4 Simple Steps to Taming Your Work

Taming the Big Beast

One of (if not the) biggest obstacle to life balance comes from our Professional life area. More often than not, our work goes on a rampage, destroying all the precious time we set aside for family and fun. The most common approach to handling work is throwing more hours at it, in the hope of satisfying its insatiable appetite.

But spending more time doing work doesn’t translate to getting more and better results. In fact, the more time we spend working, the less efficient we become and the greater the damage we cause to our lives, our well-being and, paradoxically, our work.

The idea that you need more time to get more things done makes sense in theory, but performs terribly in practice. It’s best to abandon this worn-out idea and look for a better theory that truly reflects the reality we live in.

Below are 4 very simple steps that can help you tame your work and get more done at the same time!

Yes, life is good. 😀

1- Set a limit to the number of hours you work a day

How many hours do you currently spend working?

Now, I want you to take a deep breath and set your daily limit 1 or 2 hours less than the time you currently spend working.

Sounds insane? Well, it gets even weirder as you progress through the steps below.

In her fabulous book, 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, Laura Vanderkam points out that the time we spend “working” isn’t fully packed with actual work. A great deal of our work day is wasted doing things inefficiently. I’m willing to bet that your approach to work can be improved, and shaving an hour or two from your work day will force you to consider ways you can improve your approach, rather than default to the ineffective approach of working more hours. (I’m doing Laura’s book a grave disservice by mentioning it briefly in this post, but I’ll be offering a full review of the book once I finish reading it!)

Do you have to attend every meeting you’re asked to attend? Do you have to check your email account every 3 minutes? Can you limit the distractions that pull you away from your work and out of your “zone”?

Once you set a daily limit to the number of hours you will work, use a stopwatch to record how long you spend working each day. When you reach your daily limit, you must stop working and tend to any of your other life areas.

It may feel painful at first, but you’ll adjust to it. After all, spending more hours working is a losing strategy. There’s no need to cling to it any further.

2- Set realistic daily goals

The reason why work doesn’t seem to finish is because it never does!

There will always be things for you to do. You cross off a couple of items from your to-do list, and 5 new items make their way to the list. That’s a fact you’ll have to accept and fully embrace. There’s no need to fight against it, in the same way you wouldn’t stand on the shore and demand that the tides change their direction. Fighting against facts of nature is another losing strategy.

So what’s the solution?

You set realistic daily goals for you to achieve. Once your daily goals are met, you can call it a (work) day.

You can choose to do more work if you still haven’t reached your daily work limit. But even if you leave those extra tasks incomplete, you have succeeded in completing the tasks you set out to complete for the day.

Without setting daily goals, you may feel that there’s more to be done, and you won’t feel satisfied with your work, no matter how much you do and how long you work. That’s because you’re trying to fit an unlimited amount of work into a finite number of hours a day. A losing strategy, indeed.

3- Break work time to short sessions of focused work

Having an 8-hour chunk of time a day will go to waste if you don’t break it down to shorter sessions of focused work. You can’t remain focused for 8 straight hours without risking brain damage or physical exhaustion. To make the most of your work time, set a specific task to work on, then focus on it completely for 25 to 30 minutes, without any distractions. Have a short break that takes your mind off the task for a bit (2 to 5 minutes), then continue working on your task if it’s not completed, or work on a different task if it is.

If you want to do a few tasks that won’t take you more than 10 minutes, make sure you set a time limit for them, so that you don’t spend more time than you need to, and you can learn to do things more efficiently, without succumbing to distractions or mental numbness (where you stare blankly at your computer screen or papers, not knowing what to do next).

4- Redefine “work” time

OK, this deserves another deep breath and an open mind.

Now that you’ve set your daily work limit, your daily goals, and are tackling your tasks in short bursts of focused work, you need to be aware of what constitutes “work” time where you keep your stopwatch running, and when to stop it.

You took that deep breath, right?

I think another deep breath is in order.

You keep the stopwatch running during your work sessions, while you plan what to work on, in the breaks between work sessions, when you’re distracted, during your commute to work and whenever you think and worry about work!

Take another deep breath if you have to!

It sounds crazy, I know. But it makes sense.


Because when we consider how we spend our days, we don’t realize how much time is wasted without us making the most out of it. What do you do during your commute to work? And if you were to consider it as part of your work time, how will you make the most of it to advance your career?

We tolerate distractions because we think we can take time to compensate for them. If we get distracted for 20 minutes, we’ll just add another 20 minutes to our work day.

We can prepare a cup of coffee in 5 minutes, but we choose to spend 20 minutes walking to the kitchen in slow motion.

We spend time with family, but we’ve kept our attention on our work. How does that make you feel, knowing that you can’t do your work because you’re with your family? How does it make your family feel, knowing that you’re not truly present with them?

We allow ourselves to worry about work, when there’s absolutely no reason to (it doesn’t help our work progress, does it?). But by considering “worry” time as part of “work” time, we will be forced to stop worrying, or else we’ll run out of hours to work in!

You need to be realistic about the time you’re spending at work and the time you spend getting to work. What can you do to reduce the amount of time you spend commuting? Can you negotiate days where you work from home? Can you spend the time commuting more constructively, by listening to an audiobook, for example?

If you can genuinely spend your commute on a recreational activity (e.g. reading/listening to a novel) or to strengthen social bonds (e.g. if you commute with a family member, friend, or colleague) or to keep fit (e.g. you cycle to work), then you don’t need to keep the stopwatch running. Otherwise, it forms part of your work time and comes out of your daily limit.

The steps above are simple, but they’re not necessarily easy, because they demand that we break out of an ineffective mold that’s preventing us from leading a balanced life and making the most out of the time we have. It forces us to think of creative ways to make the most use of our time. It’s uncomfortable to walk outside the safe confines of that mold we’ve grown so accustomed to, but it’s worth it.

Set your daily work limit, begin to define daily goals, work through them in focused sessions, and account for all the time you spend on work, so that you can realize where your time goes, and what you can do about it.

Photo credit: Manish Bansal


Productivity Woes Over Google’s Pac-Man Game

Google's Pac-Man Game: Hero or Villain?
Google's Pac-Man Game: Hero or Villain?

Mashable, one of the top blogs for social media and Web 2.0 news, recently announced that Google’s Pac-Man game cost the world 4.8 MILLION hours of lost productivity! If you didn’t manage to catch the Pac-Man game, it was introduced on Google’s homepage on the day of Pac-Man’s 30th anniversary.

The startling number was computed by RescueTime, who shared some other interesting numbers about Google’s jab at global productivity.

While RescueTime is sobbing over all those wasted hours and dollars, I am quietly admiring Google’s creativity and – you guessed it – playing Pac-Man.

It’s not because I don’t care about productivity or that I’m too addicted to video games to admit the damage Google has caused.

It’s because I don’t believe that:

  • Productivity is measured by time
  • Recreational activities compromise productivity (on the contrary, they help boost productivity, when used properly)

We do not become more or less productive based solely on the number of hours we spend tapping away at a keyboard. The more time we spend working, the more our need for recreational activities grows.

It’s healthy to break focused chunks of work time with short, playful breaks, where our minds aren’t engaged in serious tasks.

Pac-Man is a great way to enjoy such breaks. It’s simple, fun and risk-free, where you get to enjoy the excitement that comes with being chased by ghosts and trying to make split-second decisions, without suffering any real-world damages.

To make recreational activities work for you and not against you, please bear the following guidelines in mind:

  1. Choose how long you well spend doing focused work (you might find 25 to 30 minutes to be a healthy option)
  2. Choose when to spend time on a recreational activity, and how much time you will spend on it (5 minutes is good when taking a short break between sessions of focused work)
  3. Never use recreational activities as a method of evasion: trying to avoid thinking about an issue, or working on a task. Even if you do get to enjoy the activity, it is compromising your overall well-being
  4. Make sure your expectations for a day’s work are realistic, so you don’t feel guilty about not getting enough work done (which you will most likely blame on the time you spent playing)

Now that I managed to write a blog post, I will celebrate this accomplishment with a quick game of Pac-Man! 😀


The Truth About Distractions

It is very common to blame distractions for getting in the way of our goals. We play the victim role, because distractions are obviously the villains in the story of our lives.

“I was innocently working on my dear novel, when all of a sudden a big, ugly, hairy distraction came and pulled me away from it!”

“I was writing my report when I heard a chirping noise from my computer. It was getting louder and louder that I could no longer focus on my work. I went through all open windows to see where the noise was coming from and discovered that it was my Twitter client informing me of new tweets! I had to go through them so I can get back to my precious work.”

“I uninstalled all chat programs from my computer, but was shocked to discover that they have miraculously reinstalled themselves on my computer! Not to be rude or anti-social, I had to start a few conversations to see how my friends were doing, and replied to a few messages I received. I feel pressured by my social obligations that I can’t seem to get anything done.”

You may notice from these fictional stories that they have a high dosage of fiction.

The truth is, distractions don’t usually get in our way. We put them there to distract us!

I’m not talking about interruptions beyond your control, or circumstances where it is more appropriate to deal with an issue before getting back to your work.

I’m talking about distractions such as checking email, surfing the web, shuffling papers, going through Facebook pages, checking for new tweets every 3 minutes, etc. We’re not forced to do any of these things, but we choose to do them.

But why would we do such a horrible thing to ourselves and our goals? Don’t we want to see ourselves succeed?

We resort to distractions to avoid discomfort that our work (or any situation) makes us feel.

This “discomfort” comes in all shapes, sizes and colors, and spans all the seven life areas. To understand why we go crawling to distractions, it’s important to understand the many different motivations that make distractions more appealing than getting work done.

Let’s look at some examples of “discomfort” now…

Examples of “Discomfort”

Spiritual: A clash between your spiritual values and your work tasks can lead to a physical and mental standstill. Rather than sit there staring at a blank screen, or acknowledge this clash, you resort to distractions.

“Let’s see what people are saying on Twitter…”

Intellectual: Learning a new subject can test your learning abilities and lead you to question your intelligence. Rather than persist in pursuit of understanding, you look for the closest exit.

“I’ll get back to this after I watch that YouTube video everyone’s talking about…”

Psychological: We approach every task we undertake with an impression of ourselves and our abilities (mentally etched as a self-image). When we have a positive self-image, we do everything within our powers to avoid circumstances and experiences that may prove that our self-image is a self-deception. It’s best to think we can do it, rather than discover that we can’t.

“I wonder what Digg has on its front page…”

Social: There’s a reason why public speaking is one of the biggest phobias people have: other people are scary. They judge. They mock. They can do things better than we can. What will they think of me? How can I approach my colleague with this request? What if he turns me down? How will I react?

“Oh, let me check my emails before I make that phone call…”

Professional: If the quality of your work matters to you, and you feel that the last product you produced is in need of improvements, how enthusiastic would you feel about promoting it? My guess is you won’t be all that enthusiastic. You could work on your product to bring it to a level of quality you’re happy with or promote it as version 1.0 of your work with an upgrade to come in the near future. Or, you can look for distractions to take your mind off the difficult decision you have to make.

“I think my sister added photos from her latest trip to Facebook…”

Recreational: If you’ve been working for 6 hours straight, without any mental breaks or recreational rituals to replenish your mind, body and soul, don’t be surprised if you gasp for distractions to bring you a sense of pleasure and relief you’re depriving yourself from. We may wrongly think that working for many hours on end is necessary for success and the symbol of productivity, when in fact it diminishes our productivity and sense of joy.

The danger here is that we mix work and play in an extremely unproductive way by constantly oscillating between work and distractions in the name of getting work done while being too afraid to acknowledge that we need a break from work.

“What movie am I gonna watch this weekend? Let me check out a few trailers before I decide.”

Physical: To stay focused and attentive your body needs to be supplied with the right nutrients and a healthy dosage of activity. If your body isn’t getting the attention it deserves, or isn’t making progress towards a healthier lifestyle, then your brain will look for less taxing activities to deal with.

“This desk is a mess! Let me tidy it up before I write that report.”

How to Deal with Distractions

While closing your favorite Twitter client or disconnecting from the Internet can help you face your work, you are only dealing with the symptoms of the problem and not its root cause.

The root cause is that you find it suitable to evade reality – and avoid dealing with your own feelings – in the hope that the problem you’re facing will somehow go away.

If this is your life strategy to deal with discomfort and difficult decisions, then you’ll resort to mental distractions when your handy browser and trusted softwares aren’t there to distract you.

Don’t blame the tools for your decision. Instead, pick a new life strategy.

When you face a difficult task, don’t look away. Stare at it with eyes wide open. Determine what’s to be done and do it.

If a thought is troubling you, acknowledge the thought or feeling, accept its presence in your psyche, then ask yourself:

How can I resolve this feeling? What can I do to move my project forward? Which life area is in need of my attention, and what can I do to alleviate the problem that exists there?

By confronting your problems rather than escaping from them, you will no longer resort to distractions as a coping mechanism. Only by changing your attitude towards life and its challenges – and never resorting to evasion – will you be able to deal with distractions on a root level, so that they can never come between you and your work.


Efficiency and Effervescence

I have two types of Berocca multivitamin tablets: the effervescent and the film-coated.

The effervescent tablets take more time to consume. You need to put one in a glass of water. Wait for it to dissolve. Then drink the entire glass.

The film-coated tablets, on the other hand, are extremely efficient. You pop one in your mouth and take a sip of water after it. There’s no preparation to it. No ritual.

If you’re looking for ways to be efficient, the film-coated tablets would be the option to go for.

I, for one, would choose effervescence over efficiency.


Because I enjoy the ritual that comes with preparing my Berocca drink. There’s no other reason for it than that.

We often seek efficiency to the point of compromising the things we enjoy, even when we’re only shaving off seconds from our routines.

The obsession with efficiency doesn’t always make us more efficient.

It can cause more worry and stress than we would like to live with, simply because we’ve made efficiency an end unto itself, instead of a means to an end.

If we’d like to cut down on the time we spend doing routine tasks so we can get to spend more time doing the stuff we enjoy, wouldn’t it make sense to go for options that make routine tasks more enjoyable?

Whenever you’re facing two options, don’t make efficiency your only criterion.

Think of the levels of joy each option brings.

Joy is an important criterion in life. At least in my book.


Get More Done with Artificial Contexts

Although getting things done is simple (if you want it done, take action), there are many psychological obstacles that can stand in the way of us taking action, which is why we struggle with getting things done. It’s, therefore, essential that we become aware of the different psychological factors at play in our lives and what we need to do to create the mental environment most conducive to productivity.

One very important factor we need to be aware of – which I believe is one of the most prominent thieves of productivity – is what is known as The Paradox of Choice.

What is The Paradox of Choice?

Put simply: if you have many options open to you, you will find it more difficult to make a decision and take action than if you had fewer options. If a menu had 30 meals to choose from, you will struggle to decide what to order more than if only 3 meals were available. With fewer options (choices), you will experience less anxiety because the fear of making the wrong decision (i.e. not going for the best choice) will be reduced.

This is why you can be more productive if you had only a few items on your to-do list rather than hundreds of items. Trying to figure out which task to go for will develop anxiety and hesitation, leaving you staring blankly at your to-do list, without getting anything done.

So how can we use our understanding of the paradox of choice to get more done?

There are hundreds of ways. But the one I’d like to share with you here is to create artificial contexts.

Creating Artificial Contexts

A context is a location or tool you need in order to get a task done. If you need to make phone calls, you need a phone. If you need to send emails, you need an Internet connection. If things need to get done at home then – you guessed it – you need to be at home!

These contexts determine what you can and can’t do at any given moment. If you don’t have a phone on you, then you can ignore all tasks to do with calling people (unless you desperately need to get to a phone, which is another story for another day). These contexts help you determine what to do and reduce the options available to you. If you’re familiar with David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD), then this idea comes as no surprise.

But what are artificial contexts?

Since most of our work involves tools that are with us all the time (phones, computers, Internet, etc), it’s hard for us to reduce the amount of options we have. When we sit in front of the computer, we can work on 20 possible projects we have. So how do we choose which one to work on?

Artificial contexts are ways you categorize your to-do list items to help you reduce the number of options, without there really being an obstacle in getting other tasks done. For example, you can designate your office for working on your professional projects, your living room for leisurely reading, a cafe for learning and your bedroom for relaxing. Although you can take your laptop to your bedroom or read a novel in your office, creating these artificial contexts (associations) will help you reduce the number of options available to you in each context.

Artificial contexts need not be space-bound. You can use different clothing to indicate the type of work you will be doing (and not doing). You can use different web browsers for different types of work (Firefox for web development, Chrome for correspondence, IE for nothing :P).

Be creative in coming up with your own artificial contexts that work best for you and that help you split your to-do list so that it becomes more manageable in every context!