The Creative Technologist Blog

Stop Working So Much

Our obsession with hustle culture and overworking ourselves to death is a toxic plague that seems to stretch its tendrils further and further every year, especially on Linkedin. Whatever happened to the idea of working smarter, not harder?

Believe in better.
Photo by Tangerine Newt / Unsplash

Overworking yourself will kill you. No, seriously, you will die. The best way to do that is to set guard rails on when to stop working.

All I can do is share with you what's been working for me, but if you take nothing else from this article, please do this: permit yourself to stop working. Create some line in the sand, some goal, something that tells you to stop.

Why Prioritization Failed Me

The problem with frameworks I've used in the past is that they've always been too rigid, especially with juggling recurring tasks against things that spontaneously come up. I've found that time blocking, priority matrices, or anything in between ran into the same problem: once one thing fell through, the entire system fell apart like a house of cards.

There is a great deal of anxiety about making decisions, especially when prioritizing what you should do. When we decide, we're constantly worrying, "did I think this through enough?"

“Worriers are people who think of all the variables beyond their control and what might happen so that when you make a decision and it works out alright, I think very little of it has to do with your conscious intent and control” - Alan Watts

We second guess ourselves, then on the day you're supposed actually to act on that plan you put together, you do whatever is top of mind that day anyway—rarely consulting that time block or to-do list or whatever schedule you slapped together for that week.

We go through the motions of planning and prioritizing; then, when the time comes to act, you make a snap judgment.

Instead, I had to create a system that allowed me to control my time without collapsing any time some minor unexpected task arose.

Embrace The Tao

The Tao is a Chinese philosophy created by the philosopher Lao Tzu centered around this idea that all events in the universe flow like water. Resisting the flow of the universe will lead only to suffering. The way to embrace the universe is to flow with it.

Photo by Pongracz Noemi / Unsplash

The idea is not to seize control of our time but instead enable ourselves to embrace the ebb and flow of priorities as they come and go. So how do we decide and control things more harmoniously? The first step is letting go.

First, before we get into how I do it, we must start with three tenants in embracing the Tao in our day:

Be okay with fluidity in your day.

You will stop working when you said you would, no matter what.

It is okay not to finish everything you've committed.

The Method

Here is what you will need:

  • Sticky notes
  • Dry erase board
  • Dry erase marker
  • Pen

Before you ask, no, this is not possible to do digitally.

Using a physical medium forces us to create limitations, and this method is all about creating fluidity in our schedule while also setting up guard rails that force us to stop working.

Plus, the brain likes tangible materials as a reflection of progress. It helps me stick to this when there is a physical representation of what I have accomplished and what remains.

Step 1: Split the board in half

Draw a semi-straight line down the middle of the board.

Line drawn down the center of a white board
A slightly curved straight line works too.

Step 2: Title it

The left side of the board is my to-do list for the week. I put the week and the quarter up there, but you can do whatever makes sense for you. Just know that everything on this board should be for your week, so don't try squeezing in a week's worth of work into a day.

Title in the upper left corner of the board
I personally like to plan goals by the quarter then tasks by the week, that's why it's week 13 Q1.

Step 3: Write 1 through 6

These are our top six items to do this week. Do not do any more than six. The goal here is to limit ourselves. I've found that committing to at most six items in the week tends to result in me accomplishing more.

Numbers 1 through 6 drawn on the board
I prefer this layout, but you can do whatever.

Step 4: Create your rigid tasks

These items are the rigid, well-defined tasks you would see on any traditional planning method. So, this shouldn't be anything new to what you've done in the past.

Six tasks written on sticky notes on the board
These need to be super actionable tasks, keep them small and accomplishable.

These items need to be clear and well-defined tasks with concrete deliverables.

Step 5: Split the right side of the board in half, twice

This section is for our "daily" tasks. Now, when I say "daily," I don't mean you have to do these every day. You commit to doing three tasks, six times each per week. To help with this, I'll stack six sticky notes with the task written on them labeled I through VI.

Two rows drawn on the right side of the board in the lower right quarter. The upper right quarter is left blank
Your lines are probably straighter than mine.

For me, two of these items are work-related, and one of them is a personal task. These tasks must be vague with multiple interpretations.

We do it this way so that depending on how the week plays out; we can get goal-oriented wins here and move with the flow of how life deals out opportunities to get those wins.

You should do no more than three. Do not overwhelm yourself. Remember: less is more.

Daily tasks on sticky notes in the bottom most right side row
Some of my dailies are already done since I'm halfway through my week.

In this example, my three are:

  1. Top of Mind [I - VI]: I want to stay in contact with people in my network so that I don't fall out of touch with people I need to stay connected with. As someone in sales, this is extremely important for maintaining relationships. This task can take the form of emailing someone, texting them to see how they're doing, or tagging them in a social media post. Anything that lets me say in touch.
  2. Do Any Chore [I - VI]: My house can sometimes become an absolute mess. I've found the cleaner my home, the better my mental state. So, I've prioritized this as one of my dailies. Again, I've left this just vague enough that it can be anything. If I need a small win for the day, just picking up my clothes or doing laundry counts as that win. The ability to be anything is what makes this work.
  3. Meet A New Person [I-VI]: Again, as someone in business development, I need to expand my network constantly. I want to make this a priority, but I left this vague intentionally again. This goal doesn't have to be a business connection. It can take any form I need. If I meet someone new while out biking, that counts. If I meet a new friend through a mutual connection, that also counts. Just anything to meet six new people, regardless of who they are.

Step 6: The Tao

The middle row on the second column is for the Tao. The flow of life. As things come up, whether they're opportunities or fires you have to deal with, this area is for those.

However, you are limited. The Tao flows in all directions, and it's up to you to choose which way you lean in.

You have two slots here and only two slots.

The Tao sticky note tasks in the middle row on the right side. The upper right quarter still remains blank
In this example, I have two already in there. You should start with zero. Keep this section empty until you need it.

This limitation forces you to choose wisely for this week what two items you will prioritize. Often, chasing new opportunities constantly and pivoting too much is the cause of accomplishing nothing.

This limitation might sound extreme; however, it is not as bad as it sounds. If you find yourself having more than two unexpected items come up every week, then that's likely a sign you need to get more visibility on externalities in your life.

I encourage you to try it. Leave room for the Tao without pulling yourself in all directions.

Now, there is one exception to the above rule:

You may move an additional new item onto the board; however, you must remove an item from your weekly to-do on the left side of the board and move an item from the Tao to your board.

If you completed a task, that slot is off-limits. You may only move a task off your left side to-do if you have not started it yet.

There is one more rule:

You must rip up that sticky note and throw it away.

To make room for an influx of items from the Tao, if you want to go above the two-item limit, you must sacrifice a committed to-do item you have not started yet.

This rule will force you to choose the most important things to focus your time on. Sometimes, life deals us cards we must take.

Step 7: Reward yourself

The last area of the board is for your finished tasks.

Keep those there as a visual reminder of all you have accomplished that week.

The upper right quarter is filled with items
The done sector is incredibly fulfilling to watch fill up.

Once everything is off the board, stop working. Take a break. If you knock out everything in the first three days, give yourself the rest of the week off.

Set a specific time of the day on a particular day of the week to repopulate the board. Outside of that time, you cannot touch it outside of the rules for the Tao section.

What about you?

If you've made it this far, let me know how you handle your week. I've been chasing the work-life balance for so long now I made this piece primarily in the excitement that I found something that works for me.

However, if you have your own system, I'd love to hear about it!

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