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Why Running Your Own Business is Empowering

strong woman

strong womanI had lunch with a friend the other day. Like me, she launched a new business in her 50’s. Now, she’s launching another one (after taking a year out to recover from cancer.) When I asked her how she was feeling about all of this change in her life, she smiled.

“I feel great,” she answered. “I feel empowered.”

Her comment got me thinking about the word “empowerment.” Much like “leaning in,” empowerment is one of those buzzwords we all throw around  without really defining what we mean by it.

Saying No…and Saying Yes

One of the most important lessons you learn as you age is how – and when – to say “No.” Just as there are good reasons to accept work that doesn’t pay as well as you’d like when you need the money, there are equally good reasons to turn down work even if you have time.

Lately, however, I’ve also been enjoying the freedom of saying “Yes.” It’s not that I’m taking on work that I don’t really need or want. It’s that when a random opportunity crops up that’s slightly outside my comfort zone, I’m not instinctively saying “No” before I fully consider it.

I was offered two potential pieces of work this week that are both slight reaches for me. One is fairly far outside of my knowledge base and the other is for an audience I’m not familiar with.

I’m not sure I’m going to end up doing either of them. But the simple act of being open to an unexpected opportunity felt empowering because I was expanding my set of choices.

Setting Boundaries

My old boss once told me that I was exceptionally good at “ordering chaos.”

He was right. And while he meant it as a compliment, it can also be a curse. Whether it’s a paper, a project, or a meeting, if I encounter something that isn’t well-organized, I can’t help myself:  I fix it.

The problem is, sometimes that’s not my job. I was in a meeting the other day where the potential client was very much in brainstorming mode. I love that sort of thing. But at a certain point I could barely suppress the urge to leap up out of my seat, grab a marker and commandeer the white board to help structure the thinking.

That was problematic on two fronts. First, no one asked me to stand up; I simply felt compelled. Second, I sensed that if I did take ownership of that white board, I might very quickly end up running that project for them. And I knew I didn’t want that.

So instead of trying to order that particular piece of chaos, I walked away from it. I told those assembled exactly where I thought I could make a contribution, asked them to reach out to me when they were ready, and then exited the room.

My old work self would *never* have done that. She’d have taken notes and started project managing. But newly empowered Delia simply said, “Call me when you need me.”

Asserting Your Worth

Taking a page from Kayleigh and Paul on the Creative Class podcast, I raised my freelance rates this year. I didn’t do anything drastic, and I stayed within my market. I also waited until I had a solid track record of success – with the testimonials to prove it – so that I could justify the increase, should anyone challenge me. (They didn’t.)

With one of my clients, I also went back and asked for more money when the scope of the initial work expanded – in time and volume – beyond what we’d originally agreed.

A year ago – and certainly 5 years ago  – I never would have done either of those things. My M.O. would simply have been to keep absorbing more work, even if it felt unfair or over-burdening. Indeed, I would have felt guilty had I asked for more pay.

This time, in contrast, I felt like I was simply asking for my payment to reflect my true value and effort.

Empowerment as Liberation

Most people think of self-employed people as liberating themselves from offices. But I never had a problem with offices.

What I needed liberation from was myself:  my inability to say no to things I didn’t want to do, my reluctance to embrace things I might want to do, and my tendency to wildly over-compensate for other people’s shortcomings.

So I do feel empowered. But not in the sense of finally being CEO in my company of one. Rather, what running my own business has taught me is that I am free to make choices that make me happier. And Lordy, does that feel good.

Image: Strong Woman (Unsplash) via Wikimedia Commons

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Tips for Adulthood: Five Myths about Public Speaking

public speaking

public speakingOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

Public speaking is a critical skill in the 21st century workplace. And yet many people list public speaking as their top fear, second only to death. That fear can be particularly damaging for women, who often suffer from “Fear of Public Speaking” (FOPS) syndrome.

But a lot of that fear is misplaced. And that’s because most people misunderstand the most effective way to make a presentation, whether it’s to an interview panel, their boss, or a large crowd.

Here are five myths about public speaking that you need to let go of if you wish to come across as relaxed and confident when you speak:

Read the rest of this post over on The Return Hub

Image: Actor-People-Women-Speech via Pixabay

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The Social Value of Older Workers

In the seemingly never-ending conversation about the “future of work,” older workers figure prominently. There is growing recognition that enabling older workers to remain economically productive is good for their well-being, good for their employers and good for the economy. But I would like to highlight another benefit older workers can bring to the table: their potential to help solve social problems.

First, a brief detour to the well-known numbers:  older workers are a large, and rapidly growing, segment of the workforce across the world. In the United States, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that 25% of the country’s labour force in 2024 will be 55 or older; that’s up from 22% in 2014 and just 12% in 1994. In the U.K., the number of those aged over 70 who are in full- or part-time employment has been steadily rising year on year for the past decade, reaching a peak of 497,946 in the first quarter of this year – an increase of 135% since 2009.

Not everyone agrees that this surge in the number of working “perennials”  – as this cohort has sometimes been called — is necessarily to be welcomed. A recent RSA report examining the impact of the technological age on older workers in the UK, for example, outlined four different scenarios, not all of which were positive.

But contrary to the traditional view of older workers as an unmitigated drain on resources, there is growing appreciation of what they might bring to the table.

Read the rest of this post over on the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing blog

Image: Office Business Colleagues Meeting via Pixabay

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Tips for Adulthood: Five Tools for Adopting a Growth Mindset

working woman

working womanOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

One of the things I enjoy most about my new life as a communications consultant is the variety it brings. One day I’m coaching a student on how to write a doctoral thesis …another day I’m editing a policy briefing…and the next I’m delivering a workshop on life skills for offices to a group of statisticians.

But dealing with that variety also has its challenges. Lately, I’ve been spreading my wings outside of the higher education and non-profit sectors to venture into commercial work. And as I begin working with a different sort of client, I am learning how to operate in an entirely new world – one that has its own vocabulary, mores and ethos.

I’ve long been a huge fan of  Carol Dweck’s concept of “the growth mindset.” This is the idea that we shouldn’t think about our basic qualities, like intelligence or talent, as fixed traits that are unalterable. Rather, she encourages people to embrace a “growth mindset,” one where people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. So as I make my foray into London’s financial center, “The City,” to drum up new clients, I am in full-on, growth mindset mode.

Here are five tools for adopting a growth mindset:

a.  Think of it as part of your lifelong learning. Dweck maintains that a growth mindset fosters a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. In a similar vein, one of the key takeaways from reading Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott’s brilliant book, The 100 Year Life, is that we need to abandon the traditional idea of a neatly arranged, three-staged life comprised of education, career and retirement. Instead, we need to embrace a multi-phased life course in which people keep learning throughout their lives, take lots of breaks and dip in and out of jobs and careers.  I think about my immersion in the private sector right now as a form of life-long learning, albeit one that doesn’t happen outside my job, but within it.

b.  Create some affirmations. One practical step that can help cultivate a growth mindset are affirmations. Affirmations are short, powerful statements of self-belief.  I adopted this practice – (which, like many others, I stole from Julia Cameron) – when I was writing my book manuscript last year. Telling myself things like, “I’m a good writer,” “I like my book,” and “My writing engages and connects with readers” was really helpful on those off days where I didn’t have flow or lost confidence in myself. But affirmations don’t have to just be creative. They can also apply to work, e.g.: “I am a great salesperson,”…”I enjoy client relationship management,”…”I love empowering people from all walks of life to achieve their full communications potential.” As a friend of mine who spent 30 years as a consultant in the private sector put it, “Don’t think of the Private Sector Delia as different to University Delia or Non-Profit Delia. She is the same person, who happens to be applying her skill set to a different sector.”

c.  Join a group. Another way to build confidence and gain insight when you’re embracing a new professional identity is to join a group of other people facing a similar challenge. Last year I joined a global network of professional women called Ellevate, right when I was launching my business. Ellevate operates chiefly through “squads” – groups of women of different ages, sectors and stages of their careers who meet virtually over 12 weeks to provide advice and support to one another. I found it incredibly reassuring – and useful – to bounce ideas about marketing, business development and networking with other women who were either going through – or had already been through – a similar set of challenges.

d.  Get a new wardrobeResearch has also shown that what we wear to work affects the way we are perceived by others and the way we perceive ourselves. So if we want to adopt a new mindset – “I am the boss lady now!” – changing our clothes can help change our mindset. I’m already well on my way to rocking the City

e.  In the end, of course, if you really want to lean into your growth mindset, there’s no substitute for Nike’s motto: “Just do it!” I was listening to the Creative Class podcast the other day, when host Paul Jarvis observed that “the cure to fear is action.” Although I normally dislike cold-calling people – hearing this clarion call – I grabbed the phone and adopted a “smile and dial” mindset. And guess what? I landed three leads in 24 hours.

How about you? What strategies have you employed to get yourself in the right mindset for a new professional identity?

Image: Woman taking phone call via Pexels

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Why I Struggle With Weekends

gardening

gardeningI was observing a presentation skills workshop recently aimed at a bunch of Alpha Male, hedge fund-type guys who wanted to improve their pitching skills. Attendance had been spotty; every hour or so, one of them disappeared to make a crucial phone call or broker a deal. During one of the breaks, one of them raised his hand and asked: “Couldn’t you deliver this on a weekend? I’m sure you’d get a better turnout.”

My first instinct would have been to say, “Sure! Let’s do that!” Instead, the guy running the workshop smiled politely and responded, “No, sorry. I don’t work on weekends. Weekends are for gardening and spending time with my family.”

I was floored.

Part of it is that I’ve been drawn to a series of careers over the years that don’t lend themselves to normal work weeks. My first job was in academia. When you’re a junior professor, you’re evaluated on how much you produce, not the quality of your teaching.  So weekends are gold for advancing your research, free of the distraction of students and committee meetings.

My next career – journalism – wasn’t any better. When you’re writing on deadline, or producing a daily radio show (as I did for four years), you’re a slave to the clock. The entire concept of 9 to 5 disappears.

Now I’m launching my own business. The first question I was asked by a company who recently hired me as a consultant was “Do you work weekends? Because if you don’t, we can’t hire you.” My gardening colleague above has been doing this for a long time. It’s easy for him to turn down work. I’ve just started, so I’m not in that position. I said “sure” without blinking an eye.

There’s a societal component to this as well. Katrina Onstad has written a book called The Weekend Effect. She blames the loss of the weekend on two primary factors. First, there’s the rise of competitive parenting, forcing parents to feel obligated to pack their kids’ weekends with soccer practice, chess tournaments and mandarin lessons. There’s also the pull of the constant, 24/7  technology era in which we live, which encourages us to remain permanently “switched on.”

In my own case, it’s far more personal. I struggle with slowing down. There is a fear of the abyss – of how to deal with the thoughts and fears that crop up when I don’t have 10,000 things to tick off my to-do list. Sundays are particularly bad, because vestiges of my childhood creep in to the poison the day.

Because I’ve conditioned myself to this expectation of working on weekends, I now feel guilty if I don’t do at least some work over the weekend. As if I’ve done something wrong. A therapist I saw 20 years ago once asked me why I found it so difficult to not work on weekends. I worked religiously on Sundays back then, so he was really asking me why I couldn’t at least take Saturdays off. I responded, “It’s not that I can’t take a Saturday off. It’s that when I do it, I feel like some people do when they’ve consumed an entire box of chocolates.” It was simpler to just to work and not deal with the guilt trip.

I know this is all terribly unhealthy. I’ve read the research showing that when people are nudged to treat the weekend as a vacation, they return to work on Monday happier than those who crammed too much in. Nor does adopting this “vacation mindset” mean that you need to spend a lot of money or race off to the beach. It just means taking a mental break from work. Like my friend the gardener.

So here’s a new resolution. In a year when I’ve resolved that my watch word will be balance, I’m going to try and gradually let go of feeling compelled to work on weekends.

After *this* Saturday, that is, when I’m scheduled to help facilitate an all-day workshop…

Sigh.

Image: A Woman enjoying gardening outdoors via Freestockphotos.biz

 

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How To Dress for a Portfolio Career

scarves

scarvesOne of the joys of embracing a portfolio career later in life is that it provides an opportunity to integrate different strands of your professional identity. One challenge I didn’t foresee was how to assemble a wardrobe to complement those multiple selves.

But I’m learning as I go.

The Writer: Grad Student Redux

It’s easy for me to dress for the writer/editor part of my new career as a communications consultant. My default style – to the extent that I have one – tends to be fairly casual. Indeed, one of the things I enjoyed most about being a freelance writer back when my children were little was the ability to show up to the school run in some version of my pajamas.

These days, there is no school run. But when I work at home, I still revert to full-on graduate student mode. The other day, I was clad in a pair of baggy Adidas sweat pants, a college sweatshirt and a baseball cap. All that was needed to complete the picture was a bottle of Diet Coke, a package of Oreos and a half-eaten Stouffer’s “Classic” French Bread bread pizza. (Remember those? Bliss…)

The Teacher: Wanna Be Parisienne

On days when I teach or coach writing at a university, that’s also pretty manageable. I’ve got enough basics to easily anchor a five-day rotation. I simply accessorize like crazy.

I’m all about scarves. I used to just loop them around my neck haphazardly until my husband – (who in another life might double as Yves Saint Laurent) –  came back from a trip to France and sent me a video entitled “How to Tie Your Scarf like a Parisian.” Ever since, and taking a page from Margaret, I’ve been experimenting. (The scarf-as-necklace was a complete eye-opener to me…)

Speaking of necklaces, I’ve also got a decent assortment of those – which, like scarves – can add a bit of Je Ne Sais Quoi to the same old, same old. My next move is to invest in some vintage costume jewelry.

Going Corporate: No More Foxhunting

Where I struggle a bit is when I venture into the private sector for a meeting. There – sartorially, at least – I’m a bit out of my depth.

The first problem is that my only suit was purchased in the late 1990’s, back when people were still dancing the Macarena. It’s a decent brand, and I thought it looked all right, until my daughter asked to borrow the jacket to play a “huntsman” in her high school play. Seeing her on stage killed it for me. Sure, I live in England. But I’m not exactly trying to channel Lady Mary from Downtown Abbey on a fox hunt.

My second problem is that because my new business is not yet a year old, I don’t yet have the wallet to afford a suitable corporate wardrobe.

Thank goodness for friends. One of my friends’ daughters works in the corporate headquarters of a high-end retail chain in the UK. This company doesn’t pay its junior staff all that well, but it does reward them with – wait for it – a 65% discount on all items in the store. Guess who just got the keys to the kingdom?

So if you happen to see me wandering around the streets of London’s financial district looking like I own Paris, you’ll know my secret.

Dress for the Part(s)

Whether you’re embarking upon a new position within the same organization or in an entirely new field, starting a new job often requires a new wardrobe. Back-office admin does not require the same look as a front-office sales position. You need to adjust your wardrobe accordingly.

The same holds for a portfolio career. You just need to be a bit creative in your sartorial assemblage, while you wait for your income to catch up with your chosen métiers. (If I may work the French metaphor to death.)

Advice gratefully accepted. Merci.

Image: Scarf Cloth Colorful Towels via Pixabay

Tips for Adulthood: Five Tips for New Entrepreneurs

Freelance

FreelanceOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

I started my new communications consultancy almost a year ago. Since then, I’ve been hard at work delivering a combination of mini-courses, workshops and one-on-one coaching. What’s odd is that although I’ve worked as a freelancer before, I’m learning a whole new set of skills this time around.

This post is aimed particularly at those of you who’ve always dreamed of setting up your own businesses. Here are five things to bear in mind:

a. Negotiate your deliverables in detail. That might sound obvious, because, hey, what are contracts for, right? But I’ve got news for you:  contracts can be super vague. Trust me, in my previous job, I wrote them all the time. And especially if you’re working with a client you know well – deliverables can be vague and fuzzy – because, hey, we’re all friends, right? The only person who benefits from a fuzzy deliverable is the person paying for it. It gives them leeway to claim that whatever they are asking you to do – including work neither of you initially discussed – plausibly falls within the contours of the agreement. So be precise. Super precise. And if they ask you to do something that doesn’t match the original deliverable, ask for more money. Which brings us to money.

b. Always charge more than you think you should. A year or so ago, when I was still in the concept development phase for my new company, I got some great advice from the women in my Ellevate squad: if a client accepts your budget up front, you’ve charged too little. Damned straight. Entire books have been written on how to sort out our collective discomfort with asking for money (The Soul of Money is top of my list… ). But once you work throught all of that, you need to remember that you are running a business and that time is money. So there are two reasons to ask for more than you think you should. First, everything in life is a negotiation. However high you come in, they are likely to come back with a lower offer. Adjust for that in advance. Second, when you’re starting out, much of what you’re offering is new. So if, like me, you’re delivering workshops or mini-courses, you need to factor in not only your delivery time, but your prep time. This doesn’t meant you should never charge less than your day rate, once you’ve determined what that is. It might be a client whose name you’d like to see on your resumé. Or it might piece of work you’re so passionate about that you’re willing to charge less. Or, because you’re new to this  line of work, you might decide that you’d like to demonstrate how much value you add – and get some testimonials under your belt – before raising your rates. Whatever you do, remember that failure to talk openly about pay usually translates into lower rates.

c. Learn to say no. I’ve said this before, but it really does take a while to let it sink in: learn to say no. When you’re starting out, it’s tempting to say yes to everything. But – take my word for it – that can quickly erode any balance you might be hoping to establish in your life. Just as there are good reasons to accept work that doesn’t pay as well as you’d like, there are equally good reasons to turn down work even if you have time. It might not be something you enjoy very much, so the opportunity cost of doing it is higher than for other jobs you might take on. You might not need the money all that much. Or you might foresee that it’s going to be way more work than you bargained for, and will simply amount to a headache. I have taken this approach to editing. Editing is part of my current portfolio.  But because I’ve done so much of it in the past, it’s not as exciting as the other work that I do. So I only take on editing clients who either pay exceptionally well or who represent clients I’d really like to cultivate. (See b)

d. Fake it Til You Make It. When I teach public speaking and my course on life skills for offices, I encourage my students to adopt that adage “Fake it til’ you Make it.” A year or so ago, a friend of mine, who’s also a very seasoned communications consultant, gave me this piece of advice: “Never tell people you ‘could’ do something. Always say that you ‘can.'” And how. Before they hire you, people want to know that you can do something. And chances are, you can, even if you haven’t. So while I never accept work that I don’t think I can deliver to the very highest standard, I have been in the position of saying “Yes I Can.” It’s amazing how empowering those three little words can be. And guess what? Once you’ve done it, you can do it!

e. Learn when to give up. Much like asking for money, it can be very uncomfortable to pester someone to get back to you on work you’ve pitched them. So how often to ping? I used to approach people only three times before giving up. I assumed they just weren’t interested, but were too awkward – or busy – to bother telling me “No.” Then I started asking around. One colleague told me that the magic number is “seven” – assume that your name has simply filtered to the bottom of their inbox and they need a quick reminder. People are busy, after all.  Seven sounded high to me, but I tried it. And in one instance, after five tries, I got a gig. Another colleague told me that his approach is to “pester them until they either give you work or tell you to F#$% off.” Works well for him! The one thing I would say is that if someone has made it clear to you that he or she isn’t interested, leave them alone. If you push too hard, it can actually be off-putting and alienate them permanently.

My best advice is to be patient. You won’t make a lot of money during your first year while you build up your portfolio of offerings and client base. But if you remember that “Every Day is Groundhog Day” and persevere, you may end up really glad you sallied forth.

How about you? What advice would you give your newbie entrepreneur/freelancer self?

Image: Notebook-iPad-Freelance work by jeunghwaryu0 via Pixabay.com

Teaching Writing: Editing vs. Coaching

Ballerina

BallerinaThere’s a scene in one of my all-time favorite films, All that Jazz, that addresses the perennial question about innate talent vs. learned ability. In the scene, the protagonist –  a choreographer modeled on the legendary Bob Fosse – confronts a ballerina in his company who’s crying because she knows she’s not as good as the other dancers.

“I can’t make you a great dancer,” Fosse consoles her. “But I can make you a better dancer.”

That’s how I feel when I work with writers.

I don’t know if there’s such a thing as being a “natural talent” in writing. You can definitely see when a writer has a gift – David Foster Wallace, Amos Oz, and my new idol – Anna Burns – all come to mind. But, as we all know, years of half-written sentences and crumpled up drafts – not to mention gallons of self-doubt – lie behind any prose that looks effortless.

For most of us mere mortals, however, writing is mostly about putting your bum in the chair and being willing to write shitty first drafts. So then the question becomes:  how do you help people become “better dancers?”

Read the rest of this post over on The Writing Coach UK

 

Image: Ballet Ballerina via Wikimedia Commons

Portfolio Careers: The Psychological Dimension

portfolio

portfolioA year or so before I broke up with my therapist, I arrived at one of our bi-monthly sessions one day, plopped myself down and announced that we’d be discussing career change. It was a few months after I’d been laid off from my job and I was beginning to contemplate my next professional move.

“I just don’t know how to pull it all together,” I moaned. “I mean, how do you combine writing, editing, coaching, delivering insight and project management all into one job description? What job is that?”

She looked at me quizzically. “Why would you want to do only one thing with your life?”

To paraphrase Buddha: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

With that one simple question, my therapist got me thinking usefully about portfolio careers again.

 

The Rise of the Portfolio Career

Portfolio careers have been the new black for some time now in the work world. Technological change, flexible working arrangements, the demand for highly specialised skills and the evolving appeal of work-life balance mean that more people now have jobs that blend a number of roles. In the UK where I live, for example,  one in five British people are expected to earn money from a secondary form of employment by 2030.

Portfolio careers are proving particularly appealing with older workers, (a category in which I proudly count myself.) Precisely because we’re all living longer than ever before, there’s no reason for people to start working at 65 – or 75 for that matter!

And who knows how long current pension schemes will sustain us?

 

Diversifying Risk

Many workers, like myself, are pursuing portfolio careers out of economic necessity. As marketing guru Dorie Clark argues, it’s the best way to hedge against financial risk.

My own portfolio career as a communications professional comprises three main verticals, with a fourth in development. My main income stream comes from offering soft skills training of various sorts, principally in writing, speaking and blogging.

At the same time, I supplement my training work with a fair amount of editing.

I’ve also started work as a writing coach. This is a hybrid of the first two. It combines some of the line-editing and writing tips that come with being an editor, with the motivational aspects of the workshop facilitator.

Finally, I’m also training as a public speaking coach, a fourth income stream I hope to leverage in the new year.

 

Finding Balance

I think a lot of silverpreneurs embrace portfolio careers for reasons that extend way beyond our pocketbooks. As we age, portfolio careers also offer a greater degree of autonomy…and fulfillment.

In my own case, I’ve never fully managed to reconcile my manager and maker selves in one integrated whole. So doing a job that combines the deeply-focused, puzzle-solver of the editor with the animated cheerleader of the coach and the supportive nurturer of the teacher is a perfect blend of who I really am.

I’ve also come to realize that although personality tests repeatedly confirm that I’m an extrovert, there’s an introvert in there screaming (quietly) to assert herself as well. The introvert welcomes those days when she gets to stay at home in her pajamas poring over a text to make it read better. She doesn’t always need to be on the stage. She likes downtime and peace and quiet too. So that sort of balance is equally important to me in this new phase of life.

I used to think that finding the right career simply boiled down to figuring out what you like and what you’re good at and where those intersect. I now think it’s also about finding a job – or, more precisely, set of jobs – that speak to the different strands of your personality as well.

Image: Another pile of accordion file folders by Kasaa via Flickr

Tips for Adulthood: Five Tips for Managing Your Workload

deadlines

deadlines“Do as I say, not as I do.”

So goes the famous saying uttered round the world by everyone who’s ever been a parent. Lately, however, I’ve also been finding its relevance to my role as a teacher.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m currently teaching a course entitled “Life Skills for Offices” to a bunch of Masters students in the statistics department at the LSE. I’m having loads of fun with the course, where we cover everything from interviewing skills and project management to teamwork and cross-cultural communication.

But after a recent workshop in which I introduced the students to assorted strategies for managing their workload, I realized that I was not practicing what I preached. I’ve had an incredibly busy month, waking at 5 am to get a jump on my day more times than I’d care to mention. I’ve also worked straight through the last three weekends.

It all came to a head yesterday, when I was meeting with one of the members of my personal board of directors and I confessed to her that I was struggling with work-life balance. She reminded me that being my own boss enables me to control the balance in my life; I do not report to anyone anymore.

It was a good wake up call. So, today, in an effort to align my message with my behaviour, I am sharing five tips for managing your workload so that you don’t get overwhelmed:

a. Use an Eisenhower matrix. One of the tools I introduced my students too for prioritizing their workloads is the so-called Eisenhower Matrix. This deceptively simply tool builds from a speech in which former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower once famously said, “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” Eisenhower apparently used these two dimensions to organise his own workload, and they have since morphed into a matrix in which all tasks can be sorted into four categories, each with its own decision rule: urgent and important (Do!); important but not urgent (Plan!); urgent but not important (Delegate or postpone!) and neither urgent nor important (Delete!) The matrix is particularly useful for calling attention to how much time you spend doing things that are urgent but not really important (e.g., email). It also forces you to see how little time you allow in your schedule for things that really matter, but aren’t pressing and thus slip off the radar until they ultimately come back to bit you in the rear end. This technique empowered me to ignore a bunch of stuff sitting in my inbox and focus instead on what really needed to get done (e.g., business development for generating new clients).

b. Deep work. But even if you recognize those super-important items on your To Do list that aren’t urgent but await execution, you still need to set aside time to tackle these “biggies.” Here, I advised the students to engage in deep work, a strategy that allegedly explains the productivity of everyone from Albert Einstein to Bill Gates to Toni Morrison. Deep work simply means setting aside large chunks of uninterrupted time to do those important but time- and labor-intensive pieces of work that require intent focus. According to productivity gurus, chunking your work day in this way enables you to allocate your energy where it’s most needed, while leaving the rest of the day for the less important tasks that need to happen but don’t require as much concentration (e.g. meetings/email.) In my last office job, I mastered this strategy to the point where I was able to dump all meetings into three days, leaving two full days for the deep work of editing. I need to remember how great it felt to be on top of my workload.

c. Work backwards from your deadline. This one is so obvious that I shouldn’t need to remind myself of it. But when I recently found myself staring at five, 2-3 hour workshops I’d somehow managed to commit myself to delivering over one week in February, I realised that I needed my own refresher course in project management 101. The basic idea here is quite simple:  as soon as you have a deadline, work backwards so that you know exactly how much time you need allocate to that project each month/week/day etc. to hit that deadline on time. As I told my students, there are two important corollaries to this old time management chestnut: 1.) First, be sure to factor all non-work obligations into your planning, such as public holidays, vacations, conferences, doctor’s appointments, etc; and 2.) Second, be sure that you actually block out your calendar to prepare for these deadlines so that you don’t commit time you don’t have to other projects (See b, above). Oh yes, and get thee to a Gantt chart.

d. Schedule virtual coffees. This was a suggestion from my fellow kitchen cabinet member during our catch-up yesterday. I was complaining that there were so many coffees I wanted to schedule – whether for networking purposes or just socially – but that I really didn’t have time right now to spend half a day schlepping up and back from central London to make them happen.  So she suggested that – as she and I had just done – I begin scheduling virtual coffees. You still get the caffeine fix, you still get the stimulation and face-time, but you don’t lose all those precious hours (and pounds/dollars/name your currency…) commuting. I’ve got my first one next week. I’ll let you know how it goes.

e. Just say no. Really, just say it once in a while, both to work requests you don’t realistically have time for and to social requests you really don’t really have energy for. It will add hours to your day. And it feels great.

How about you? How do you get your workload under control? Share your secrets in the comments section!

Image: Deadline by Geralt via Pixabay

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