This article was originally published in Create & Cultivate, an online platform dedicated to helping female entrepreneurs. I was asked about my top tips for success at work and the interview is re-printed here!
Mel Robbins used to work all day long. She never set a stop time and so, she never stopped. But the renowned motivational speaker, creator of The 5 Second Rule, and a best-selling author and Audible Original host, is on a new track–one that took her many years and 5 seconds to figure out.
At 41 her life was a mess. (Self-admittedly.) She couldn’t get out of bed. She was unemployed. And then she changed her life with the 5 Second Rule. Laying in bed Mel counted backward from 5 to zero.
In that blip of time she activated her prefrontal cortex, which, according to Mel (and science) “is the part of the brain in charge of decision making, strategic thinking, acting with courage, learning new behavior, and working towards goals.”
You’ve said that dreams deserve 5 minutes in the morning before you let the world in. Can this kind of thinking be applied to any point during the day and have the same effect?
Most of us live our day-to-day in a reactionary mindset. We’re rolling through our to-dos, firing out emails, doing the daily chores and tasks, and getting what needs to be done finished.
And, as long as you’re putting out fires, you aren’t moving the ball down the field on what matters most to you. We knock things off of our to-do lists because that feels productive, but because we never actually make any real progress on the things that matter, we often still feel a void in our lives.
Your dreams will never come to life if you’re checking boxes off your to-do list. Instead, you need to take deliberate time each day to make meaningful progress on your goals.
I do this by carving out 30 minutes each morning of protected time to work on my goals.
There’s a reason the morning is the best time to work on your goals–and it lies in neuroscience.
According to Duke University professor and researcher Dan Ariely, we all have a two or three-hour window of peak productivity every single day–and it starts an hour after you wake up.
So, if you pop out of bed at 6 a.m., your peak thinking and productivity window is 7 a.m. – 9 a.m.
I do whatever it takes to find 30 minutes before 7:30 a.m. to plan out my day and spend some time on a project that matters to me.
Why else is it important to plan and do the most important stuff first thing? Because it’s the best time for the brain to focus on the tasks or goals that advance your own personal or professional goals.
Answering emails, taking phone calls, sitting in meetings have a way of taking over your schedule and rarely lead to making major improvements in your life.
The concept of “30 before 7:30” cannot be done once you walk into the office. You must do this at home, at your favorite coffee shop, on the train, or sitting in your car in the parking lot.
Do not try to do this at work. The moment you walk into your office, answer that first email, or take that first call–your day is gone. Your attention is no longer being focused on your own goals and dreams.
For your own happiness and to protect the time necessary to focus on the deep work, the first two hours of your day must be grabbed by you. Now, if every once and a while you’ve got a morning in which it’s impossible to take 30, you can leave it until the evening. But I’ve found that most of the time “later” becomes “not today.” At night, you’re tired–and you’re about 12 hours past your peak thinking window.
If you are making progress on projects that matter, even if for just a few minutes a day, you are winning the long game.
For our readers who have a hard time setting professional boundaries– they’re burnt out, they’re replying to emails constantly, they never say no, they work weekends– what’s your advice?
When I find myself working around the clock, I remember Parkinson’s Law.
Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the amount of time given to it, which means that if you never set your own boundaries, you’ll literally ALWAYS be working.
And that not only wears you down–it wears other people in your life down, too. A recent study found 33% of people answer messages in the middle of the night. And you don’t need me to tell you that checking your emails at 3 AM puts you at risk for burnout and emotional exhaustion.
Instead of endlessly working and being addicted to your phone from sunrise to sunset, try this: Set a time today that you will absolutely stop working.
As someone who used to work all day long, I was amazed at what happened when I started setting a quitting time, something I now do every single day.
Instead of becoming less productive, I actually got more done. With my quitting time in mind, I was more focused, concentrated, and made even more progress.
A quitting time is the difference between an unfocused 12 hours of work or a productive, distraction-free 8 hours–in which you get the same amount of work done.
If you can get serious about managing distractions and removing them, you will find your productivity is off the charts. Every interruption takes 25 minutes to fully recover from and get back into focus mode.
If signing off at 5 PM makes you nervous, try this method for just one day. Before you get to work, take your 30 before 7:30 and plan out your day. Once you get into the office, write your quitting time down and start on your #1 project of the day before you check your email. Keep your phone on silent and your computer’s notifications off. If you find yourself getting tired, get up and walk for 5 minutes.
By 5PM, you will have most likely accomplished as much as you would working even longer.
Try this one day at a time and you’ll find that the extra time to recharge at night actually makes you even more productive the next day!
On a related note, the art of managing distractions is one of the superpowers of the 21st century. If you can tune out the notifications, the noise, and the chatter, you will get twice as much work done in half the time–allowing you to have quality time with your family and loved ones at night.
For young working women there are fear-based thoughts that if they don’t do all of the above (are the last one the leave the office, say no to answering emails on the weekend, etc.) there will be someone behind them happy to take their place. What do you say to that?
The key word here is “value.” There’s a major difference between showing up at work (no matter how many hours you are online) and providing real value.
If you make your boss’ life easier and you further your boss’ strategic objectives, you are providing an incredible amount of value–and your boss will not think about firing you, even if you set clear boundaries around your time.
The secret to providing value is to ask yourself one question every day.
It’s to put yourself in your boss’ shoes and ask: What is the most valuable thing that I can do for him/her?
When you choose which projects to work on, you should actively seek to align your workload and your priorities with your boss’ objectives. While it may be more fun for you to work on projects that are not as important, when you become a proactive strategic contributor, you become an invaluable asset to your team.
If you’re currently not a huge value-add to your company, you can change that starting now. Tomorrow, ask your boss to talk and find out his or her strategic objectives–and start to align your work in this direction.
This question also gives you a formula for how you will answer other people who ask for your time and energy at work.
Many of us, especially women, want to please everyone in our lives, and it’s no easier to say no to a colleague or your boss as it is to say no to a friend or family member.
At work, you need to get clear on your priorities. And then, when someone asks you to do something that you don’t have time for or that would hurt your work on your most important projects, here is how to say no without feeling guilty:
First: understand that you are not saying NO to the person. You are saying it to the task. You are also saying YES to prioritizing your own time. If a colleague asks you, acknowledge the request and thank the person for thinking of you, explain why you don’t have the time due to your other projects, and then offer a lifeline by helping them brainstorm another person or offer guidance if they need help.
Second: if your boss is the one to ask for a request, use it as a strategic, high visibility moment. Listen to the request and then say that you are aiming to help them with strategic priorities and ask what is most important for you to focus on: this new project or your current work.
Remember: if you don’t prioritize your time and learn to say no, someone else will be the one to dictate your priorities, which is not the key to making progress at work.
It’s not just important to “say no” to projects that don’t align with your strategic goals. It’s also important to “say no” to being available all the time. If you don’t take care of yourself, it’s impossible to show up as your best self. Research shows that today’s pressure to always be accessible has left more than half of workers feeling burned out and in desperate need of a reset button. In the United States alone, 200 million days are lost from work each year due to mental health issues, which is costing employers over $100 billion.
Researchers believe that one reason women are not promoted at the same levels men are is because of burnout. Women face high expectations in the home and at work (especially be having to be “always on” even after work hours).
Being “always on” is impossible. Make sure to prioritize things like sleep, getting time outdoors, exercising, not sitting all day, and spending time with friends.
And, if you’re actively aligning your workload with your company’s top priorities and getting more done in less time by managing distractions, you will become an invaluable employee who can set boundaries–and not have to worry about being replaced by someone else.
Sign up for Audible today! And listen to Kick Ass with Mel Robbins. Change your life already.