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“I have a hard time saying ‘no’”.

I about spit my tea out through my nose when I heard this from a colleague whom I respect. We engage in peer-to-peer counseling — something I’m glad my company encourages — and were on our monthly call discussing how insane work is.

In several of my blogs I’ve mentioned that we hire phenomenal people, but we’re all Type-A personalities and this place will eat you alive if you let it. Oddly enough, this is particularly true for “virtual” or “remote” employees. My friend had opened a web sharing session and we were looking at her calendar in an attempt to figure out how to fit five gallons of crazy into a four-gallon container.

Now, I too have had days when it felt as though I joined every single conference call well past the start time. In fact I’ve often mused that I should just change my legal name to “Hi, this is Ginger; sorry I’m late” as a form of truth in advertising.

But this day my friend was in no mood for humor; she was double- and triple-booked for so many days that she was in danger of doing her bladder serious damage. Work-life balance was little more than a cruel taunt as far as she was concerned.

Even though sarcasm is my personal coping mechanism, I took her confession seriously and by the end of our 45-minute call, she had dried her tears and vowed to put into action some of the strategies we had discussed. In tribute to her, I now present these seven deceptively simple steps in hopes they may go viral and help restore some cosmic balance to our overwhelming universe.

1. Block time to work. Yes, I know. We all clock in at 8am and work straight through until 5pm and beyond. But in these days of shared calendars, we have to learn a little selfishness. So:

    • Find at least one 2½-hour timeslot every week and schedule a recurring appointment with yourself. Now this is the critical part: you must list out the tasks you intend to do during this time every week. Put the tasks in priority order and use the strikethrough font to indicate the ones you complete. Copy and paste the ones you do not complete into the next week’s appointment so that you don’t lose track of them.
    • Every night before you log off, look at your calendar for the next day. Not only will you know what time your day begins in the morning (we’re a global company so 5am calls, while not typical, are not all that unusual), BUT you can spot 1-hour+ timeslots where you are not booked. Grab those. Schedule a meeting with yourself (you can mark your time as “tentative” if you are feeling generous to others) and list out what tasks you plan to do during those times. If someone wants a same-day meeting with you, they can IM or email or call you to see if you’re willing to give up your tentative obligation in order to meet.

2. Push back on one-hour calls. Parkinson’s Law. ‘Nuff said. Or see my prior blog on this topic.

    • Maybe there is a little more to be said. Try emailing the meeting organizer ahead of time and ask if it’s possible to cover your part at the beginning or the end of the meeting so that you can arrive late or drop early. It’s not always possible or convenient, but sometimes it is. You never know until you ask.

3. Set an alarm at 90-minute increments. Put down your mouse and step away from your keyboard. Rest your eyes. Clear your mind. Stretch. Drink a cup of water (take the caffeine back to your desk if you’d like). You’ll be shocked at how much more focused you will be and your eyes will thank you.

4. Fall in love with color. Outlook will give you some default colors for things like “phone call” or “important”, but don’t let that rule you. Set colors for specific projects. When you’re in a hurry and trying to find your last, or next, meeting on any given topic, you can visually scan much more efficiently if you know you need a “blue” meeting. When a project is finished, reassign the color.

5. File darn it! And no, dragging important messages higgledy-piggledy onto your desktop is not the same as filing. At all. Set up files in Outlook and drag files into them. Then when you need to find something, you can open that file and know all correspondence is at least in one place and not mixed in with the other 471 messages in your in-box. It’s up to you how much you want to sub-divide your folders.

6. Unsubscribe. Do you have any idea how many times you hit shift+del on messages each day? Stop it. Take the time to unsubscribe. I recently did this. It was exhausting for about a month, but after that my daily volume dropped by at least 20%. Worth it? You bet. I still get a few messages that I need to unsubscribe, but it’s worth it to have fewer messages assaulting me every time I check my email.

7. Multi-task wisely. This is probably the most tricky. We are going to be invited to meetings that just are not that important to us. Deal with it. Be “present” when your input is needed. But this is a great time to get away from your computer. Use a Bluetooth headset or earbuds and walk. If you can’t get outside, pace around your office. Stretch. Drink some water. Dust your desk. The point is to do mindless things. Try not to focus on your email or spreadsheet; it’s rude.

I’m not going to pretend that these tips will be life altering, but they do help me manage my workload and I do hope they’ll offer you a lifeline. If you have other ideas, please share. I would love to hear from you.

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