We’ve all done it. You drag yourself out of bed and quickly move through your morning routine, your task list already running through your head. Your morning commute consists of listening to your favorite tunes and yelling at the idiots cutting you off in traffic. You arrive at work flustered, refill your coffee, take a quick look at your email, and are off to back to back meetings until lunch. Rather than taking a lunch break, you use the time to catch up on email. As you return from your after-lunch meeting, you get stopped in the hall and diverted into an emergency discussion about staffing that lasts half the afternoon. This leaves you with an hour to finish a proposal before you have to speed from work to make it in time for your daughter’s play. As you walk out the door, you realize that, although you were crazy busy all day, you did little work that you would actually call meaningful. On top of that, you are leaving work even more stressed out and behind than when you came in that morning.
It doesn’t have to be like this! My daily cycle once consisted of much of the same frantic juggling of tasks and emails, and work and personal responsibilities. But in the last year, I’ve made some minor changes that have really improved my level of stress and effectiveness at work. Here’s what my typical day looks like now: I get up before the sun and spend 5 – 10 minutes meditating. Then I hit an early-morning yoga class, take a quick shower, and begin my day armed with a strong cup of coffee and a relaxed attitude. Because I reviewed my calendar and prepared for any meetings the previous afternoon, I can catch up on email and then begin real, thoughtful work. Throughout the day, I take short mental breaks to let my brain rest. I try to allow time in the mornings and right after lunch, when I’m mentally at my best, to focus on my most important or challenging work. When I get stumped on something, I let it sit for a bit and turn my attention to simpler tasks until I feel refreshed and ready to return to the challenge. And when I’m on the road, I try to listen to educational podcasts and to exercise patience with the other idiots on the road. I carve out 15 minutes or so at the end of each day to reflect on what I need to do in order to make tomorrow a success, update my task list, and review my upcoming meetings to ensure I’m prepared for them. I often leave work feeling mentally tired but also refreshed from a productive day.
It’s so easy to see, and even appreciate, the difference between these two types of days. The second version gets the same amount of, or even more, work done, but with less stress and the work is more thoughtful. So, what have I traded for these gains? As it turns out, not much. I probably go to bed earlier than my grandma to allow plenty of time for sleep before getting up early for my lengthy morning routine. And I don’t feel the instant gratification that comes with crossing off a million to-dos throughout the day. But I have much more pride in my work and ease in my day than I did before I mindfully took time out for quiet reflection.
This doesn’t mean that you won’t occasionally get stumped or side-tracked. I deal with a variety of distractions during the day, from the UPS man knocking on the door to my puppy vying for my attention. When this happens, I take a deep breath and prioritize the interruption. I can probably ignore the UPS man, who will just leave my package at the door, but if I don’t get up and let the dog out, I might have a mess to clean up later. As soon as I’ve dealt with the distraction, I take a moment to clear my mind and re-approach work. This often means returning from the task I was working on before the interruption, but it can also mean focusing on a quick and easy task to let my mind settle before digging back in to something more complex.
You don’t have to become an expert yogi or master meditator to receive many of the same benefits. It really just comes down to finding what works for you. A good friend of mine takes long walks. My brother prefers running. And for my husband, it’s practicing guitar. But above all, it’s taking the time to do something that’s mindless for you and allows you to quietly (or in the case of my husband, harmoniously) reflect and refresh. And when the stress of the day gets to you, take a moment to give your brain a rest. You’ll find that once you practice your refreshing activity regularly, you can channel what you feel while doing that activity into the way you approach life.
So I challenge you to shake up your routine a little to allow more time for reflection and thought. And when you walk past that rose garden, actually take a moment to stop and remember what flowers smell like. It might be different from what you remember!