Tag Archives: saying no

How to Inch Towards Your Ideal Day

Inchworm via Wikimedia Commons

Several years ago, back when I was contemplating a change in careers, I did an exercise where I described my “ideal day.” My description basically reads as follows: I spend my mornings writing, followed by some other, related creative activity: podcasting, giving a talk or interview, or attending a conference. The afternoons are devoted to a job that I love that brings home the bacon.

When friends call now – as they often do – to tell me that they’re tired of their job/industry/routine/life – I often begin by asking them to describe their ideal day. What I haven’t shared with them is that while my own description sits above my desk to remind me of my goals, I’ve not yet managed to achieve them. Most days, I write for an hour in the early morning and then do “real work” for the rest of the day. Sometimes, I start at 5 a.m. to squeeze it all in.

That changed this summer. With a bit more time on my hands, I slowly began to inch myself closer to realizing my ideal day. This didn’t happen magically; it was deliberate. Here are three changes I instituted that helped:

Saying No

One of the main upsides to running your own business is that you get to maximize the activities you like and minimize the ones you don’t. Otherwise, why not just go work for someone else who tells you how to spend your time?

Now that my business is up and running, I am fortunate to have a high number of repeat clients.  This means that I can spend less time selling and more time doing what I love – which is the design and delivery of workshops and coaching.

So I made a conscious choice this summer to considerably reduce the amount of business development that I do. Once I let go of cold calls, in particular, I suddenly had a lot more time in my day to devote to other things. Learning how to say “No” – as much to myself, as well as to others who were asking me to sell for them – was vital to this shift in behavior.

Taking Project Management Seriously

The second change I implemented was to get much smarter about managing my workload. I do a lot of work with universities, and the autumn tends to be my busiest time of the year for that work. So as the my calendar for the next few months begins to fill up, I am making sure to adhere to one of the fundamental principles of project management – which is to always work backwards from your deadlines.

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 it. As I tell my students, one important corollary to this old time management chestnut is to be sure that you block out your calendar to prepare for these deadlines. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself committing time to other projects and before you know it, you’ll be completely over-committed and stressed out.

It’s really hard for me to adhere to this principle, because my instinct is to always say “yes” and take on more work. But creating space to get “enough” work done and respecting that space is the only way to allocate time for other things you really value, like family, writing and exercise.

Embracing a Portfolio Mindset

I’ve written a lot about how I’ve embraced a portfolio career in later life. But a portfolio career is much more than a variety of different revenue streams. It’s also a mindset.

A portfolio mindset means that when you’re doing something that is part of your portfolio but not necessarily an income-earner – in my case, writing and volunteer work fall into this category – you don’t berate yourself endlessly when you’re spending time on those activities.

This was an incredibly hard transition for me to make. I’m very rule-bound. So if I decide that I will only spend one hour writing a day and eight hours “doing real work,” it’s really hard for me to break out of that routine.

But with more time on my hands this summer – largely due to Covid and its impact on my work – I found that I was better able to use my time to do a range of things that matter to me – even if I wasn’t earning money from them. The trick wasn’t finding the time. It was there. The trick was to re-frame that time as valuable and useful.

Writing with the wrong hand

All of which is a long way of saying that this summer I practiced what I call “writing with the wrong hand.” This is my shorthand for doing some things even when – and often especially when – they don’t feel comfortable.

My hope is that if I practice hard enough, some of these transitions will begin to feel routine. And then I will be that much closer to becoming my future self.

This blog originally ran on Sixty and Me.

How to Tackle an Addiction to Work in Three Easy Steps


workaholicMy chief goal for this year is to figure out why I work. Yeah, I know that sounds absurd. But when I created my New Year’s resolutions this year, I  realized that while my writing and personal goals were crystal clear, I couldn’t articulate a work goal beyond “work more.”

Another way to say this is that I am addicted to work. One definition of addiction is: “a psychological and physical inability to stop consuming a chemical, drug, activity, or substance, even though it is causing psychological and physical harm.” Coming from a large, sprawling Irish family with its fair share of substance abuse problems, I use the term “addiction” advisably. But I think in my case, it’s apt.

Now that I have  – in classic, 12-step fashion  – identified the problem, it’s time to step back and begin to craft a solution.

Here’s where I’ve gotten so far:

What would you do if this was your last day on earth?

This is the question the HeadSpace App uses to guide its meditation on prioritization. Given that Headspace is a mindfulness app, the question is posed softly and gently. But it is, of course, the eternal question we all need to answer.

Oddly enough, it’s also the first question I ask my friends who come to me for career advice. “I don’t know what to do with my life,” they will say, or some version therein.  I always begin by asking, “If you had an entirely free day tomorrow with no commitments whatsoever, how would you spend it?” Or, if you prefer, “What your 90-year-old self would advise you to do?”

In my case, I know I’d prefer to spend at least a third of my day writing. Of all the things I do in a day, writing is the activity where I feel most authentic and most relaxed. But at the moment, I’m not even close to achieving that 1/3 goal.

Practice Being Your Future Self

I’m stealing this strap line from a Harvard Business Review article. The upshot of the article is that once you’ve figured out the key components of your ideal day, you need to block out time to practice being that future self. (This is a familiar piece of advice to anyone who wants to be a writer, which essentially boils down to:  Start writing.) But what really resonated for me in this article was the way the author, Peter Bregman, framed the “future self” imperative. He writes: “You need to spend time on the future even when… there is no immediately apparent return to your efforts. In other words… if you want to be productive, you need to spend time doing things that feel ridiculously unproductive.”

That framing really hit home for someone who consistently conflates being productive with being busy. On any given day, doing the thing that you love can feel like you’re taking valuable time away from the 10,000 things you “need” to get done. Not so, says Bregman: “It’s the wildly important stuff that never gets done because it’s never urgent enough…or it’s too risky or terrifying” that you need to prioritize. True dat’.

Create Affirmations

Once you’ve set aside your “me” time, create some affirmations to reinforce that positive image of yourself. I’ve written before about how I’ve used positive self-talk in both my writing and my work. But in recent weeks, I’ve really doubled down. I’ve made a brand new list of ten affirmations tailored to the first quarter of this new year, which I repeat out loud every morning before I start my work day.

Of those ten, the hardest one to utter – but the one that matters most – is this: “It’s easy for me to say no to people.” It isn’t. And that’s not (entirely) because I often need the money. It’s because – courtesy of my addiction – I measure my productivity not in terms of number of sales or level of income (like most business people), but in terms of the number of hours worked. And with that as my metric for a job well done, more is always better. Isn’t it?

I’m trying really hard to focus on these three, big-ticket goals as I slowly work my way towards managing my addiction to work.

What strategies do you employ when you need to hit re-set on your own work/life balance?

Image: Workaholic writer via Pixabay