There’s a surprising amount of joy found in crossing off a task on your to-do list. Unfortunately, what with the daily bombardment of emails and the persistent distraction of phone calls, I often have days where I don’t manage to tick a single thing off my hurriedly scribbled list; I only add to it. I then spend all evening worrying about looming deadlines and feeling bad that I haven’t pulled out the laptop and caught up on some work. And while we might all need to do that now and then, as my very wise editor (and life coach) tells me, it’s not a healthy or sustainable way to live. I love my job.
So what do we do if we think our work is great, but are not often able to actually say ‘I’ve had a great day at work!’? I wanted to go home feeling brilliant about my day, not stressing that I hadn’t got enough done. I decided to start having really great days at work. But I needed help first. I enlisted the expertise of Suzanne Hazelton; career coach and author. Together, we worked on my approach to life and work, how I organised my time and priorities and my longer-term career goals. I saw results surprisingly fast.
Session one: Focus on what’s happening now
We began by discussing the time perspectives we have on life. Some of us have a ‘detailed perspective’ and tend to focus mostly on the past and present, while some of us have a ‘bigger-picture’ perspective and are more future-orientated. I’m the latter. Suzanne explained that it’s difficult for us to have a healthy balance between the two and most of us aren’t very good at getting a positive perspective on the past; we focus on the negatives and they have such a huge impact on the way we view our experiences.
We also tend not to realise a good thing when we have it. It seems that although I love my work, and am very happy and fulfilled, I’m not enjoying the moment and actually recognising it on a daily basis. So Suzanne set me some homework. In addition to always writing a detailed to-do list, taking it home with me to add to if I started to stress after work, I was also asked to practise a technique for past-positive thinking.
The theory behind this technique is to pay more attention to the good things in the present. We can do it regularly whether it’s a longer holiday, or ‘micro-rests’; a two-day weekend or just an evening. We just have to slow down, focus on what’s happening now and enjoy it, rather than forever looking ahead to the next thing we have planned. This builds our reserves of positive emotions so that when we are pulling our hair out stressing about deadlines back at work, those positive memories act as sustenance.
Suzanne explains: ‘As you start to slow down, savour, enjoy and recognise the good points in your day, and that habit will start to filter through into your working day’.
Session two: Focus on what you enjoy
A few days and a few pounds later, I returned to work and continued my new past-positive focus habit. The technique had a surprisingly fast effect on my general perspective and I quickly went from focusing mainly on the negatives of my day (didn’t clear my inbox/was too tired to go to my spin class), to focusing most of my attention on the positives (got that article written/had a great catch-up with a friend).
As I drew on my positive emotion reservoir from my holiday and jotted down tasks on my to-do list as they worried me, I found I was enjoying my evenings more. I savoured the feeling of finishing tasks before I moved onto the next and generally felt happier looking back over my day. I was already beginning to have better days at work, simply through shifting my perspective.
Session three: Congratulate yourself
I had always tried, and failed, to stick to daily work schedules during my exams at university. I found them too restrictive and spent far too long making them look beautiful. But when Suzanne and I discussed my time management and tendency to procrastinate when it came to tasks I didn’t like by starting tasks I clearly enjoyed, even if they weren’t a priority, she suggested I start a ‘default diary’.
Suzanne explained in conjunction with my to-do list, every evening I would plan my next day, always allocating the first hour or so to completing the mundane tasks I’d jotted onto my list. Then I would check my emails. And that was the key; scheduling in time to check and reply to emails, and capitalising on my most productive period by getting my to-do list ticked off at the beginning of the day. I blocked out hours to concentrate on bigger tasks, turned my voicemail on to stop distractions and never allowed myself to feel guilty for moving things around if something urgent happened to pop up.
The effect this has had on me is enormous. And as we drew my sessions to a close, and I decided to keep my positive emotion reservoir full with relaxing weekends and my past-positive techniques, Suzanne congratulated me on everything I had achieved, from a recent promotion to simply sticking to my default diary and seeing results. It was quite a novelty to be congratulated.
‘It’s something to do with our culture and society,’ explains Suzanne, ‘we are often focused on the next step, and that’s not a bad thing in that we all need to set ourselves goals in order to achieve. But there is also something in taking a moment to say, “Wow. Look how far I have come”’.
So congratulations, me! On working and succeeding at having better and better days at work.