Zen Habits: Simplify Your Workday
Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small. A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” ~Lao Tzu
One of the best things I did when I decided to simplify my life was to simplify my workday — first at my day job and later, by quitting my day job, in the work I do now as a writer and entrepreneur.
I’ve eliminated most of the routine, boring, administrative tasks with a few simple principles.
These days, I have eliminated the non-essentials, and can focus on what I truly love: creating.
Not everyone can make such drastic steps toward simplicity, but if you have some control over your workday, you can do a few small things that will simplify things greatly.
If you don’t have control, or if you find yourself thinking, “I can’t do these things”, I’d start to ask why not? Is it possible to change things, if not today then over the long term? I found that often I thought something wasn’t possible (working from home, for example), but in the long run they were.
You don’t need to do all of these things — pick just one, and try it. Then try another and see if it works. Experiment to find what works for you.
And enjoy the simple work life.
- Start early. Going into work early was one of my favorite tricks — it was quiet, before the phones and chatter and meetings started, and I could get a lot of work done in peace. By the time everyone else was getting started, I’d gotten two or three big tasks checked off.
- Limit your hours. It’s ironic, because so many people work long hours and think they’re getting more done and being more productive. But they’re throwing brute hours at the problem. Instead, cut back on your hours and set a limit — say 6 or 7 hours a day — and get your most essential work done within that limit. If you know you’re only working 6 hours today, you’ll be sure to get the important tasks done first and waste less time. Limits force you to be effective.
- Make a short list. Make a long list of all the tasks you need to do … then make a short list of 1-3 things you really want to get done. Choose so that, if you got only these tasks done, you’d be proud of what you did today. Start with the most important task, before checking email or reading online.
- Batch distractions. What are your common distractions? Perhaps things like email, reading blogs, Twitter or another social network? Set a time for these, preferably later in the day: say, from 3-4 p.m. Don’t do the distractions before then. By grouping them all into one time period, you allow yourself to do other work first, but still get in your distraction time. Another approach might be to do them for 10 minutes at the end of each hour — but stick to that 10-minute limit!
- Write shorter emails. If email takes up a lot of your day, the simple change of limiting yourself to 3-4 sentences per email will make a big difference. First, it’ll drastically shorten the time it takes to write or respond to emails. And second, it’ll shorten responses to your emails, which means you’ll spend less time reading email.
- Limit meetings. The fewer the better. Some top Google executives just do 5-minute meetings — anyone who attends these meetings had better be prepared, and concise. If you can get out of meetings and just get the notes, or find an alternative way to communicate, it could save you hours per week.
- Automate. The fewer repetitive and routine tasks you have to do, the more time you’ll free up for creating and important work. So automate wherever possible: have people fill things out electronically, or get info from your website instead of emailing or calling you, or use a service that automatically processes payments or ships your product, and so on.
- Eliminate paperwork. I used to deal with a lot of paperwork, and even then I knew it was a waste of my time. If businesses and organizations could have paperwork filled out electronically, it would save a lot of paper, copying, filing, and duplicate effort. Whenever possible, eliminate paperwork in favor of digital. This might be more of a long-term move.
- Clear your desk. This can be done in a few minutes. Clear everything off the top of your desk. Only put back a few essential items. Everything else should be: filed, given to the appropriate person, given a permanent spot in a drawer, or trashed/recycled. Make quick decisions and then get back to work.
- Get away. If you can get out of your office, you can find a peaceful spot where you can focus on important work. Find a spot where you can work, turn off the Internet and do your work, and then turn the Internet back on so you can email or upload it to the appropriate spot. Working from home is a good option here. The more you can do this (it might be once a week, or an hour a day, or half of every workday), the better.
- Take breathing breaks. Every 15-20 minutes, get up from your desk, and take a breathing break. It could be simply walking around the office, saying hi to someone, or even better, getting outside to get some fresh air. Walk around, get your blood circulating, perhaps massage your neck and shoulders if you feel tension. Do some pushups if you want to get fitter. When you get back to work, remind yourself what you want to be working on, and clear away all distractions.
- Practice a focus ritual. Every hour or two, do a refocus ritual. This only takes a minute or two. You might start it by closing down your browser and maybe other open applications, and maybe even take a walk for a couple of minutes to clear your head and get your blood circulating. Then return to your list of Most Important Tasks and figure out what you need to accomplish next. Before you check email again or go back online, work on that important task for as long as you can. Repeat this refocus ritual throughout the day, to bring yourself back. It’s also nice to take some nice deep breaths to focus yourself back on the present. More focus rituals.
- Schedule big blocks of creative time. Not everyone can do this, but when possible, put a big block of 3-4 hours in your schedule for creating or doing other important work. Make this time inviolate, and don’t allow meetings or other things to be scheduled during this time. Be ruthless about clearing distractions and doing the work you love during these blocks, taking breathing breaks as necessary. Rejoice in your creativity.