For a long time, I measured my work by its products. By that approach I was fairly productive, some days more than others. Big accomplishments were celebratory; long stretches with no measurable accomplishments were dismal. There were too many highs and lows. I needed less intensity, and more evenness. I needed a steady state that could sustain me for the length of a career.
I’ve been prioritizing the quality of my workday lately, rather than its accomplishments. I strive to leave the day ready for something else, not ready to crash, all physical, mental, and emotional energy spent. To achieve this, I’ve been regularly trying to do four things.
One: I build essential breaks into the day, forcing myself to leave a task, even if I’m deeply entranced by it. I vary the length and the focus of these breaks to keep them interesting. The main point is to do something else for a little while. If I’m in my office (aka sitting hunched over at the keyboard and staring intently at a computer screen), I get up and wander around. Maybe I go somewhere in particular; maybe I don’t. There are plenty of physical and mental benefits to this. I stretch tightened muscles, I mobilize my spine, and I reflect on my work. Walking down the hall to sharpen my pencil now serves two purposes! If I’m in the field, I might sit or lay down if the situation permits, or simply leave the area where I’m working to reflect, evaluate the progress and direction of the work, and maybe rest. Physical exhaustion has led me to make some questionable decisions about field projects in the past. I hadn’t realized how frequently I needed to pause to gain mental perspective on the difference between planned and realized outcomes of field work.
Two: I create pauses to transition between major work tasks. This naturally engineers a way to simultaneously reflect and prepare, so all my mental energy can go towards each task – when I’m actually doing it.
Three: I sometimes seek or plan social interactions throughout the day (if they’re not already scheduled as meetings, conferences, etc.), which can force me to focus on something else long enough to feel refreshed when I return to my work.
Four: Most importantly, I exercise during the office-bound workday. For me, physical energy is a product of spent mental and emotional energy. After exercise, I can return to work with more mental clarity than when I left. I’m extremely fortunate in that my job allows me to do this. I sympathize with those who do not have this luxury.
This has all been a real game-changer. Maybe it’s easy for some, but I have struggled to slow myself down, forget about finishing, and learn to enjoy the effort in itself. The rewards are valuable, and more emerge regularly. I’ll share what I’ve discovered so far. The quality workday approach
Stimulates creativity. My best ideas rarely arrive at opportune times. Breaks in the intensity of the workday create space for clever ideas to arrive on their own time.
Improves wellness. Pauses allow me to gauge my energy and stress levels, and adjust my plans accordingly (easier to realize than do). Self-care seems to naturally become a priority.
Promotes actual quality, rather than quantity of work. I’m not in a hurry to finish tasks anymore. When I pause and naturally reflect, I then make useful improvements to projects that I would not have otherwise made had I held myself to unnecessary deadlines.
Enhances time management. I’m forced to plan my daily tasks more carefully, neatly fitting them between the essential breaks.
I’m not an 8-hour on, 8-hour off machine, and it took me more than a decade to realize that. I’m so glad I did. I find ways to do less, rather than more, these days. I imagine the benefits will still be revealing themselves for a long time to come.