It’s been a crazy month. In June, I was fortunate to head to Whistler with Actionable to help out with our Annual Partner Summit—a week of connection, inspiration, discussion, and for me, managing a lot of logistics. I immediately followed that with an incredible vacation, driving around British Columbia with two of my best friends in a vintage RV.

Then I came back to work to find that Actionable was (as it always is) in full swing, with tons of exciting projects, updates, and team meetings that needed my input and attention. June has felt like a bit of a tornado that has tossed me, both figuratively and literally, all over the place.

Now that I’m back into my “normal” routine, I’ve spent some time reflecting on what’s gone well in the past month, and what I’ve learned about myself from what hasn’t gone so well. I firmly believe that times of change are brilliant opportunities for self-reflection. We are creatures of habit, and lean on long-established routines. When forces conspire to pull us out of our comfort zones, we have the opportunity to examine ourselves in a fresh light, learning a great deal about ourselves in the process.

Reflecting the Pressures of Productivity

I’ve been reflecting on time management and productivity, how I manage my energy through the various aspects of my work and life, and trying to get to the bottom of why I’m often so hard on myself. Here’s what I’ve learned, and, if any of this sounds familiar to you, what you can try in your own life to avoid making the same mistakes I have.

I feel a lot of pressure to always be “on.” If I’m not checking things off my to-do list or visibly contributing to the work of my teams, I get anxious. A lot of this pressure is self-imposed—but a great deal of it also comes through osmosis from the countless articles on “the things all successful people do,” the ubiquity of social media, email, and other tools that connect us at all times, and the mindset that if we’re not growing, we’re moving backwards.

Take a Step Back

Vacation was an effective antidote for this damaging mindset. Seriously, vacation is important—if you’re able to take time off work, do it. Don’t wait until you’re teetering on the edge of burn-out. We all deserve time away simply because we’re not built to work non-stop (and, because it makes us more productive in the long run, but that’s an added benefit).

If you’re able to take time off work, do it. Don’t wait until you’re teetering on the edge of burn-out.

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If you can’t take a vacation, put some boundaries in place around work. When I was on vacation, I deleted Slack from my phone and turned off email notifications—and I haven’t turned them back on (yet). It’s a simple move that has improved my state of mind significantly. When I wrap up work for the day, I’m not constantly getting pulled back into work mode by the ping on my phone. I’m not on call, nor is it essential for me to read every single Slack message the moment it comes in. Of course, you know your workplace best—work within the parameters and requirements of your role to put some boundaries in place, and then stick to them.

No one can operate at peak efficiency every hour of the day. If it helps, reframe downtime as something that helps you be more productive in the long run.

Find Different Frequencies for Different Work

I have two primary modes of working: creative, and administrative. I’ve noticed that creative work always takes longer than I think it will, and requires that I drop into a more expansive mindset. Administrative work, on the other hand, generally takes less time than I think it will, and can be completed when I’m feeling low energy. Do I balance this out effectively, to carve out the time and space I need for both kinds of work? Well, not yet.

Instead, I tell myself that the administrative stuff takes priority. That since it’s easier to check off a list, I might as well start there. I drag my feet, worried about the daunting task of diving into the more creative stuff—it will never truly be “finished,” there will always be more to do—it’s hard to get started. And then, I feel frustrated that I’m not stretching and thinking creatively enough. It’s a vicious cycle.

Track Your Time

To help temper this, I’ve re-adopted an old practice of mine: tracking how my time is actually spent. I just use my Google Calendar, but there are plenty of other time tracking tools you can choose from. In a typical day, I’ll have a few calls and a few holds to work on particular tasks or projects. As the day goes by, I fill in the gaps with what I’ve actually spent my time doing. It’s amazing how many half-hour slots of “Slack/misc emails” get added into my calendar in the course of the day (often taking up the space I should be using for more creative work). I also slot in personal stuff: writing, exercise, time spent running errands and with friends.

At the end of the week, I can see how balanced (or unbalanced) my week has been. Did I focus on the administrative stuff to the detriment of the creative work? Did I tend to my personal needs as well as to the demands of my job? I compare that to how I feel about the week: am I feeling burned-out? Energized? Frustrated? Satisfied with a job well done?

Comparing those feelings to how I actually spent my time is a gut check to help me further identify what I need, how I best operate, and what boundaries I need to put in place to protect both my sanity and my productivity.

Unpacking My Self-Talk

An interesting and unintended consequence of this self-reflection has been noticing that I have a mean-streak. I strive to be kind and compassionate to those around me, and yet, to myself, I can be downright cruel. I can finish a 10 hour work day, and still feel like I didn’t work hard enough. I can hear from others that I’ve done great work, and yet the voice in my head tells me that it’s garbage.

Recognizing how essential downtime is, and tracking my time have helped me to ease up on myself a bit. I can see on my calendar that I’ve worked hard. I can reframe down-time from something selfish to something essential.

And, just noticing this in myself has helped a lot as well. I would never let anyone talk to my best friend the way I talk to myself. Noticing and naming that has helped me become kinder and gentler with myself—which has gone a long way toward feeling calm and confident in my work and life. Pay attention to your self-talk. Just noticing how you think can help you be a bit kinder to yourself.

I invite you to learn from my challenges self-reflection from this past month. Prioritize downtime, manage the different modes you need in your life, and pay attention to your self-talk—if you’re anything like me, you’ll feel a lot calmer, happier, and more productive as a result, which will be essential for your next big challenge.

Photo by Anete Lūsiņa on Unsplash
Reflecting on the pressures of productivity helps us avoid its consequences. This practical advice will keep you on track and avoid burn out.

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