How to enjoy work (even when you’re busy + kind of overwhelmed)

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Do you quietly hate it when people tell you how busy they are?

Do you inwardly roll your eyes when someone responds to “How are you?” with a laundry list of duties and responsibilities they’ve been laboring under?

I ask because OMG YOU GUYS I’VE BEEN SO BUSY
(but who cares and that’s kind of annoying, right?)

Because we’re all busy. We’re all sleep-deprived and over-caffeinated; we’re all over-committed and under-relaxed.

And while I’d like very much to tell you (and myself) to “say ‘no’ more” and “take on less,” that’s not always an option – particularly at work.

If you’re self-employed, you know what I mean.

If you’re launching something or starting a new job or training a new hire or absorbing responsibilities, you know what I mean.
If you’re a photographer and it’s wedding season,
If you’re an accountant and it’s tax season,
If you’re a teacher and it’s standardized test/conference/report card season,
you know what I mean.

Here are 8 ways I’ve learned to enjoy work, even when I’m car-razy busy.

1. Schedule intentional, restorative breaks – even if they’re tiny

Open your Google calendar, find a 20-minute window, and literally type “TAKE A BREAK, DUDE.” Set a reminder on your phone or computer and when that alarm goes off take an actual break.

And by actual break what I mean is “physically distance yourself from the project you’re working on and do something completely different and totally relaxing for 20 minutes.”

If you’re tapping away on your computer, push back from your desk, point yourself towards some fresh air and go wander around it in. If you’re grading papers, go make yourself a healthy, energy-giving, prettily plated snack and eat it on the patio. If you’re taping off the trim before you paint the kitchen, put down the painters’ tape and go watch an episode of your favorite VT show.

And if this intense, high-pressure time will last longer than a few days – if it’s more like a few months – schedule a block of off days. Go camping. House swap with a friend. See what crazy all-inclusive trips Groupon is selling. Leave your phone and laptop at home and spend a few days really, truly recharging.

I know it can feel impossible to find time for these breaks.

But here’s the thing: when you wear yourself down and burn yourself out, you’re compromising the quality of your work and you’re borrowing from future productivity and creativity.

The stuff I create when I’m running on five hours of sleep? I usually end up deleting it all. Taking a break – and spending that break really relaxing and rejuvenating – is an investment in yourself and your work.

2. Keep a ‘smile file’

Is that name so cheesy you want to die? BE THAT AS IT MAY THIS ISH WORKS.

Every time you get a kind email from a blog reader/client/customer, move it into a folder that you’ve specifically designated for these glowing missives. If you do better with physical, tangible things, print out these emails and but them in a binder. If you’re lucky enough to get snail mail thank you notes, tuck them into a folder in your filing cabinet.

Reference all these kind, glowing words when you’re feeling run down and unsure of why you’re working so hard. It’s encouragement on tap!

3. Read glorious, escapist fiction

When you’re studying for the GRE or launching your first product, it’s tempting to spend every free minute reading things that will help you score a few points higher or nab a few more sales. Spoiler alert: GRE study guides and social media marketing plans don’t make for very good bedtime reading and they certainly don’t give you and your brain an opportunity to recharge.

Cut yourself some slack and put away the professional development. Re-read one of your favorite novels or find something that’s equal parts funny and (relatively) intelligent. I like Jennifer Wienerfor smarter-than-usual Lady Stories or anything by L.M. Montgomery for cozy, ‘comfort’ reading.

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4. Make your workspace + work experience as lovely as possible

This might sound frivolous, but you’d be amazed by the difference a few tweaks can make.

What if you…

  • Moved your desk so you got more natural light?
  • Added a potted plant?
  • Decluttered your desk – or at least shoved all the clutter into a drawer?
  • Hung a few pretty art prints? (I like this one, this one, and this one)
  • Cleaned your computer so it ran faster and wasn’t covered in crumbs and smudges?
  • Considered the hours that you’re most creative + productive and adjusted your work schedule accordingly?
  • Bought office supplies and software that were a joy to use? (cough these paper clips cough)

If you’re spending all that time working, you might as well do it in a pretty, inspiring space at a time of day you like!

5. Make yourself as physically comfortable as possible

Be smarter than me. Don’t buy a used Ikea desk chair off Craigslist because it “works with your aesthetic.”

Get yourself ergonomic stuff – the special mouse, the special keyboard, one of those nerdy wrist rest things. If you sit while you’re working, make sure your desk and chair are adjusted correctly. If it’s possible, get a standing desk or a convertible desk that can switch between sitting and standing.

Make sure your workspace has enough light, enough space to spread out and – depending on where you live – humidify or dehumidify as needed.

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6. Eat healthy, delicious, attractive meals – not at your desk

When we’re working 12-hour days, it’s easy to convince ourselves that a Clif bar is a meal and that eating fast food at our desks is “multitasking.”

Friends, eating Chipotle at our desks is not multitasking. It’s messy and it’s a recipe for sticky keyboards and burnout.

You’ll do better work and have more energy if you take the time to step away from your work and eat a real meal.

What if you:

  • Made a giant batch of soup and ate a bowl of it every day for lunch
  • Transferred your takeout to an actual plate and ate it at a table – with a placemat! And a napkin!
  • Used your lunch break to try a new restaurant in your neighborhood
  • Ate your meal outside, soaking up the sunshine
  • Read this great article from Bon Appetit – Lunch al Desko: Upgrade Your Midday Meal

7. Take your work day seriously

When you work for yourself – or you’re in the middle of your busy season – it’s easy to let your workday rampage out of control. Allofasudden you’re answering emails in bed and starting work late because you ended work late the day before.

Ferociously guard the boundaries between work and play. Maybe you need to work 9 am – 9 pm for a month; maybe you need to work six days a week. That’s okay! But really, actually work those hours and when the clock clicks over from 8:59 to 9:00 pm, hang up your proverbial apron and call it a day.

When you’re entering a busy season, consider the hours you’ll need to work. Block them off on your calendar and work those hours. And when those hours are over? STOP.

8. Remind yourself why you’re working so hard 

Why, exactly, are you busting your sweet behind? Why are you working 12-hour days or juggling two jobs? It’s hard to stay motivated if you can’t remember why you’re working these long hours and making all these compromises.

Create a visual reminder of your goals and aspirations. Maybe you’re working this hard so you can afford a three-week vacation in Thailand. Maybe you’re putting your kids through college. Maybe you want your name on the New York Times Bestseller list.

Whatever the goal, find a related photo or image and make it your screensaver, or frame it and hang it next to your desk! Just make sure it’s visible and easy to reference when you’re working at 8 pm on Sunday night.

How do you deal when you’re in the middle of a busy season? I’d love to hear your tips in the comments!

P.S. How To Feel Great Even If You Stare At Screens All Day

26 Comments

Alysa

Thanks for this post, Sarah. The one I need to work on the most is eating well (and not at my desk)! Such a great reminder.

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Hannah

I love the Pomodoro Technique. It’s perfect for taking those intentional breaks. I also use the short breaks to do jumping jacks or some kind of other movement. Do that several times during the day and you’ve nearly got your 30 minutes of exercise without having to block off however long to go to the gym—it counts in a pinch, right? 🙂

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Hillary Roberts

These are very good comments. I will have to take the pretty desk one. Mine right now is boring me, I am craving a different setup. I love those paper clips in your link!

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Amy Kennedy

Ha! Exactly what I needed. And I have been that irritating person lately…sosososobusy. And irritating. But I am no longer going to eat at my desk, darn it!

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Pascale

Dear Sarah,
thank you for this wonderful email that popped in my inbox during the hardest of times. I own a decoration & gifts shop, and I now decided I have to open on Sundays because the sales dropped compared to last year.. Im taking care of 2 young kids with me ( im a single mom) and 1 abroad , Im taking a social media marketing course online, I m at the store while my kids are in school, I spend my afternoons helping with homework, preparing next day lunch, and taking them to their sports classes, I hve some orders fr corporate gifts to prepare and Im literally dying:)) so many “I’m” & “I” so this gives you an idea how much help I have :)) Your tips are all so easily applicable, I’ll let you know how it turns out in a couple of weeks .
Cheers

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renee

SVB:
This post is why I am a faithful subscriber & reader. You are filled to the brim with creativity, fresh ideas & such a lovely outlook!
p.s. Congrats on your recent marriage. All the best in life & love with your meteorologist xoxo

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Vanessa

I’m so glad I clicked through to this! As a student, a lot of business-y articles don’t seem to apply to me, but this is exactly what I need right now. It’s so easy to forget that being a full time student is a job. It’s finals season, but honestly, every semester feels like a busy season.
This is a bookmark I’m going to revisit often.

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sarahvon

Yes! Finals week, writing a thesis, applying to schools – it’s all super hard and it’s all WORK! So glad you found it useful 🙂

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Mary

#2 — not a smile file, but when things get a little tough or I’m in doubt, I go and read my Yelp reviews. Most are glowing, and it always helps me feel a bit better after!

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Rebecca

Love this list and perfect timing as we are all facing end of the year crunch time! I was tickled to see your LM Montgomery call out. For years my go-to guilty pleasure has been Anne or Emily – sometimes with a healthy dose of Pat or Jane if its a particularly bad day! For some reason its not only calming and deeply soul satisfying – I also continually find new life lesson nuggets when I need them the most!

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Alison

Clicked over from yesandyes; very timely article! I’m definitely in a busy season (preparing for a book launch). Similar to your last point, I’ve been reminding myself that even though there’s a bunch on my plate, I’m really happy to have a challenging and engaging project. That said, I loved the idea of pre-blocking off some ‘no work’ times over the next few months as work is creeping… 🙂

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Lizzie

This post is SO timely for me right now! I’m working on so many different launches and products that I pretty much spend most of my time in an overwhelmed tizz! I definitely agree that taking a break is VITAL, even if it’s only for a few minutes.

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