How to eliminate guilt from your workday
Your to-do list is huge. The workday is only 8 hours and you can’t stay late. You only finished a fraction of what you wanted to accomplish today and now you feel guilt. Enormous guilt. Guilt that you didn’t get to everything on your to-do list. “Well, tomorrow, I’ll get in early and finish these things,” you think. And with that, you leave the office. The next day however, the same thing happens. The following day, the same thing happens again. Until you’ve had it with your disorganized self and decide to make a change. “I gotta get organized,” you think as you order that copy of Getting Things Done and gather a bunch of file folders from the supply room. “I will label and color-code my folders. I will set up my Inbox and Outbox. I’ll prune my email.” And as you’re full of resolve, your boss calls you up and asks you a simple question that sends you on an hour-long search to find the answer. You got that one done and now it’s time to turn back to your work. But your colleague drops in and has a question about something else. And pretty soon, it’s 4 o’clock and you realize that there is no way you will be able to finish this four-hour task that you set out to do today. So you beat yourself up and resolve to do better tomorrow.
But you know what? You don’t need to stay late, improve your organizational skills (though it doesn’t hurt) or learn to say, “No” to your boss. You need to change your perspective about your work. And changing that perspective is the key to reducing guilt, stress, and getting everything done on time.
How most people think about their workday
Before I stumbled upon this realization, my thought process every morning went something like this: I have A, B, and C tasks on my to-do list. A is due today and will take about 2 hours, B might take about 3 hours, and C will take only about half an hour. I have 5.5 hours of work to do today. Perfect. I’ll get all of this done and then see what else I need to do. But hey, let me get myself a cup of tea first and catch up on world events. I’ll read news for 15 minutes and then get started.
Within 15 minutes, four emails land in my inbox, which I answer. Then, my boss calls with a question, which takes me an hour to research and answer, a colleague engages me in chit-chat, and someone needs me to help them figure out how to do something (which I do). It is now 12 pm and time for lunch. After lunch, I begin work on task A. Twenty minutes into task A, someone calls with a question, and then my boss decides to have an impromptu meeting at 3 pm to go over a few things. Fine. That means I have an hour and a half to finish task A. However, then there are 6 more emails to answer, which I can just “knock off” because they’re easy and then get back to my task. Well, now it’s 2:45, the meeting is in 15 minutes and I may as well get my afternoon caffeine fix, go to the bathroom, and gather materials for this meeting. At 4 o’clock, I’m finally out of the meeting and get to finishing task A. The day is now over and I didn’t get B nor C done. Is this what your day is like too?
Failure to predict the future
What happened is that I failed to take into account all the interruptions, meetings, emails, calls, and needs of other people. When I envisioned what I would accomplish today, none of this stuff that I couldn’t have predicted entered into my plans. I never predicted that I might get 20 emails today that I need to respond to (despite the fact that this happens every day). I didn’t predict that my boss would call an impromptu meeting. In other words, I didn’t realize that I only focused on what I needed to do and failed to think about what other people were going to do. But how can I or anyone possibly think about or predict what other people are going to need from me today?
The short answer is, you can’t. But the good news is that you don’t have to.
The thing is that your workday isn’t now, nor has it ever been, like you imagine it to be. It never was this sprawling expanse of time and space that you only needed to fill up with your work. Your workday is full of dark matter. Just like the universe has dark matter and that dark matter accounts for more “stuff” than the matter that we see, your workday is mostly dark matter. And as such, it’s untouchable, unseeable, and uncontrollable. It really is. Just try to control it and you run into trouble. I see people do this all the time and they don’t succeed. Some people have learned that they need to become firmer by saying “no” to people and projects so that no one can encroach on their work time. They close their doors. They don’t answer email and they don’t pick up the phone. I work with people who are always saying “no” and I don’t like working with them. Neither does anyone else. In a team-oriented environment, people rely on each other and being available to others is important for having good relations. If a team member comes to me with a question, I won’t tell her that she needs to make an appointment with me in advance. Nor am I going to ignore an email from someone who just has a quick question. These people will get frustrated because I’m the bottleneck blocking their ability to get work done. So being more protective of your time isn’t a good solution. What about better organization? Being more organized certainly helps but it doesn’t solve the problem of guilt at the end of the workday or the stress you will feel from all that work that you didn’t get to.
Somewhere there is advice that you should estimate how long something will take, then double or triple that estimate to account for the unknown. I used to do that too. If I knew a task would take 2 hours, I would double my estimate to account for complexity of the task or whatever. But the thing is that it has never worked. And it hasn’t worked because it encourages procrastination. Because deep down, you still know that the task takes only two hours and not four hours. And it doesn’t get rid of the dark matter anyway because all those interruptions will come your way regardless of how you’ve estimated your task time.
The above are all techniques for attacking the dark matter directly. But what I’m about to suggest is to stop attacking the dark matter and embrace it instead. Do not fight the dark matter. It is a losing battle and will only create guilt, stress, and ultimately dissatisfaction. Loosen your grip on the dark matter and accept it instead. How?
Shorten your workday
Yes, that’s right. Shorten. And when I say shorten, I mean REALLY shorten, to about 2 hours. Yes, 2 hours out of 8. I know HR and your boss would frown on you leaving mid-day so that’s not what I’m recommending. What I am saying is that you only need to THINK of your workday as 2 hours long and not as 8. That’s because dark matter can account for about 6 hours of every day. That includes emails, chit-chat, meetings, lunch, going to the bathroom and getting those color-coded folders from the supply room. I know this is hard to stomach because every day, we wake up idealists (“today will be different!”) and go to bed realists. Do not believe your idealistic self. It is pure fantasy. If it were really true, you wouldn’t keep feeling guilty at the end of every day. So let me repeat: ACCEPT that there are 6 un-usable hours every day and plan your day around the 2 hours that you can use and control. Now that you’re going to get only 2 hours of work done today, relax and let the dark matter roll in: phone calls, email, bosses, meetings.
If you change your perspective of how long your day actually is, you will begin to plan better. You will look at your to-do list and know that if you have 4 things of 2 hours each, they are not all going to get done today. Instead, you will get A done today, B done tomorrow, etc. You will become more realistic, you will procrastinate less, and you will be accessible to the people you work with. Your boss will love you because you will always be available to do what he/she needs (since all that work falls into the dark matter category) and you will feel less guilt and stress at the end of the day because you didn’t expect to do 8 hours of work in only 2 hours.
I recommend that you try to do your 2 hours of work as early in the day as possible. In fact, it’s absolutely critical that you pretend that you only work from 9-11 am (or whenever your day starts). In fact, take a few moments at the beginning of each day to envision that you absolutely must leave in two hours. This will create a sense of urgency for you so that you can begin work on your 2-hour day as quickly and efficiently as possible. Because as the day wears on and the dark matter of work accumulates, you will be spending down those 2 hours as well. It is likely that you will only get 15 minutes of work done before the first interruption comes. If you keep working through the task or tasks that you’ve allocated for your 2-hour workday, by the end of the day, not only will you have accomplished all that you set out to do, but you also accomplished all the things other people wanted you to do as well.
So, you don’t need to change the way you work; you just need to change how you perceive your time.