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Lessons from a Recovering Doormat

phot provided by Laura Vanderkam

phot provided by Laura Vanderkam

As spring slowly begins make an appearance as the winter tries to hang on, we’re getting out more. This can make life feel a bit chaotic as we try to catch up after a long winter. There are times of the year that seem to bring the overload. So I’m happy to have Laura Vanderkam  back as a guest today. Laura is the author of many books including, “What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast” — a paperback compilation of the bestselling ebook series, out from Portfolio/. She has great advice or getting through the season.

Thriving During Chaos
by Laura Vanderkam

Thanks to some upcoming speeches, I’ve been talking with a lot of accountants lately. Most have used two words to describe March: busy season. In the U.S., tax returns are due on April 15, so in the weeks before that, accountants work brutal hours. They describe a slog each early spring that they simply learn to endure as part of the job.

Your line of work may not follow the same cycle, but many people’s lives feature intense times. Retail is crazed before the holidays; a crash project in any professional service firm will have people working seemingly around the clock for several weeks.

But here’s the thing — it’s never really around the clock. There are 168 hours in a week. Even if you worked 80 hours a week (see note below) and slept 7.5 hours per night, that would leave just over 35 hours per week for other things. Averaged over a week, that’s the equivalent of 5 rest-of-life hours per day.

The key to surviving — and even thriving — during a busy season is to make the best use of your precious off hours, and to schedule your work hours in as disciplined a way as you would if there weren’t so many of them.

The first part of that equation involves figuring out exactly what you need to do during your non-work hours to make life feel sustainable. What activities mean the difference between run-of-the-mill busyness, and burned out insanity?

For many people, it’s exercise. For others, it’s making it to the Wednesday night poker game or the Thursday night knitting club (or both!) People with families generally want to see their families for at least a few hours, as many days as possible.

Whatever your non-negotiables, take a hard look at your calendar and make sure they happen. Often that means doing them first thing in the morning; that 45-minute run probably isn’t going to happen after the delivery guy brings dinner to the office again. Sometimes it also means doing what you want — like not going into the office until 3 p.m. on Sunday — and asking permission later. I saw a great quote recently from Steve Chandler, author of the book Time Warrior, that “Most of our time-wasters result from a courage problem, not a time problem.”

And second, you need to plan work tightly. When you’re working a lot of hours, they can start to feel amorphous and unfocused. You know you’ll be there all day, so any 20-minute block of time can slip, unheralded, into the past.

But you can do a lot in 20 minutes. Even if you’re at the mercy of others — like you’re waiting for a client to send you new numbers — you can pull another task from your list of to-dos if you’re organized about what those to-dos are. Failing to account for your time and not telling it where to go means it will not go where you want. That’s when life feels out of control. You feel like you’re in a storm-tossed rowboat, rather than windsurfing in a strong but manageable gale.

The good news is that, generally, “busy times” don’t last forever. April 15 comes and goes. A client merges with its new acquisition. But even during the chaos, life doesn’t have to be lived in anticipation of a less busy time. If you look at the whole 168-hour mosaic of life, even intense periods can create a compelling picture.
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