Your career is an important part of your life and witness. Your skills and passions are designed to help you impact the world through career, home, family, and beyond. Whether you’re currently pursuing your long-term career or a summer job, it’s important to stay productive as an employee.
Productivity in your career is probably the most important of the three life stages I’m discussing this week (student, career, wife/mom). It’s not that career is the most important of the three. Lack of productivity in your career has the greatest consequence. When we fail to manage our time wisely at work, we’re held accountable by the manager. This isn’t as much the case when you’re a student or stay-at-home mom.
That said, laziness or lack of time management is first a spiritual issue, so disciplining yourself at work will affect other areas of your life as well!
Below are five principles I learned in my ten years working full time. Now that I work from home, these same principles help me manage motherhood, marriage, and work with far less stress than necessary (which we’ll talk about tomorrow!).
Embrace Your Shift
I’m starting with this because I know some of you hate your job right now – or at least hate the hours. I’ve been there. But the first step to a productive, fulfilling life is to accept where God has you. Contentment is not a state of being; it’s a daily choice. If you’re inwardly fighting your current place, you won’t be consistently productive.
I’ve worked every shift but the graveyard: 12-9, 10-7, 8-5, 7-4, 6-3 – you name it! And I know how difficult an inconsistent schedule can be. But each day I spent resisting my shift, complaining about my hours and wishing I had a different job was a day I didn’t give 100%. I looked for ways to shrug my work. I did the bare minimum. I didn’t engage with the company or my coworkers because – this shift stinks!! I understand the struggle, but I can tell you from experience that the first step to a productive, God-honoring career is to embrace where you are right now.
I have a few productivity tips for those on a consistent schedule and those on alternating or inconsistent ones:
If you work the same shift every day and week, hooray! This is more of a blessing than you know. Since you have consistent data to work with, take a minute to ask the following questions:
- What is the most frustrating aspect of my pre-work routine? Is it something under my control (being late, not eating breakfast, never getting workout in)?
- What changes can I make to remove this problem?
- If this is not under my control, who is? Can I discuss changes with them?
Work is your constant. Arrange your life around your shift and make a priority list of things you want to get done before and after. Plan for each week on Sundays because you can do so. This will give you an overview of the week, which you can then tweak daily as things change.
Inconsistent schedules are trickier, but productivity is still possible. If your boss issues a monthly or weekly schedule, write it down so you can at least plan meals, work outs, and appointments around it. If you don’t know day to day when you will be working (which is what Josh did for three years), here are a few tips:
- Make larger meals that can be divided over several days, so if you don’t have time to cook you still have something to pack for lunch (saves money and is much healthier).
- Make task lists but don’t schedule it by hour. Choose daily when you’ll get up for the day. Plan each evening for the next day, or each morning before begin.
- Pray for flexibility and grace – this will be tough, but you’ll be a stronger, smarter worker because of it!
- Don’t give up on planning after work activities, even if you miss some. Keep trying! There is danger of becoming increasingly hermit-esque when you can’t plan anything on a consistent basis. Don’t give up! You need to see people face to face.
Be Your Own Boss
Why is a plan so necessary to your career? Like your general life, your career has a trajectory. Without a plan, you’re likely to jump from job to job, or take lateral positions without a vision for where you’re headed.
A big part of creating vision is knowing your personality and skill set. I recommend Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendency Quiz and the Myers Briggs personality test to learn more about how you think. StrengthFinders has a cost, but it’s also a great way to cater to your strengths at work.
When you know what motivates and discourages you, respectively, create a plan for what you’re going to do each day. I recommend the following:
- Write a sticky note each evening before you clock out with five things you need to get done the following day. Stick it to your monitor so it’s the first thing you see.
- Create a list of “boredom projects” you can pick up and put down when the monotony gets to you. You’ll still be working, but the change of pace and task will keep you from distractions.
- Ask your boss for new tasks that fit your skills and interests.
- Take strategic breaks (5 minutes every hour of focused work, even if it’s just looking up from the task – not leaving your desk).
- Have a list of “fun tasks” that you like to do. Do these when you struggle to be motivated, or as a break between larger projects.
- Do the hard thing first!
Create Coworker Boundaries
The “water cooler complex” is a problem in offices worldwide. And while it’s fun to catch up with coworkers during the day, your productivity takes a hit every time you let them interrupt you.
I had a particular coworker who would approach my desk at 8:02 each morning. Since I planned my task list from 8-8:15, I was not thrilled by this habit. And though she opened the conversation with a work-related topic, it never stayed there. Here’s what I did to set some firm boundaries on a person who did not respect my time or productivity:
- Answer the work related question, then when she turns to personal issues, say, “Hey, I’m so sorry, but I have to get this project in today and I was JUST working on it. Can we talk at lunch?”
- When she doesn’t catch hints or a direct address, let her talk while continuing to work on a project or task list. Don’t make eye contact or do anything other than nod and smile.
- Schedule meetings during the times when she is prone to come by.
- Say “Let’s walk and talk” and head to the break room or a meeting.
Stop Eating Lunch at Your Desk
If you sit at your desk for lunch – particularly while staring at your computer – it will be MUCH harder to jump back into your tasks. Because you never actually left your desk, your mind has not had to adjust from “personal time” to “work time”.
There are many other benefits to leaving at lunch. Your lunch hour is the prime time to use the strategy of pairing (read Gretchen Rubin): take a walk while calling a friend, eat your lunch with that coworker who wanted to chat earlier in the day, or pick up that gift for your friend’s birthday (one less thing to do in the evening). While it might be tempting to watch Netflix every lunch hour, be honest with yourself: what good is that doing you? How is it helping you achieve change in your life and career?
Rather than eat lunch at your desk, create a division between work and free time. Here are a few things I did on a half hour lunch:
- Walk around the block
- Eat lunch and read a book
- Call a friend
- Write letters
- Do my devotions
On an hour lunch, I did the following:
- Drove to a nearby gym to run the track/treadmill for 30 minutes. And yes, this is possible if you sweat a lot! I did it for years. I would bring sweat wipes, hairspray, and my makeup bag as well as extra deodorant and perfume.
- Write a blog post
- Work on a research paper
- Head to the library for 40 minutes
- Take a walk outside
- Run errands
- Mail something at the Post Office
- Head to a chiropractor appointment
Your lunch hour is a great time to maximize your to-do list and cut down on pre- and post-work appointments.
Create a Long Term Career Plan
When you know where you’re headed, each day has purpose. Monday isn’t so bad when it’s a stepping stone toward a goal!
A big reason we struggle to be productive at work is this: we don’t know why we’re there. Sure, we know “why” we’re there, but we don’t always grasp the big picture. And like I once did, we start giving 50% of our effort, giving into distraction, and failing to appreciate the job God gave us.
Wherever you are in the career process, create a long term plan. Where do you want to be in five years? Don’t write “married with kids”. Marriage and motherhood is not an escape from real life or a way out of a full time job. College and career prepared me more for motherhood than anything else in my life. Think about the next five years as pertains to your career and cast a vision for yourself:
- What do you dream of doing?
- Where do you want to be?
- If you could work anywhere, where would it be?
- If you could start a business, what would be your mission?
- How much do you need to make in order to live and get out of/stay out of debt?
As a guidance counselor and working mom I think it’s important to make a note here. If you attended college and took out student loans, but one day want to be a stay at home mom, your student debt may make that impossible. We don’t like to think about these things, but they need to be discussed. If you want to stay home with your kids one day, it is VITAL that you take time and money management seriously. Make a budget. Pay down your loans. Get rid of your credit cards. Buy a used car. Use cash only. Take a financial course. These are the things Josh and I did to pay off $30,000 in his student loans in 16 months. The way you live now will have an enormous impact on your future dreams, so be wise and plan well!
Your career vision is important, whether “career” means a day job or an entrepreneurial endeavor. And if you one day want to stay home with your kids, it’s even more important! I knew from age 16 I wanted to stay home with my kids and eventually homeschool. From that time on, my career vision was the following:
- Get a bachelor’s degree (I’m the first of two generations on either side of my family to get my B.S.)
- Stay out of debt
- Become essential to the company for which I work
- Pitch to make my position remote
- Transition to working from home once I have kids
And that is exactly how it played out, give or take a few years. When you have a vision, you know what to work toward. It won’t always happen according to plan (mine didn’t!), but you will have a goal for which to strive and a higher level of focus in your career.