Ginger, over at Ramble Ramble, had a post up today asking for ideas for handling stress at work, and "switching off" when at home.
My husband can tell you that I still have some work to do in this regard, too. However, I've gotten a lot better at this over the years, and I do have some ideas about how to reduce stress caused by having to much to do, so I took some time on my lunch break to answer Ginger. Long time readers will not be surprised to find that my beloved lists feature in my answer. Here is what I said, expanded and edited to make it more clear, now that I have the time to do so:
For me, the only way to deal with "too much work to do" stress is to get the work organized and under control. I find that what stresses me out the most isn't a full to do list- it is the feeling that I might get surprised by some item on my to do list that needed to be done earlier than I thought. In other words, it is the feeling that I could open my email in the morning and find a five alarm fire. My method to minimize this stress is to make sure that I
know what is actually urgent, and concentrate on that stuff first. If some other stuff comes up and I start to get distracted, I write that other stuff on my to
do list, to worry about later. If I focus on the things that
are actually urgent, I can usually clear them off my list and leave work for the day feeling
free and clear. I don’t worry about the other things, because they are
written down, so I won’t forget about them. I still have a full to
do list, but I’m fairly confident that the things that had to get done
are done. For this to work over the long term, though, the list of things that must get done can't just be set by external deadlines, but must also be set by the
internal deadlines of my projects.
That is pretty wishy-washy, so I’ll try to explain. Right now, I’m
revamping one of the key systems I manage. I have promised to deliver the updated system
by the end of the month. I also have a complicated (but dull) tracking spreadsheet to complete for my
boss, a report to write for my boss’s boss, an interview to schedule
to allow me to hire some help, and a bunch of random little things that
I have a big list with all of these things on it, and more (I have a couple of other big projects running now, which I've left out for clarity). But I knew that TODAY I
needed to finish that stupid spreadsheet (external deadline- the boss needs it tomorrow), complete some tasks and schedule some
meetings to move my revamping project along (internal deadline- no one would notice if these slipped, but they'd put my project behind schedule), and get the interview scheduling process underway (another internal deadline- I just know that scheduling interviews takes a long time). I got all of those things done, so I walked out the door at my usual time, and have left the rest of the work in the office- mentally as well as physically.
The report needs to be written within a week, so it can wait until
tomorrow or Wednesday. There are a lot of other tasks on my revamping
project, but I know from my project plan that they aren’t gating anything, so they can wait, too.
The random little things on my to do list are the emails and in person requests from other people, trying to get their to do list items done. I have a two step process for deciding how to handle those. First, I ask myself: can I do this in less time than it takes to write it on my list? If the answer is yes, I do it. If the answer is no, I ask: is it more urgent than whatever I'm working on right now? If the answer is yes, I do it, if it is no, I write it on my list. Of course, the answer to this second question is sometimes hard to know- it depends not just on my priorities but also on the priorities of the other people at work. Sometimes I have to ask my boss for guidance, but this is also something that I've gotten better at gauging for myself as I've gotten more work experience. However, I do make a point of trying to help people out unless they are serial procrastinators who are always coming to me with requests that are urgent only because they failed to plan. If I can't get to their request immediately, I will at least tell them when I can do it, and will reconsider if that is going to make them miss a deadline. This is just the nice thing to do, and maybe it buys me some good deadline meeting karma.
I’m also pretty vicious with myself about procrastination. If I catch
myself goofing off too much at work, I start writing daily to do lists, as I described in my post on working through a slump.
This system works really well for me, allowing me to switch off from work and focus on my family (and blog!) at home. This was true even at previous jobs that required me to carry a blackberry. I set boundaries about how often I'd check it, and told people that if something was really urgent, they should go ahead and call me at home. At first they don't believe me, but eventually, they realize that I'm serious. I'm not reading email, so if they truly need an answer right now, they had better call. I'm selective in who I give my home phone number to, so this has never led to a bunch of phone calls at night. People are far more willing to send emails during off hours than to make phone calls.
Of course, none of this helps if the stress is from general jerks playing politics, etc- then I find that yoga and beer help.
What about you? How do you keep work stress levels down and keep work out of your home time?