work advice

It's a blessing and a curse to work from home or as a freelancer. On the plus side, you're not expected to fit into the prefab 9-to-5 box. Unfortunately, that means you have to create the whole day from scratch. For some, this is divine freedom. For others, it's a lot of free-floating time to eff up.

The secret to a successful work schedule is to know thyself.

The Seeker's Approach to the Work Schedule

The very notion of "time management" makes some of us want to rebel. It sounds restrictive — which anyone who has been on a crazy diet knows is a recipe for disaster. Rather than start color-coding a planner in blocks, artist and writer Laureen Marchand, says making a work schedule that works for you is about asking questions:

  • What do you want?
  • What's important?
  • What's important enough so you can commit to it?
  • Do I have goals? If so, what are they? If not, should I develop some?
  • What do I want to change?

"Remember, there are no wrong answers," she suggests. "What's right for you is right. But you're more likely to know what's right for you if you ask the questions."

For Marchand, these questions boiled down to values that could guide her days: "Almost daily time for the work that matters most to me. Enough money so I don't have to think about it. Recognition. Connection. Possibility."

The Structure-Is-Freedom Work Schedule

Some people, like Mark Wahlberg, like to schedule every hour of the day. For those who thrive in conditions of ultimate order, hand the job of taskmaster over to Google Calendar or the scheduling function of your choice. Rather than only putting in meetings, doctor's appointments, and the occasional lunch date, create a calendar that is your Daily Routine, suggests Whitson Gordon on Lifehacker.

Set up recurring events with pop-up reminders on your computer and cell phone that will remind you to shift gears. And here's the trick: When you get that pop-up to "Eat Lunch," "Yoga with Alison," "Draft Grant Proposal," drop everything and actually do it.

"Take these events seriously, and respect the calendar, and you'll find your routine becomes much easier to stick to," Whitson writes. "The key here is to set up the calendar and stick to it. Be serious about following to it. It's okay to 'boss yourself around' with this calendar. You're making these appointments with yourself b/c this is the way you want your life to be, so respect that. Don't put yourself at the bottom of all your other priorities/responsibilities. This calendar is here to remind you of that."

Create a window of time for revolving but endless errands and admin, so that you have time each day to go to the post office/drop bike off for a tune-up/call the insurance company.

"It may seem like overkill at first," writes Whitson. "Like you're scheduling every second of every day like a crazy person, but once you get it all set up, it won't seem so bad. Again, the idea isn't to interrupt your important work, just to send you little blips that remind you to shut down the distractions and get your daily routine back on track."

Know your own rhythms

Do you work best in short increments? Or will a long chunk of quiet and solitude lead to better productivity? Will getting email out of the way free up brain space for more innovative and big picture work? Or is that a form of procrastination for the real intellectual heavylifting your job requires. Again, know thyself. And then create the boundaries in your schedule that set you up for success.

We All Have the Same 24 Hours. What Can You Do With Yours?

There are real obstacles to getting our work done — childcare, meal planning, the whole great wide Internet. Feeling like we don't have enough time is such a constant many of us have adopted it as our mantra. There's never enough time!

"Of course, you don't have enough time! Who does? But then again, do you really not have enough time?" asks Laureen Marchand. "Or is it that you have lots of time and you aren't using it for what's important to you? Is your time taken with things that used to be matter but don't so much now? Are you busy doing things you don't really want to do? How can you do less of what you don't want and more of what you do?"

Rethink "Enough"

Defining what is enough for you — and "for you" are the operative words — means learning to silence what Jennifer Louden calls the "Hounds of More, More, More," who have endless suggestions for how to live well.

"Improve yourself! Make more money! Be more awesome! Rise to the top! More, more, mooooooooorrrrreeeee!"

The hounds also love to mess with your routine, yammering:

"Meditate first thing in the morning! No, I meant start with yoga! No, you should go to the gym! But it's summer so walk in nature! No, I meant writing, working on your side gig/sketching!"

It's exhausting. Why? Because the Hounds of More are concerned with illusory perfection, Louden writes, and are never satisfied.

But building a sense of personal satisfaction and accomplishment into your day is essential for creating momentum in a routine. Louden's Conditions for Enoughness help create finite and measurable action plans so that you can declare you did enough at the end of each day — even if you don't feel like you did.

Know your No's and Yes'es

We'll quote the master, here. As Steven R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People put it:

You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, non-apologetically, to say "no" to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger "yes" burning inside.

But how do you say no when we've been taught that abundance in all things is about saying yes?

"One thing that helps in this process of choosing a bigger yes is knowing that you do not have to choose one 'big yes' thing forever; you simply have to choose what you want to focus on for now," writes Melissa Dinwiddie, who says that all time management problems are really priority management problems. "In other words, 'no' does not have to mean 'never;' it can mean 'not right now.'"

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In 2005, I opened up a Gmail account and received my first message welcoming me to my new inbox. Today, my account contains 39,000 messages—including the 8,700 I haven't yet opened. To say that it's a source of stress would be an understatement. Between Gmail, work accounts, Slack, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Trello, text messages and yes, the occasional phone-call, it feels like an endless game of whack-a-mole. The minute I respond to one message, another pops up, leaving me with the gnawing sensation that I will never, ever catch up—especially if I want to accomplish anything aside from correspondence. With email, "you have the false sensation of advancing toward a goal, but the moment you look away, the target shifts further into the distance as more messages roll in," Jocelyn K. Glei, author of Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real, tells The Muse.

I may have an exceptionally daunting inbox, but my anxiety about it isn't unique. On average, Americans spend 6.5 hours a day just checking their email—that doesn't include reading or responding to messages. That kind of time suck has taken its toll. With record rates of stress and anxiety among the millennial workforce, the expectation of flexible boundaries and constant communication may be partly to blame. According to one recent Virginia Tech study, managing the barrage of work emails at all hours of the day along with personal responsibilities, "triggers feelings of anxiety and endangers work and personal lives."

It's no wonder we break into cold sweats when we open our email accounts. "A lot of people easily get hundreds of emails a day," occupational therapist Angela Lockwood tells the Sydney Morning Herald. "They get anxious, thinking, 'I don't know how I'm going to cope.'" The result is a very real and uncomfortable anxiety that can be paralyzing. So how do we avoid this feeling without avoiding our email altogether? Here's some expert advice I'll be taking to heart.

Turn Off Your Alerts

The first thing you need to do is turn down the volume on the noise. If you have notifications on your phone that pop up every time you get a new email or social media alert, shut it off. "Email anxiety is very much around that constant intrusion into our day from notifications," suggests Lockwood, author of Switch Off: How to Find Calm In A Noisy World. "So the anxiety doesn't just happen when you open your computer in the morning, it's constant throughout the day." In today's world we're expected to be multitaskers, but it's impossible to complete just one task if we're constantly distracted by reminders of others. It's not like you're going to forget to check your accounts throughout the day, but in order to avoid that panic of inundation, you need the ability to focus on one thing, rather than a million little beeps and buzzes that may not be a priority at the moment.

Batch Your Tasks

"To achieve maximum productivity, we should schedule, prioritize and match the most important tasks that demand the majority of our attention with our periods of high energy levels," suggests The Ladders' Mayo Oshin. "On the flip side, our least important or less demanding tasks should be matched with the lower periods of energy." That means setting aside chunks of time during the day to deal with different types of emails. Oshin suggests checking in three times a day, setting aside 30-60 minutes each, depending on the volume of emails. You should get the most pressing emails out of the way immediately when you have fresh eyes and the most energy, and set aside those less urgent ones for later in the day when you need a break.

Set Your Boundaries

Yes, some emails require immediate responses, but most can wait. (The Muse has a handy guide for lag time etiquette if you're ever unsure.) The problem is that the quicker you respond to emails, the higher the expectations become.

"Be sure to also think about the psychological messages you're sending along with your emails," suggest the folks at TrackTime24, an app designed to help you manage your tech time more efficiently. "Responding immediately trains people in a negative way and sets expectations that can be tough to maintain. Once you're known as someone who drops everything to reply to an email, delayed responses will begin to rub people the wrong way. But if you never set that expectation, taking your time to reply won't make waves."

Cognitive psychologist and improvement coach Amanda Crowell tested this theory herself, by waiting a day before replying to every email. Turns out the world didn't end, and she was able to discover which emailers required the most urgent responses and which ones were less likely to take offense. She was also able to send a clear message that she wasn't always available to everyone immediately. "We are holding ourselves in this prison of constant connection!" Crowell tells Quartz. "It's all about knowing what you really want, and then taking the small steps to get a little bit closer, and a little bit closer over time … that accumulation results in a different life."

Embrace Your "Inbox Infinity"

A few years ago, before the volume of emails in our collective inboxes grew out of hand, the idea of Inbox Zero—or a cleaned out inbox—seemed somewhat attainable. But the trend has gone in the other direction, and for good reason.

"The compulsion to empty our email inboxes is an addictive habit that makes us feel like we're making progress and getting things done, but in reality, we're wasting precious time that could be spent on our most important tasks," writes Oshin.

To remedy this addiction, The Atlantic's Taylor Lorenz came up with a new, more realistic approach to the email pile-up: acceptance, or what Lorenz calls Inbox Infinity. "One critical step in the inbox-infinity method is to publicly admit that you have too much email to handle and be up front about not responding," Lorenz writes. "You can start by messaging close contacts and family members, providing them with alternative ways to reach you."

You can also set an auto-reply that alerts emailers about when to realistically expect a response, and how to reach you if the matter is urgent.

"Since putting up my own out-of-office responder on my personal inbox and adopting inbox infinity, I've felt my stress about opening my mailbox decrease," writes Lorenz. "I've also found that setting the expectation that I may never see or reply to an email makes people even more grateful when they do get a response."

The most important thing to remember is that you are the master of your own inbox. We are all weighed down by the pressure to keep up, but if your unread messages are causing you major anxiety, it's time to relax, take a breath, and consider picking up the phone. Sometimes responding to someone the old-fashioned way is the healthiest move for everyone.

Hearing criticism about your work — whether it's the deck you put together for a presentation, how you ran a sales meeting or the way you interface with coworkers — is tough. It's also impossible to avoid — and that's not a bad thing.

"There is only one way to avoid criticism," wrote Aristotle, is to "do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing."

You are something. You are someone who is doing your best at work. Criticism is a sign that you're actively engaged in the process of trying and improving. Sure, you're thinking. But that doesn't make it sting any less. So how can you handle criticism with the grace of Princess Diana? Some tips from the pros.

Focus on the other person

Surprising, right? According to Deb Bright, head of executive coaching firm Bright Enterprises, which counts Disney, GE, Morgan Stanley, and Marriott among its clients, and author of the book The Truth Doesn't Have to Hurt: How to Use Criticism to Strengthen Relationships, Improve Performance, and Promote Change, the first job of anyone receiving criticism is to make the person giving it feel comfortable.

"Think about it," Bright tells Fortune. "Most managers hate giving performance appraisals, because they dread how someone is going to react to anything negative. So they tend to rush through the discussion just to get it over with."

By shifting your focus off yourself and onto your boss, you redirect your attention away from your emotional response. It's an exciting kind of mental trick, to boot, in that it reminds you of your power in the situation.

"You are the one in control here," Bright says. "How you respond will determine how the discussion goes, and how much or little you get out of it."

Listen

"People often think they're listening when in fact they are anticipating their own response or explanation to the criticism," career coach Ashley Stahl writes on Forbes. Jot down some notes while your manager is talking — the only thing worse than hearing negative feedback is hearing it twice.

Note the difference between fact and opinion:

A fact is quantitative: You missed your sales goal by $20,000. An opinion is qualitative and often vague: You don't communicate well with your peers. As you listen, parse facts from opinions.

Don't take it personally

Opinion, in particular, can be a reflection of the person giving it. Often, what we see in another person is a reflection of something that we are afraid to see in ourselves. This can become a kind of circular realization — your manager is reacting to you based on them, and you're responding to your manager's reaction to you based on you — oy vey! The point is to realize that there is a complex matrix of factors contributing to how we read and are read by others. Understanding that can help you take any opinion-based feedback less personally. What you're hearing is not The Truth from On High — it's your manager's perspective. As Georgia O'Keefe said: "The critics are just talking about themselves."

Hear the value of the criticism

Keep an ear cocked for the feedback that is useful — which is, after all, what feedback is intended to be. "What you can learn in a performance appraisal are things you may need, not just right now, but later on," Bright says. If you've heard the same areas for improvement the past couple of years, chances are you've got a growth opportunity on your hands.

Ask questions

If you're unclear on any feedback, be sure to ask for clarifications, and do so in a positive and specific (rather than defensive) way. For example, "When you mentioned that my data tables were too busy, would it be better to separate the information into sub-tables or do I just need to adjust the presentation style, in terms of font type and size?" You can also ask for suggestions, like, "How can I do this better next time?"

Ask for and provide concrete action steps

Think about how you can address the feedback you've received with a practical fix or two. "For example, you might suggest starting to 'communicate better with your peers' by updating them in person every week instead of through an occasional email," Bright suggests. You can do this at the time of feedback, but this is also a meaningful way to follow-up on a meeting and demonstrate that you've heard the feedback and have an action plan for improvement.

Trust that the feedback is well-intentioned

Nine times out of ten, the feedback is coming from a place of good intention and a desire to help you improve and succeed in your work. If you can remember that, you can see the feedback less as critical and adversarial and can maintain your dignity and self-esteem, notes Stahl.

Say "thank you" at the end of the conversation

"Even if someone is harsh and rude, thank them," writes Leo Babuta at zen habits. "They might have been having a bad day, or maybe they're just a negative person in general. But even so, your attitude of gratitude will probably catch them off-guard." Taking the high road and being the bigger person can win critics over. It's also a way of calming the ego and reminding yourself to be humble.

The takeaway

"No one goes through a whole career hearing only great feedback," Bright says. "In fact, if you haven't heard any constructive criticism lately, it means you probably aren't learning anything."

Roosevelt had some thoughts on this: "It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because this is no effort without error and shortcoming…"

Which all seems like a rather long-winded way of saying: If at first, you don't succeed, try, try again. That's when the magic happens.

There are few worse feelings than realizing you've been pronouncing a word wrong or misusing a phrase since before you can remember.

All you're left with are questions: how many people noticed and didn't say anything? Is my incorrect pronunciation of quinoa why the cashier at SweetGreen always smirks at me? Has the emphasis I was incorrectly putting on the "I" sound in cumin negatively affected my love life?

It's even worse when the linguistic faux pas happens at work. How can you be taken seriously in a professional environment if you're putting, "for all intensive purposes" in emails? How do you sleep at night knowing that your boss heard you pronounce both the L's in tortilla? To avoid more instances of this kind of inner turmoil, we've compiled a list of some of the most common language mistakes that make you sound unprofessional.

"Precede" and "Proceed"

This is a common mix up because when said out loud; these two words are difficult to distinguish from one another. If you're sending an email telling someone you'd like to go forward with the deal; you'd like to "proceed." If you are going to speak before someone in a meeting, you will "precede" them.

"One in the same" and "One and the same"

The phrase you're probably trying to use is "one and the same," as in when you and your coworker realize you've both been corresponding with the same client, and that client is "one and the same." "One in the same" isn't really a sensical phrase.

"Irregardless" and "Regardless"

All you need to remember to avoid this classic and cringey mistake is that irregardless is simply never an option. YES I KNOW it's in the dictionary, but so is YOLO. Don't listen to the dictionary.

"For all intensive purposes" vs. "For all intents and purposes"

Your purposes are likely not intense, and really what you're referring to is the intention and the purpose with which you're going forward.

"Tongue in cheek" vs. "Tongue and cheek"

Have you ever looked over at a friend during a funny situation that would be inappropriate to laugh at? You know how you kind of put your tongue in your cheek to keep from laughing? Keep that situation in mind and remember that when you mean something is sarcastic or ironic, you mean tongue in cheek.

"Doing good" vs. "Doing well"

While when you think of how you're doing, you may think of words like "stressed" or "despondent," what you probably say out loud is that you're doing "well." Never good. Well.


Brooke Ivey Johnson is a Brooklyn based writer, playwright, and human woman. To read more of her work visit her blog or follow her twitter @BrookeIJohnson.