Dickinson, Theodore Roosevelt and Kurt Vonnegut. If you need a subject, enter "operations improvement". Remember, if you don't fill the time, someone else will.
You may think these ideas won't work. You're faced with too many important meetings, too many projects and too many deadlines. If you slow down now, you'll only get further behind, and have even more pressure to get caught up. To overcome your objections, we need to dispel a few myths and misconceptions.
Myth #1 – I'm the only one who can do this right. Sorry, nobody's indispensable. Not even you. Maybe you can do the work better than anyone else. But someone else can do it. Someone else may take longer, do it differently, or make a few errors. But they can do the work.
Myth #2 – My subordinates don't have approval authority. Many purchasing and workflow systems require certain approval levels. In most cases, you can ask for exceptions to have your supervisors or leads obtain approval authority. Getting your supervisors and leads approval authority requires some work, and isn't always easy, but it will free up valuable time on your calendar.
Myth #3 – If I don't finish this work by the deadline, I'll lose my job. In over 40 years, including my time in the military, I've never seen anyone lose their job or ruin their career by missing one deadline. Of course, I have seen people punished for not letting their boss know ahead of time that they were going to miss a deadline. Meet with your boss (no email or voice mail), and let them know when you will be finished with the project or report. Make it clear what needs to be accomplished and how long it will take.
Myth #4 – You can only get ahead in this world by putting in long hours. Are you sure? When you leave your desk at night, how many empty desks do you pass on the way out? In the hybrid world, how many people are still showing as active on MS Teams? There are people who are successful without putting in those long hours. Work harder than others. But more importantly, work smarter.
Myth #5 – I do my best work under pressure. No, you just don't plan well. And end up doing most of your work under pressure. You like being the hero (or worse, the martyr), and all the attention you receive when you resolve a manufactured crisis. Planning ahead, starting early, taking your time and reviewing your work will always bring better results. There's no stress. And no glory. But the final product will be outstanding.
If you spend just one week a month with scheduled downtime, you'll get many benefits. First, you'll physically and mentally feel better. Your body and brain need time to relax and renew. With a clear mind and more energy, you'll perform at a higher level.
Also, you'll shatter those myths that have hampered your success. Your ego may take a hit. But you'll learn to trust others. Delegating isn't easy, but it's critical to success. By letting others do the work, you'll expand their abilities and improve the effectiveness of your unit.
Most importantly, you'll start to establish better work habits. While there are times that you'll need to put in long hours to handle a problem or genuine crisis, you don't have to do that every day. Meetings are important, but there are some that you don't need to attend. By scheduling "downtime" once a month, you'll learn to put problems in perspective.
These better habits will improve your work life. And they'll improve your life. With your new time and energy, you'll be able to concentrate on the important things – your spouse or partner, your family and friends, and your home.
So start tomorrow with a very important task – schedule some downtime.