7 Habits That Simplify and Relaxify My Workday

by Henrik Edberg

Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/notsogoodphotography/ / CC BY 2.0

“Simplicity is an acquired taste. Mankind, left free, instinctively complicates life.”
Katherine F. Gerould

“Three Rules of Work: Out of clutter find simplicity; From discord find harmony; In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”
Albert Einstein

“First we make our habits, then our habits make us.”
John C. Noble

Over the last five years I have changed a lot about how I work, how much I get done and how well I do those things.

Today I get a lot of things done but that does not mean that my day is more stressful. In fact it is often more relaxing than it used to be. This is not because I have become some kind of superhuman but simply because I have developed a few new habits and rituals and I stick with them as best I can each day.

In this article I will share 7 of the habits that have had the largest positive impact on my daily work.

1. Single-tasking. Even during breaks.

Single-tasking means that you do just one thing at a time instead of trying to do a number of things at the same time. This is one of those tips you find listed on most productivity blogs and in many books on personal effectiveness for a good reason. It is a very beneficial way to work.

When I work this way I only focus on one thing at a time. I focus on it fully with no other thought creeping in. This helps me to do things better and in a shorter amount of time. But the most important reason why I work like this is because how it makes me feel. It makes me feel relaxed and calm. It drains a minimum of energy from me.

I try to stick to this as best I can each day, even when I take a break. If I watch a an episode of a TV-show, read a book or check a webpage during my break I still only do one thing at a time.

By sticking to the single-tasking during the whole day – even during breaks – it becomes easier to single-task and hit a state of flow when I get back to work again. And I strengthen my single-tasking habit and I tend to stay in the present moment a lot more during the day.

It may not always be possible to single-task but I recommend using it as much as you can.

2. Use a short and prioritized to-do list.

I start my day by doing the most important task. Today it was writing this article so now – just after breakfast – I am writing it.

Just before I started writing I checked my online to-do list on Teuxdeux.com (it’s free and awesome). I added a few items, moved a few of them to other days and then prioritized today’s tasks.

Then I didn’t think or plan anymore since that often leads to procrastination. I switched programs and started writing instead.

3. Use a minimalistic workspace.

My work space is just a laptop on a small black desk made out of wood. I use a comfy chair and there is room for my glass of water beside the computer.

That’s it. There are no distractions here. Just me, the computer and the water.

4. Never work after 7 in the evening.

I am strict with limits during my day. Not to become the most self-disciplined person in the world but simply to ensure that I do not work too much or too little. And to ensure that I do not spend too much time on low-priority activities.

I have set a time-limit so I always have time to wind down and relax after my day. This is also very important to me because if I work too late then I will have a hard to time to fall asleep and I find the hours in the bed less relaxing than they could be.

You may want to set another stop-limit but I highly recommend this practice to not bring home your work and to be able to fully relax during your week and not feel drained as the weekend approaches. And if you start with the most important task each day and work through your to-do list that way in a single-tasking manner then you’ll probably be done with your tasks before you reach your time-limit.

5. Check everything just once a day.

I check my email inboxes, blog statistics, my online earnings, Twitter and Facebook just once a day. I combine all that checking into one small daily ritual so I don’t slip and go checking it more during the day and waste my time, energy and attention.

6. Check everything at the end of the workday.

I do the inbox etc. check mentioned above at the end of my workday. This is to make sure that I do get the most important things done first. If you check these things too early or too often then the day just seems to fly by and you didn’t get much done at all.

If you can’t always prevent or eliminate doing those less important things then at least postpone them for a few hours so that you can make a dent in your most important work.

7. Simple refocusing.

Over my simple workspace there hangs a small white board. It has three sentences written on it. All of them help me simplify my day. From the top:

  • “Keep things extremely simple”. When I lose my way during the day and slip into procrastination or overcomplicating  things I can just look up and remind myself about how to go about things.
  • “Clean work”. This one reminds me to single-task and to just do one thing at a time fully focused during my whole workday.
  • “There is no problem”. I have (or my mind has) a tendency to sometimes start to look for problems where there really are none. If I feel I have a problem I usually look up and read this sentence. It helps me to think things over once again. Sometimes I find that there really is a problem that I can solve. Oftentimes I discover that the problem may just be something have I have created in my mind. And so I let it go.

What is your best tip to simplify and/or relaxify the workday?

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Eliran February 11, 2011 at 1:23 am

Just tell myself that there will always be another important “urgent” task to do, and remind myself that it’s all about how people look at things, it’s all in their head if to think that to do task A has become so urgent as yesterday they might thought it wasn’t so important, anyway the world was here before and another day or hour won’t cause anyone to die unless you are a doctor.

Justin February 11, 2011 at 4:50 am

I agree you have to set limits on everything that you do during your workday. It’s very easy to get sidetracked. I work from home on my blog, so I do not do anything high priority when the family is home.

Michael Belfiore February 11, 2011 at 8:25 pm

Excellent suggestions, Henrik. That single-tasking advice gets repeated so often for a reason; it really works. I find time limits very effective too. I divide my prioritized tasks into 50-minute chunks. I set a timer on http://online-stopwatch.com, and work with single-minded focus on one task for that length of time. When the timer goes off, I get 10 minutes to get up and stretch, go for short walk, or do something else relaxing before tackling the next 50-minute task. It’s amazing how much you can get done in 50 minutes with the promise of a reward at the end of it.

By the way, I’m really glad to have found your site. My wife and I have undertaken a yearlong project to do all the things we’ve dreamed of for years—while still holding down our jobs and looking after our kids and blogging about it. I see lots of goodies on your site for helping us pull it off.

Vic February 11, 2011 at 9:32 pm

Man, that is so true about no. 4. I always find myself working until late hours in the evening. When I go to bed, I find myself still thinking about work for a couple more hours. Of course this causes me not to have a full night sleep. Good Advice! I think I will take this one to heart.

Nikki Star - Stripped Canvas February 12, 2011 at 5:14 am

I focus on one thing at a time and give that my 100% absolute best! It’s easy to get overwhelmed and rush through tasks while your mind is already expecting the next task.

zeus February 12, 2011 at 7:17 am

A positive attitude and habits promote positive outcomes for whatever you want to accomplish. If you approach any situation with a negative attitude than you already lost before you got started. Keep an open mind, be positive and never give up when faced with a challenge. http://www.thesocialgods.com

sukhi February 12, 2011 at 4:55 pm

Great post! Working after 7pm is a tough one for me. SOmetimes I’ll go late into the night working on projects. What are your thoughts if you’re just so inspired about your work, that it truly is like a hobby?

Love to know your thoughts on this.

Brenda Griffin February 12, 2011 at 10:12 pm

My theme is to start my day with what is most important. That being said, what really helps me is to have my to do list for the next day done. Nothing beats putting down my pencil at the end of the day knowing tomorrow will take care of itself. And I can hit the ground running the next day with confidence.

Stephanie February 23, 2011 at 9:11 pm

Great post! I too have a to do list and encouraged my sister to do the same. Now she can’t start the day without it. It’s amazing how setting things down on a piece of paper in certain order can alternate a person’s mood. The best part of the day is when the last item is scratched off. The confidence this simple gesture gives off is just great!

Alcohol Rehab Thailand February 13, 2011 at 12:29 pm

At the rehab I work for one of our priorities is stress management and breaking tasks down into simplified smaller parts.

It is an extremely useful tool for life as well as dealing with additions. When you actually analyze your day and how much time you waste it is amazing.

zeus February 14, 2011 at 4:54 am

A good nights sleep is a great start and can help from causing alot of extra stress. http://www.thesocialgods.com

jonathanfigaro February 14, 2011 at 5:49 pm

Lmao–“Simplicity is an acquired taste. Mankind, left free, instinctively complicates life.”–Katherine F. Gerould

Now that is funny. What human doesn’t try to complicate the obvious. And thus he or she lives in worry and stress.

Kath Roberts February 15, 2011 at 3:27 pm

As a self confessed ex-workoholic I enjoyed this post. For me the key is now to do work I love and in a way where I integrate it with my life so it doesn’t feel stressful but uplifting, inspiring & invigorating instead. I agree multi-tasking is an energy sapper and productivity killer so I practice what I preach, sharp bursts of concentrated focus throughout the day then take a breather. I then top up with some inspiration and personal development to keep my spirits high.

Robert Bond February 15, 2011 at 5:17 pm

A lot of very good advice, but I never understand why people would limit their email checking to once per day. Kind of turns it into an unreliable means of communication. If people think they can’t reach me by email, they’ll give me a phone call; which is horrible and intrusive by comparison.

Also, people who haven’t been able to drop their 9-5 yet can probably ONLY work on their own projects after 7PM. It does take its toll on relaxation and rest for sure though!

Note Taking Nerd #2 February 15, 2011 at 7:43 pm

This step here, “6. Check everything at the end of the workday.” has to account for a MASSIVE percentage of your productivity!

It’s absolutely brilliant advice! Well, it’s hard to pick this out of all 7 awesome pieces but this is the one that causes you to do the OCD loop of checking stats, checking email, checking Facebook over and over and over again throughout the day… responding to everyone’s wants but yours.

It’s a trap that I’m happy you don’t step in. And anyone reading this would reap incredible benefits from following this practice along with the other 6.

Loved this piece Henrik and I’m looking forward to coming back to see more of your awesomeness here!

Henrik Edberg February 16, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Thank you for all the the great comments and advice, guys! You have added a lot to this article! :)

Katie @ Living Anxiety Free February 16, 2011 at 5:42 pm

I really need to start practicing “check everything once a day.” I waste so much time checking and re-checking the same things. I can’t even imagine how much time that’s going to free up for me. Thanks!

Donna B. February 17, 2011 at 11:01 am

I tried to focus one task at a time.. but sometimes it’s hard to do,
i’m in the working process.
thanks for sharing your insights..

Evelyn Lim February 17, 2011 at 2:26 pm

I am back to the habit of checking my email inbox first thing in the morning again. I think it’s because I need to check if clients need responses urgently. Your post has made me think that I’d better find a way of managing my tasks in a more productive and efficient manner. Thanks!

Justin Hansen February 22, 2011 at 11:08 am

What a great article. I know that focusing on one task at a time can be hard, but when you focus you can usually do a much better job at whatever you are focusing on and be more productive.

Here is a great article about the secrets to every day success:
10 Simple Every Day Secrets for Success

arina nikitina February 22, 2011 at 2:39 pm

I am so very close to checking everything just once a day! Already, I am celebrating. Two years ago, it was all about being online and freaking out when I don’t get emails or hear from my friends on Facebook or when my followers at Twitter got down by two. That was a freaky period. But now, the work day has since become very productive. Still, I gotta have an auto-shutdown of my work station if I log in twice in my accounts. LOL. But really. There’s no need. I’m getting there.

Rich February 22, 2011 at 10:47 pm

love the word relaxify!!!

Stephanie February 23, 2011 at 9:03 pm

Recently I experienced a very stressful and unorganized momento in my life. I have a 2 year old that makes me excercise more then any gym class, a writing at home job, I’m also a make up and hairstylist and when I wasn’t doing any of those things I was packing my belongings because I was moving from my home to another part of town. Finally after I settled in I decided to take things one step at a time and focus on my first priority of the day. I made a list of the things I needed to get done. However I didn’t make the list so long. They key in productivity is not overwhelming yourself with duties. One at a time is the best way to go.

Chris Ginsburg February 25, 2011 at 8:39 am

It’s funny you mention single tasking. The irony is that many people really believe they can multi-task effectively. It is an illusion of the mind. Your mind can only focus on one task at a time. You might be switching between three tasks at a very quick speed but only one task can occupy your concentration at any given moment. Taking on three tasks at a time is essentially saying “ok, I’m willing to accept that each of these tasks only have 33% of my concentration”.

As for not working after 7 in the evening, this can work for some but not others. We all operate off of different circadian rythm’s. It’s 10:39 right now and I’ve hit my peak level of mental clarity and concentration. However, If I was going to get a 9-5 job I would probably need to adopt your suggestion.

All in all, a very good article. Thank you,

-Chris Ginsburg

Eugene March 5, 2011 at 9:33 am

“The happiness of too many days is often destroyed by trying to accomplish too much in one day. We would do well to follow a common rule for our daily lives – do less and do it better.” – Dale E. Turner

Social Natural March 7, 2011 at 11:56 am

I just surf in the early morning. :) Nothing more therapeutic and relaxing than that. ;)

Jayson April 9, 2011 at 8:20 am

Thanks for the wonderful tips! I will do the same thing. ;)

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