Guard rails


If you are a highly motivated person in a work environment where there’s always more to do than can ever be done, it’s critical to set up guard rails so you don’t work too much. Over the years, I’ve put in place a number of guardrails so I don’t tire myself out in a given working session, day, or week. Here’s what’s worked for me:

In a working session:

I use a timer app that rings every twelve minutes and reminds me to breathe well.

I like Awareness timer because it has minimal settings and it has the nicest sound of any timer app I’ve found. When the bell rings, I straighten up and take a few good breaths while I continue working and typing away. A few years ago, I noticed that I’d feel really physically awful the more hours I spent focused in a day. It took some observation and experimentation but I started to realize that when I get really focused I tend to hunch over my keyboard, take shallow breaths for long stretches, and tense up my whole body. I’m not a doctor but straightening up and breathing seemed like a good fix. During COVID, when I was working really long hours, I experimented with fairly complex break protocols. At one point, I was standing up, stretching, and doing a breathing routine every 40 minutes. Ultimately, I found protocols that made me stop what I was doing distracting. What was most helpful and solved my issue of feeling horrible at the end of day was a gentle, unobtrusive reminder to breathe. That nudge also created enough body awareness to let me decide if I wanted to do something more like stand up, stretch, or stop as needed.

In a day:

I sleep until I am done each night.

Basically, I sleep without an alarm and sleep until I naturally wake up. If I sleep longer than expected, it cuts into my work day and I have to work less. I’ve never regretted this as it’s always been worth the tradeoff in energy and focus for the hours that I am working. Generous sleep is the simplest thing I’ve found for improving my overall sense of well being. The only thing stopping most people is the pre-programmed guilt of internalized capitalism.

I plan a reasonable work load each day.

I create a daily plan of all the tasks I want to do each day. The crucial step is setting a time estimate for each task and cutting off my list when it reaches my daily workload limit. If I don’t put time estimates on my task, I’m likely to commit myself to more than I can reasonably do and then overwork myself trying to do it all. Over time, I’ve learned that the most I should plan for is about seven “focused hours” of  work a day. Focused hours are when I’m doing nothing else but the task at hand, I typically pause my timer when I get up for water, the bathroom, or a short walk. As a result, seven hours of focus usually expands to a 10 hours of being “in the office”. I’m most efficient when I plan about 6.5 focused hours, which surprisingly only expands to 9 hours.

I pick a time to end my work day.

I pick a daily shutdown time where I stop working for the day. I didn’t do this for many years and unsurprisingly work occupied nearly waking hours except for breaks to eat and and exercise. There was no time for real leisure. Sticking to my shutdown time is something I struggle to do consistently, I always want to finish the last thing I’m doing. I recently shifted up my work day so that my shutdown time corresponds with the last couple of hours of day light. If I don’t stop when I say I will, I’ll miss a chance for daylight activities. I’m highly sun-motivated so this helps me stick to my shutdown time.

I don’t install any work apps on my phone.

I don’t have Slack, Email, or GitHub installed on my phone. This way, I can’t get pulled into working when I intend to not be working. It took me many years of uninstalling and re-installing these apps to get comfortable with being unplugged from my work tools. It’s really hard even if your work environment is supportive of not having work apps on your phone.

In a week:

I take a no-computer day.

I do not use my computer one day each weekend. Once I’ve got a computer in front of me, I’m just not strong enough to look at work, think about work, or do work. It’s easier to simply not have a computer once a week. It’s not a “digital sabbath” since I still use my phone and television. My problem isn’t digital devices, it’s digital devices that can suck me into working.

I take one shorter day a week.

Currently, Monday is a three-quarters work day for me. Mondays are my “busiest” day and I typically engage in hundreds of different external conversation threads across email and customer support and dozens in my internal tools with my colleagues. By the time I’ve done all that, I’m usually too exhausted to do anything creative. (On the flip side, Friday night is my favorite day to work longer and work late since there’s less consequences of being mentally drained when I wake up on Saturday).

I limit unenjoyable and draining work to once a week.

I break each day of my week into a different theme. On Monday it’s admin and communication. I do all the finances, taxes, bills, paperwork on this day. I find this kind of work uninteresting, uninspiring, and draining. I lump this tiring work all into one day so it doesn’t pollute my energy and clarity on other days.

Facebook iconTwitter IconLinkedIn icon