In June 2014, I almost burned out, again. I noticed how my brain tried to juggle too many tasks of different topics at the same time. And then, it felt like my brain shut down. After that terrifying experience, I found my personal guardrails that will ensure my personal well-being.
I took advice from a lot of great people on how you can have a fulfilling and yet stressless day. Thanks to Simon Sinek, Scott Hanselman, Russell Foster, Jeff Hadan, Belle Beth Cooper, Admiral William H. McRaven, and Dwight D. Eisenhower for sharing their experience. Of course, I don’t always keep all guardrails but I give my best to remind me what is good for me.
Rise early, start work early, stop early
Even for those that like to sleep in late: The sooner we begin, the earlier we could stop and go home again. Have you ever stopped your work at 4 in the afternoon? Do you dare?
Be enthusiastic about the day
This is a trick from mental training and from self-fulfilling prophecies: if you see the day as it will be a great day, then it will most likely be one.
Make your bed
If you make your bed in the morning, you will have completed the first little task, getting your first shot of dopamine, and so many others will follow. And even if you had a miserable day, you at least have a bed that is made for you.
Plan for your time off-work
Look forward to stopping your work. Plan something special to do. Delight yourself about the upcoming evening. If you plan on stopping your work to do something special then you might actually do it.
Use your commute, even if you don’t have one
Commuting to work helps you prepare to leave your private life behind and get your mind ready for work. The same is true for the commute home: it allows you to leave your work life behind and get your mind ready for your private life. If you don’t have to commute, because you work from home, then still commute: take a 15 minutes walk around the house in the morning and in the evening and arrive either for work or for play.
Select and do your Most Important Tasks (MIT) first
It’s your day! No one except you owns your day! Decide which of the tasks you want to do today. Then, select the tasks that you absolutely have to do today. These are those that would keep you longer at work or up all night. You are the most creative before 10 or 11 am. If you are being paid to be creative, then why do you participate in uncreative meetings during your most creative time? This is a total misuse of your time! Instead, plan and do your MITs of the day at the beginning of your day. Once your MITs are done, you can enjoy the rest of the day.
Focus on one topic only
Never mix project tasks and daily, operational tasks. These two types of tasks require completely different approaches. They don’t really get along well in your brain. Operational tasks require short bursts, while project tasks usually require longer thinking.
Reward yourself with short breaks
Start a task and set a goal for how long you want to work on it. Usually, this is between 20 to 45 minutes. Work on the subject, don’t let yourself be distracted or interrupted. When the time is up, have a short break and do something else. If you are easily distracted or interrupted, note down why this happens and analyze the reasons to improve constantly.
Rest your eyes
The more time we spend in front of the display of our computers, the more strain we put on our eyes. Our eyes need breaks, too! Focus your eyes every 20 minutes for 20 seconds on something which is 20′ feet (6 m) away or more (20-20-20 rule).
Take a walk
We are sitting way too much. Walk around the desk, the office, the building, or even better outside of the office. The sunlight and the fresh air will replenish your energy and creativity quickly. Use your iPhone to count your steps taken during the day. Get at least 5,000 per day.
Triage your messages 3 times a day max
Unless you are working on a hotline or in customer service, shut off all distractions from incoming messages and plan to check your inbox only 3 times a day. I suggest to not read your mail before you got your MITs done. When you check your mails, read each mail only once and decide what to do about it. Use the Eisenhower Method to decide whether it is urgent and important or whether it can be dealt with later on. If later create a task or reminder but move the mail out of the inbox. I wish I could rename the ‚inbox’ to ‚triage box’ because that’s what it is. Keep your inbox clean.
Write less mails to receive less
Ever wanted less mails? Then send less mails with less addressees. If you send a mail then the receiver will most likely send another mail to which you will have to reply again. It’s as simple as that. Pick up the phone, walk over and talk. But don’t send that mail!
Give a „thank you“ in person
A ‚thank you‘ is emotional. Mails are impersonal. If you want to thank someone, then do it in person, either by walking over or by picking up the phone. You won’t believe how positive the reaction will be when you give a „thank you“ in person.
Write only short mails
Why invest hours to answer a mail to a single person or small group? Try to limit yourself to only 3 to 4 sentences. Think about generalizing the content, write a blog entry, and send the link. This way more people may use your advise.
Plan the next day
Don’t wait until you finish something which doesn’t have to be finished today. Stop in the middle of a text and write down any unfinished ideas. This way, you can use the momentum and just keep on going the next day. If you would finish it or the paragraph, you will have to start without momentum and might suffer writer’s block the next day. Write down all good ideas you have, all tasks that can be done later. This way, everything that reminds you about your work and may keep you up at night is off your mind. This list will be your start the next day to select your MITs.
Self-reflect before leaving the office
Keep a diary about the good things that you did or that happened today. Write it down. Has anyone congratulated you for your work? Write it down. What did you do successfully? Write it down. It will help you on days that didn’t go as planned. Because then, you can check your diary and find lots of success stories.
Leaving your work is the most difficult task each day, especially mentally. Do it at the time that you had planned. Don’t let yourself be tricked into working longer. It will make you feel miserable.
Don’t take everything too seriously
Seriously, life is what happens away from work.
Practice a wind-down procedure
Find a wind-down procedure that lets you forget about your work either during your commute or right when you get home. Winding down allows you to concentrate on your personal life. You don’t ever want to take business topics to bed.
Use low or soft light before sleeping
Light keeps you awake. Once you get tired and want to go to bed, don’t turn on the light, definitely not the computer or TV. Don’t turn on the light in the bathroom to brush your teeth. Do that before you start to get tired or in the dark.
Our body and especially our brain needs sleep to function properly. During sleep everything learned today is moved from the short-term memory to the log-term memory. If you don’t sleep, then you can’t learn. Find out how many hours of sleep you need. Usually, you should get between 7 and 8 hours, 8 being better. If you miss your planned bedtime, then have yourself be reminded. If you are still wide awake at bedtime, go to bed and read a non-thrilling book. That should put you right to sleep.
Updated on 23. April 2020 to reflect on working from home.
Updated on 29. April 2020 to include Admiral William H. McRaven and make your bed.