Are We Working Harder?

One of the questions that we ask ourselves at WorkGuru is whether as a nation we are working harder than ever before. Our very first blog asked the questions “Has Work Become Harder or Have We Become Softer?” We argued that changes to the way we are working; flatter more agile organisations and a greater use of technology, meant that the workplace had become more fluid and that we were having to take more responsibility for our own training and professional development. The pressure of work had intensified.

A report published last week by CIPD asks the same question: “Are We Working Harder Than Ever?” They conclude that whilst we have a sense that work is becoming more intense with greater workloads and pressures to meet deadlines, customer demands and performance targets, our working hours are not becoming longer.

The average number of hours that we work has been falling for decades. In 1997 26% of us worked over a 45-hour week, in 2013 this was under 20%.

Whilst on average we may not be working longer hours, this doesn’t detract from the fact that our working lives have become more intense. In 2012 45% of us agreed with the statement “my job requires that I work very hard”. That is an increase from 32% in 1992. 41% of us feel under excessive pressure at work at least once or twice a week, with 13% saying that they were under excessive pressure every single working day.

One explanation for this put forward by the CIPD is the impact of the recession. Employees that feel under pressure on a regular basis are more likely to be concerned about their job security and more likely to be working in a workplace where the recession has led to cuts in jobs, pay or other benefits.

Another explanation might be the context in which we are now living. Our lives in general have become more complex, with greater demands made upon us leaving us with a depleted energy to tackle a demanding job.

Whatever the explanation, clearly more of us are experiencing work as being more demanding with excessive pressure and increased intensity which is definitely not good for our mental and physical health.

How To Cram More Into Your Day.

A lot of time management advice begins with telling us that it is possible to slot everything that we want or have to do into our day – we just need to work smarter and not harder. I am cringing as I write this, as WorkGuru has also been guilty in adopting this approach in the past.

The argument is that if only we would use our time more effectively, we too could be Superwoman/Superman.

This is a lie. The reality is that there really is only 24 hours in a day – and however much we tweak our schedules and however smartly we work there will be times in our lives when we just can not cram anymore activities into those 86,400 seconds. Not without losing our sanity and our standards.

It’s a bit like the Mr Creosote character in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life cramming in just one more after-dinner mint before exploding in an ignominious fashion: just one more meeting – BOOM!!!

Effective time management is understanding that we don’t have enough time to do all the things that we want to do. We have to choose. We have to learn to say ‘no’ to important things that we really, really want to do.

Yes of course there is scope to improve our effectiveness by using some of the tried and tested time management techniques but ultimately being overwhelmed by work and life is a mismatch between our expectations of ourselves and our ability to get things done.

The answer, according to author Brigid Schulte in the book Overwhelmed is a 2 step process. Step 1 is to identify what seems, right now, to be the most important and meaningful way to live your life. Step 2 is to schedule time for those things. Letting go of all the other important things you deem necessary including for some of us our vision of what it is to be and ideal worker, an ideal mother/father, an ideal daughter/son, an ideal friend and an ideal partner. It just isn’t possible to be all those things – sometimes good enough is good enough. And sometimes we just have to be realistic and say “no”.

How To Make Better Use of Your Time

As someone who failed to get her blog out last week, it seems appropriate that I write about making better use of your time. A reminder to me to stop procrastinating and to get on with it!!

We all have the same amount of time in our day; the difference between us is how much activity we cram into that time, and how we prioritise and manage what we do.

Here are my 8 top-tips for making better use of your time (I was planning on 10 top-tips but typically, I ran out of time).

1. Take control
Be conscious of the decisions that you make about how you use your time. You are not a victim of the vicissitudes of the 24-hour clock. Begin to take control. Learn about how you spend your time (try keeping a diary for 2 or 3 weeks detailing how every one of the 24 hours is spent). Look at each element of your life: love, work, leisure, health, family, friends, spirituality etc. Is the balance right for you (ignore other people’s ideas of work/life balance, what is important is that the balance is right for you)? If not, is that a temporary blip (an urgent project at work or short-term caring responsibility), or is it something more sustained? What can you stop doing, or start doing less of?

Mapping and understanding how you spend your time is the start of feeling that you have more control over it.

2. Create routines
Follow the example of Barack Obama and begin to pare down the number of decisions you make everyday. Create routines; put in your diary in advance when you are going to go to the gym, or when you are meeting friends or going to the cinema; get rid of the clothes that you never wear from your wardrobe, the less to choose from the easier it is to decide what to wear; plan your lunch and dinner menus in advance; create fixed times for housework; get up at the same time every morning. Creating routines helps to minimise procrastination and saves valuable mental energy.

3. Plan
Incorporate planning into your daily and weekly routines. Keep and up-date your to-do lists. Write a longer weekly (or fortnightly) list with priorities and timescales and then at the end of each day write on a post-it-note the actions you need to complete the next day. As each action is completed, cross them off your list.

4. Use your commute
If you commute to work use your time wisely. If you are driving maybe you can use it to catch up with the news, listen to some music you love, or listen to an audio book or podcast. If you are on public transport use the opportunity to catch up on some reading, or respond to emails.

If you work from home or have a very short commute, use the time you have saved to exercise, or do something you enjoy. Whatever you decide to do with your commuting time, plan it in advance and do something that you feel is worthwhile (remember, it doesn’t always have to be about work).

5. Make the most of your downtime
We all have a different sense of what a work/life balance is. It can depend on where we are in our career, or what life demands are being made of us. There is no right balance, just one that works for you. What is important however is that you make the most out of the time that you are not working. Turn-off your electronic work devices and focus on having some fun. Plan what you are going to do with your evenings and weekends – sitting in front of the TV can be great but make sure you are giving yourself time to do other things – and most importantly of all, make sure you are getting enough sleep.

6. Prioritise
Keeping a diary of how you are spending your time is an excellent way of identifying how much of your time is being taken up with urgent but not important tasks. Urgent tasks tend to be the tasks that we focus on because they demand our immediate attention, but they are not always the tasks that are most important. Ask yourself whether they really are urgent, and what would happen if you didn’t do them? Is it really a task that you have to do, or could someone else do it? Could the urgency of the task have been foreseen and would it have been possible to complete the task in a more routine way before it became urgent?

7. Learn to let go
For many of us, learning to let go is an important step to using our time more effectively. Letting go in the sense of learning to delegate; stopping ourselves from ruminating (“if only I had spent more time on that report it would have been so much better”); knowing when good enough is good enough; stopping doing some of the things in our over-crowded schedule and learning to say ‘no’.

All things within our control, but easier said than done.

8. Don’t multi task
Despite popular belief, it is not OK to multi-task. We all have a finite capacity for paying attention. The amount of attention we have is limited, so we cannot effectively focus on more than one thing at a time. Switching one from task to another causes us to expand extra effort, especially if we are under time pressure. Learn to focus on one thing at a time and to batch similar tasks together, saving on energy and keeping yourself focused.

Self-Motivating – the art of getting things done

Many of us are lucky enough to be self-employed, in a creative role, or in a job that is self-determined. For us, the trick to being productive is self-motivation. Finding the enthusiasm, confidence, energy and creativity everyday to not only get our work done but to excel at what we do.

Here is our 10 Top Tips on self-motivation. All based on the WorkGuru team’s experience:

1. Create a great space to work in.
Wherever you work make sure it is a great space. Both practical and conducive to fabness. Research has shown the importance of views, windows and plants in the working environment. Natural light, views of nature and the presence of indoor plants are all shown to increase feelings of wellbeing and reduce stress.

Do you have the tools you need to do your job? Is your technology right? What about your physical space, does that work for you? Make sure that your workspace is ergonomic; that your chair supports you and that your computer screen is at the right height. If you use a laptop have you thought about plugging in a different keyboard and placing your laptop on a raised platform? Nothing can demotivate you faster then an uncomfortable working environment.

2. Create routines to allow the space to be productive.
We mentioned these next two in our last blog – they are so great we couldn’t miss them out. Don’t wait for inspiration to hit you, create a routine to help it happen. If you have a self-determined role and your daily hours and routine is not set for you, set it for yourself. Set the times for when you are going to be at your desk, or in your workshop etc., let people know you are available at those times. Work does not get done unless you create the space for it to happen.

3. Align your tasks to your energy.
Our energy changes during the day and the week. Learn to align your work tasks with your energy levels. So for me my energy is more focused and creative in the morning. This is the time I set aside for writing or tackling complex problems. It is also the time I use for tasks I have been putting off – I am more determined and focused in the morning. My energy begins to wane after lunch so I might switch to more routine tasks at this time, answering email, completing paperwork, engaging with social media. I know that my energy picks up again in the early evening so I might take some timeout in the late afternoon to walk the dogs or take some exercise, knowing that early evening is always a good time for me to get some more work done and begin to plan for the next day.

4. Create a to-do lists
Create a to-do list. I tend to have 2, one for the week and one for the day. At the end of each working week or at the beginning of a new one write down the things you want/need to achieve for the week ahead. Prioritise them (either in order of importance or underline the ones that are most important/urgent). At the end of each day use your weekly to-do list to help you to create your to-do list for the next day. Write your daily list on a post-it note to stop it being too long. Make sure it is realistic, there is nothing more deflating then setting yourself up to fail, and give yourself the pleasure of crossing off the tasks you have completed.

5. Just start
Sometimes you have to stop thinking and just start doing. Faced with an impossible report or a new project you are struggling with? Just begin – start somewhere, anywhere, just start. By making a start you will begin to build up momentum and become more focused. In the words of American Novelist Barbara Kingsolver “I have to write hundreds of pages before I get to page one.”

6. Keep positive
Lots and lots of research shows the links between positive thinking and people who have higher mental wellbeing, less negative stress, better immune systems and achieve better outcomes. In his book Authentic Happiness, one of the founders of positive psychology Dr Martin Seligman even argues the positive thinking can provide you with an intellectual boost.

Positive thinking begins with understanding your thought processes. In WorkGuru we talk about automatic thoughts; how thoughts can stream into your mind one after the other, often in a negative spiral, and often involving habitual unhelpful thinking styles that we are unaware of, such as a tendency to over generalise, jump to conclusions or catastrophise. Being aware of these thought processes helps us to form more realistic, positive thinking patterns.

7. Visualise success
There are good reasons for doing this one. The first one is that we can learn new skills through the power of imagination alone! Research by Alvaro Pascual-Leone has shown that mental practice (imagining a new skill or behaviour) creates the same physical changes to the brain as physical practice. So never underestimate the power of your imagination.

The other reasons are possibly more mundane but still important. Visualising success keeps you focused and motivated and it also helps you to know when you have got there.

Here is a bit of a sad example, but boringly it is true. I am trying to lose weight at the moment, the way I keep myself motivated it to visualise myself being able to comfortably fit into my jeans, and I hold onto that image. It does 2 things for me it reminds me of why I am trying to achieve the change (I hate not being able to fit into my clothes) and it tells me when I am going to be successful (when the jeans fit). You can easily change this example to a work focused one. Maybe success for you is going to be when you get 10 orders through for your product a day. Close your eyes and think about what that would look like, how it would feel and what it would mean for you. Hold on to that vision. What are the things that you need to be doing to get closer to that success? When you begin to feel despairing or lose your focus use this vision to remember what it is all about.

8. Minimise distractions
We can all find lots of reasons to not start work. I remember when I was studying. My house was always at its cleanest when deadlines were approaching. Now the distractions for me tend to be linked to technology. Becoming distracted when using the Internet – commonly known as cyberloafing. Did you know recent research has shown that 60 – 80% of our time on the Internet at work is not work related. Other distractions include checking email (listening out for the sound as emails come in and then checking them just in case it is urgent), checking facebook and twitter, and responding to text messages.

Technology can be both the distractor and the rescuer. “contemplative computing” is a move towards turning our information technology into agents of serenity. “Zenware” is designed to block distractions. Examples include,, (works on Mac and PC) or for 2 minutes of total relaxation try

The simplest solution of all though is to turn things of, and limit your access to them. Try checking your email just 2 or 3 times a day. Limit your social networking and encourage friends to contact you when you aren’t working (whoops sorry, got distracted by an email coming in – it’s all easier said then done).

9. Don’t be too hard on yourself
Some days and weeks you will be flying. You will feel energised, motivated and enthusiastic; but other days and weeks you wont. Keep the faith; believe in yourself. Your mojo will return.

10. Do other things: learn to switch off
Have you noticed how solutions can often come to you when you are thinking about something else? I have some of my best ideas when I am walking the dog, driving my car or cooking. You might not always be able to think of a solution during work hours, but by just letting it, unconsciously tick over in your mind, a solution can appear when you least expect it. I once woke up with the whole outline of an essay in my head – I even remembered it. Take the time to do things that you enjoy, take your mind off your work and most importantly learn to SWITCH OFF. Keep yourself motivated by keeping your work and life in balance.