Wake up, walk the dog, get ready for work, toil away at a job you don’t care about, come home, feed the dog, your kids, and yourself, go to bed. Wake up and do it all over again. Have you had this experience?
How many of us operate in the spin cycle of unconscious work and life?
I have some recent experiences of my own to illustrate this phenomenon. Last December, I left my own consulting firm to take a job in tech. I loved what I did as a small business owner; the work itself which centered around helping clients at big companies create a better culture. I loved running the business; developing the strategy, forecasting revenue, writing proposals and invoicing clients.
And most of all, I loved creating my own work experience. I could choose to work from home or from my fancy little office. I could schedule my client meetings at times that made sense for me. I could spend time with a trusted vendor to learn about a new service that he or she had to offer. I could research markets or competitors and work to create new ideas for the business. My days were my own, and I got to choose my priorities. It was my dream come true.
But things changed and due to unfortunate circumstances, I had to leave the business and take a job with a company that would pay me as a full-time employee. I said farewell to my clients as a consultant, and accepted a leadership position in a small, exciting, rapidly growing start-up.
While there are lots of great things about working for a start-up in the tech space (which I’ll detail another time), the fact is that when you go to work for someone else, you play by their rules. You execute their vision. Your days no longer belong to just you. I knew going in that this was going to be the case and I even mentally prepared myself for others’ expectations that I’d be in the office most of the time. That I’d be sitting at a desk in front of a computer much of my day. That I’d have to participate in office happenings like bake-offs and happy hours. While I disliked the idea of being physically tied to an office, I knew this was part of the deal in exchange for a steady paycheck and benefits.
In the first few months, I found myself pulled in to a lot of meetings. As one of the most senior people in the company, everyone wanted my perspective. I was the shiny new object. And while this is flattering, and I helped propel the company’s objectives forward, I got sucked in to meetings that took me away from my core responsibilities. And before I knew it, I’d lost day after day and week after week, going through the motions of work and life.
And I wasn’t happy.
The work itself was meaningful. But something didn’t feel right. I’d lost all of the entrepreneurial fire I had. I felt trapped. I questioned whether a reliable income was even important to me. (It is.) And worst of all, I’d become disengaged from my work and company; the very thing that as a consultant, I’d coached my clients never to let happen.
I made a decision. This phenomenon ends today. No more rinse and repeat. I’m taking my work-life back.
I read a lot from Tim Ferriss, self-described human guinea pig and Stoicism enthusiast. He’s a guy who studies people who have seemingly mastered life, are at the top of their respective games, but didn’t achieve success before they failed over and over. You and I get the luxury of reading or listening to their trials and don’t have to make the same mistakes if we choose to learn from these people. Check out Tim’s blog and other resources here.
Tim is just one of many who have taken the approach that life should be hacked. They question everything and push the boundaries of best practices and common sense and seek new and innovative ways of doing the things we all take for granted in this life. People like Tim are always looking at problems from new angles. Never settling for the status quo. Not doing anything “just because it’s always been done that way.” In fact, people like Tim go directly at conventional thinking and attempt to blow it up.
So here’s the hack in front of us – Do you want to experience better work days?
If not, thanks for getting this far. If so, read on.
According to Tim, “Routine in an intelligent person is a sign of ambition.” What he means is that smart people create simple, repeatable actions that work for them and save a lot of time and hassle so they have the energy to tackle the bigger, more important things. For more on routines, listen to Tim’s podcast here.
Tim has his own set of habits that work for him:
Take an ice cold shower
Meditate for 20 minutes
Drink a special tea
Journal for 5 minutes
I don’t know that I’ll be dumping ice water on my head anytime soon, but let’s look at that last suggestion – journaling. Tim prescribes a set of pretty simple writing exercises that we can all start doing right now to “win” our days. These are 5 minute rituals to start and end each day and go something like this:
- List 3 things for which you’re grateful. Everyone knows that gratitude is the best shit-mood killer, so take a minute to describe the things about which you feel fortunate. It feels good and puts you in the right mindset for the day.
- List 3 things that would make today great. Look at your calendar and the commitments in front of you. What can you do to make this day kick ass? Be more present with your co-workers? Crush a project that’s been languishing? Offer to have a heart-to-heart with your friend whose boyfriend just dumped her?
- List 3 amazing things that happened today. Even the shittiest days have a few things that you can point to that were great. Dig deep if you have to and find the gold.
- List 3 things you could have done to make today even better. There’s always room for improvement, so keep raising the bar for yourself. Never settle.
And here’s the last, but most important bit. Write down some “I am…” statements, maybe 3 or 4. The concept here is to record things that reflect your personal values; things that you believe in and that will guide your behavior. Here are some of mine:
- I am genuine and authentic in every interaction with others.
- I am constantly seeking ways to make the world a better place.
- I am free.
- I have high expectations for how I want to be treated by others.
These may or may not need to be changed on a daily basis when you’re doing the morning and evening journaling. But what’s cool is these statements force you to think about what’s important to you and what you stand for. I’ve fiddled with mine a few times over the last couple of weeks because some things bubble up to the top and writing them down gives me the confidence to then take action. After I feel I’ve accomplished something, I may move on and prioritize something else.
I’ve been doing these exercises religiously for about 6 weeks and here are the benefits I’ve experienced:
- More purposeful days, accomplishing what I set out to do that morning.
- A sense of freedom around my schedule. I plan my day and execute it the way I want it to be. I say no to meetings that aren’t core to meaningful work. I work off-site when I have an important project and I need to be alone.
- Better interactions with co-workers and friends because when I’m with them, I’m really with them, listening undistracted.
- Calmness at the end of the day, versus regret or angst.
- An appreciation for everything in my life, the good and the challenging. I am grateful for my new job and the opportunities it affords me.
- An overall feeling that my days are 8’s, 9’s, or 10’s versus 4’s and 5’s.
- The realization that my life is just that – mine. And it’s up to me to craft the kind of daily experience that’s fulfilling by my definition. I am not trapped.
- A recapturing of that “entrepreneurial spirit.”
I hope you’ll try this approach for at least 30 days. While it’s unrealistic to expect we can be 100% in control of every part of our day, we can get our heads on straight and make the choices that make our work life better.
If you take this seriously, I can almost guarantee you’ll end the spin cycle of mindless work days that used to have you shaking your head wondering what the hell you’ve been doing all these years.