Rethinking and improving how you organize and plan your workday can not only make you more productive, it can also improve your life and well-being.
I’m at the midpoint of my career, where I’m close enough to the younger folks that they’ll still share what’s going on in their careers and lives, yet far enough that I’m sometimes surprised at the areas where their perceptions and attitudes have changed, and those where they’ve remained largely similar to mine. One surprising area I heard recently was the Sunday Scaries, a term I’d never encountered, which is basically the dread that settles in at some point on a Sunday as one considers the workweek ahead. It’s also known as Sunday syndrome.
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I initially scoffed at this idea as overly dramatic, but at various points in my life I’ve certainly experienced the same feeling of dread at what was coming in the workweek and a fearful wondering of what tasks I’d left undone or what forgotten demons might be lurking in my inbox.
The work/life balance myth
The best weapon against this low-grade, but constant fear of the undone is first acknowledging one of the greatest scams ever perpetrated by HR departments: The idea of work/life balance. At the end of the day, we only have life, which we can choose to allocate between work and personal matters. That allocation can be done consciously and with great forethought, or it can be mismanaged to the point that our lives feel completely outside our control and subject to every beeping machine or notification that demands our attention, a situation that I believe is the root cause of Sunday Scaries and similar maladies.
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Like most complex illnesses, eliminating the Sunday Scaries requires a multifaceted attack. Everything from meditation to fitness routines can help, but perhaps the most impactful mitigation is managing one’s personal workflow, which is a fancy way of saying keeping track of all the stuff you need to do, and thoughtfully planning and executing it.
Start with a brain dump
I based much of my own workflow on David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, a book worthy of a read, but the thesis is a basic principle you can start applying immediately: Getting tasks out of your head and into a system of some sort. Anything that crosses my mind, from a wildly complex work project I may undertake at some undefined point in the future, to the realization that our pantry is devoid of peanut butter goes into my workflow tool (a fancy term for a to-do list), which in my case is the Todoist app.
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Unless I’m not doing anything else at the moment, I don’t set any dates, categories, or complex prioritization schemes; all I do is capture the thing that crossed my mind, which automatically ends up in a section of Todoist called Inbox. My phone and Amazon Echo devices are also integrated to Todoist, so as I get ready for my day and a thought crosses my mind, I can bark at Alexa and she generally captures a vague semblance of what I dictated.
Do the same with your email. Rather than flagging things or using your email inbox as a substandard version of a to-do list, capture the action you need to take, even if it’s “Read Pat’s excessively long email” in your workflow tool. This simple act does three rather magical things:
- You’ll stop losing those thoughts that flash across your mind since they’re all captured.
- You’ll free yourself from wondering what you have to do: It’s all now captured in a single repository.
- You are now in complete control of everything you have to do, work and personal. As you glance at your inbox you can pick and choose the activities on which to focus, schedule them at your discretion, and abandon what you wish.
Delete the dates in your to-do list
Nearly everyone has tried using a to-do list of some sort in the past, and where most of them go wrong is that they assign a due date to each task, spend hours organizing everything, and then after a few days start missing their self-imposed due dates. The to-do list then becomes a source of dread, and another uncontrollable taskmaster.
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Rather than dates, each morning I explore my inbox and pull out the items I want to accomplish that day. I consciously select more items than I’d generally expect to complete, and whenever I have a moment, I’ll pick an item and complete it. At the end of the day, I’ll reflect on what I didn’t get a chance to complete, and make a determination of whether I need to:
- Break the item into smaller components, placing the components into my inbox
- Move the task to some date in the next 3-5 days. If I need to move it to later, then I consider option 3
- Ask myself: Is this something I really need or want to do? If not, I delete it. If I do need to do it at some later point, I drop it back into the inbox or one of my other categories for future projects
Once established, this system takes about five minutes each day for “care and feeding” that generally consists of reviewing my inbox and moving items onto a weekday. There are additional layers of complexity that I employ, but starting with these two simple approaches turns your tool from a relentless taskmaster to a tool of empowerment.
A couple hours spent rethinking your personal workflow, and implementing these techniques just might be the inoculation you need to eliminate that feeling of dread that comes from an out-of-control personal workflow.