I’m the byproduct of hardworking immigrant parents, so I take immense pride in how I represent myself through my work. I have always been proud of my ability to manage several projects at once. In truth, staking so much personal value and self-worth on my job has led me to be constantly—and feel—busy.
But I went through one particularly busy period that sparked a shift in my outlook. It started when I joined my company’s field marketing team. I served as what my boss at the time called “the CMO” for the central U.S. region. I worked hand in hand with our enterprise sales team to execute various demand generation, field marketing, and executive programs. I was responsible for developing the strategy, allocating the budget, and implementing the programs while ensuring that the sales and marketing teams stayed aligned. To say that it’s a big undertaking would be an understatement.
At one point, I found myself, barely 40 years old, sick in a Minneapolis hotel room from a stress-induced case of shingles. Other people’s wake-up calls may be much more dramatic or life-threatening, but this self-inflicted pain showed me that I had to change how much time and energy I invest in my work and in my well-being. I knew that the most significant shift I would need to make would be to recalibrate my mind away from “busyness” and stress. Here are the changes that worked for me.
1. Embrace gratitude
Practicing gratitude has been transformative for me. Looking for sources of appreciation lets me reframe my daily experiences as gifts and opportunities, rather than things that happened to me. Research shows that gratitude practice can improve our psychological well-being, happiness, and physical health (including inoculating against shingles, I hope).
Now, I start my day by writing down three things I’m grateful for and three elements that I anticipate will make my day great. Each time, I find new people, pleasures, and moments to note. Expanding my view of gratitude forces me to observe my blessings intentionally and helps me appreciate life’s smaller joys. That might be a quick turnaround on a project or a stranger who holds the elevator so I can make it on time to catch the train home.
It’s those little moments that make life great and boost morale, and acknowledging them creates a balanced perspective.
2. Break down boulders into pebbles
When things seem overwhelming and out of control, I begin my “break-it-down method.” If I’m facing complicated projects, I try and break them down into microsteps so I can get started. Finishing each project might require 50 steps, but my first step is writing down all the components I’ll need for completion. And then I’ll map out the next project the same way. (Color-coding is optional on these maps, but you can guess where I stand.)
If I don’t know all the necessary steps, I turn to people who might have the answers. Online collaboration tools (like Quip, Slack, and Google Docs) are my jam, so I outline my project and invite others to contribute, provide feedback, and share their ideas. Once I’ve mapped out my plan, I can begin to chip away at it.
3. Recognize others for completed work
Similar to practicing gratitude for each day, I make it a point to recognize others (and even myself) for completed work. For my productivity, it’s vital that I reflect on the finished work and—more important—recognize everyone who helped. That not only brings closure to a project, but it also helps me show appreciation for the team’s efforts. And trust me, this is a much better motivator in the workplace than money.
You see, this recognition step is part of working on the business, rather than merely working in it. Consider what proportion of your time you spend working on tasks compared with working on yourself to become a better, more productive professional. Reflect on whether you take time to work on your own growth and help others around you grow too.
4. Take the time to reflect on what went wrong
When I took that field marketing role, I went in with my eyes wide open. I knew the position would be more demanding, and I would be a team of one in charge of strategy and execution. As an individual contributor with no direct reports, I couldn’t delegate work. But I didn’t anticipate that so few people working meant not enough people would examine the efficiency issues we were running into, and that the lack of retrospection could prolong our challenges.
Regardless of any project’s successful outcome, there are always ways that we can better improve it. So the final step should be to conduct a retrospective to understand what worked, what didn’t, and what needs to change next time. It’s one nontechnical element of Scrum methodology I maintain in my work life as well as my home life. I take a step back to look for points of improvement, so I don’t make the same mistakes twice.
Most of us are more than familiar with working under a heavy load and feeling pulled in too many directions. After all, that’s unfortunately just part of adulting. Just remember to use these strategies to recalibrate your thinking into a calmer form of productivity. Or create your own strategy. And if you find one that works well for you, be sure to spread the word. You’ll have my undying gratitude in return.