Many of us begin a new year reflecting on the past and feeling bad about what we haven’t accomplished. Instead of ruminating on the previous year, focus on the future. Treat what you want to accomplish as a new challenge. Set specific goals, and develop a realistic plan to get there. It’s natural to compare yourself to others, so use that instinct to your advantage. For example, identify a close rival — someone whose performance is similar to your own but maybe slightly better in an area you want to improve — and figure out what you could do to get to their level. Or compare your current self to your past self and use the recognition of your own trajectory to spur you to reach new heights. No one wants to start the new year in a rut, but with some small changes in your perspective you can hit the ground running.
Requesting an email introduction from a current contact can be a big ask. Busy people may get multiple similar requests each week, so it’s important to do what you can to reduce their burden. One option is to provide them with a forwardable email that they can pass on to the target contact. Make sure you include a relevant — and brief — summary of your experience. Show that you’ve thoroughly researched the third party by including a few specific lines about how you think the new contact can help you. Avoid using vague reasons like, “I want to expand my network.” When the connection is made, make it easy for the person to connect with you. Offer several options for meeting times and send a calendar invite with the dial-in information. Most importantly, thank your current contact for the introduction and let them know how it went. They are more likely to make another one if they know you appreciated it and see that it led to new opportunities.
Clear, relevant writing keeps people coming back for more. Complicated, dull writing does the opposite: People tune out, switch off, and stay away. So whether you’re drafting emails, reports, blog posts, tweets, or articles, make sure to write like a human, not a business. Start by writing in the first person whenever you can. It feels personal and inviting. For example, “We’ll give you the clear, friendly home-buying advice you need,” is much warmer than “Humbert & Herbert is a residential estate agent offering customers friendly, clear, and straightforward advice.” Don’t be afraid to start sentences with imperatives like “Get,” “Download,” or “Join.” It makes for clearer, more engaging writing — and it’s how we speak in real life. Visualize your reader and write specifically for them. Warren Buffett famously writes his company’s annual letter with his sisters Doris and Bertie in mind. Finally, read your writing out loud to weed out “corporate-speak.” If it sounds awkward to you, it’ll probably sound the same to your readers.
From the initial conversation to the moment you seal a deal, success for independent contractors hinges on the client’s decision to invest in and engage with you. Many freelancers focus on the business aspect of the interaction, but relationships and authentic connections drive business, so tell your story. Begin with an idea that explains your passion and approach. For example, if your expertise is public relations, you could say, “To me, PR is about understanding an audience and giving them a good story.” Then, help your potential client understand your expertise, including relevant details about your career path. Finally, rather than ending on something about yourself, connect it back to them. For example, you might say: “The story you have is something people need to hear, and I can see it making an impact in a publication like Time.” Also, pay attention during small talk. Whether you’re talking about your rescue dogs or your shared sports fandom, you’re building a rapport that signals: “We are cut from the same cloth. Your goals are my goals.”
Work stress is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to get in the way of a good night’s sleep. Try these strategies during the day to avoid worrying about work at all hours of the night. Make a to-do list. The act of writing down uncompleted tasks allows you to put them out of your mind. You also might consider keeping a journal, where you write down your thoughts and feelings. Putting pen to paper can help you process emotions and reduce anxiety. Get some exercise. Physical activity — even a single instance — decreases rumination, which is often linked to insomnia. Or practice meditation. Researchers in the Netherlands found that even small amounts of mindful meditation (10 minutes before and after work for two weeks) helped calm racing minds and improved sleep quality and duration. Lastly, be easy on yourself. Self-compassion can often break the cycle of negative thoughts that keeps you up. Work stress may be inevitable at times, but these strategies can increase your ability to wake up feeling refreshed and able to tackle your biggest challenges.
Sometimes work gets intense. Whether it’s a seasonal rush or a project with a tight deadline, it can be hard to keep people focused and motivated when they’re overloaded. What’s the best way to rally the troops? For starters, check your own emotional energy. You’ll be hard pressed to lead your team if you’re feeling beleaguered or stressed yourself. Take the time to reflect on why the work matters. Why is it relevant to your organization’s goals or mission? And who will benefit from the hard work of you and your team? Then, convey that message to your staff to inspire excitement and enthusiasm. Acknowledge that success will require hard work and perhaps some sacrifices, but express confidence that the team will prevail, and assure everyone that you’re all in it together. Finally, remember that incentives are your friend, and they should be deployed throughout the project, not just at the end. Identify milestones and find ways to reward your team’s hard work: a Friday afternoon off, perhaps, or an office ice cream party. Moments of celebration foster camaraderie and create sustained engagement.
It can be hard to focus with all that beeping and buzzing from your phone. Fortunately, there are simple ways to reduce distractions. Start by turning off push notifications. If that doesn’t help, use airplane mode to limit interruptions when you’re trying to focus. If the idea of being out of touch gives you anxiety, you can always make exceptions for specific numbers, such as those of loved ones or important business colleagues. Try to check email, instant messages, social media, and text messages in batches, rather than sporadically throughout the day. “Just quickly checking” anything, even for one-tenth of a second, can add up to major productivity losses — it can take an average of 23 minutes to get back in the zone after task switching. It’s OK to not respond immediately to a message. Aside from the benefit of giving you more uninterrupted focus time, delaying can lead to better decision-making by giving you more time to think about your response.
Dealing with endless distractions at work can be exhausting and make you feel like you never get anything done. To avoid burnout — and to accomplish thoughtful, important work — you need to combat interruptions, especially ones you’re creating yourself, such as checking your email every five minutes. Pay attention to how often and why you’re allowing your attention to be stolen. Make a note every time you find yourself switching away from a task before your intended stopping point. Then think about what caused you to be distracted and jot that down, too. Once you become aware of these cues, find ways to overcome them. For example, ask yourself what you could do to stop constantly checking Twitter on your phone, or how you could keep others from interrupting you when you’re trying to focus. Record these ideas, then look for opportunities to try them out. Keep a record of which ones were successful and which weren’t. Over time, you’ll end up with a list of tactics that will help keep you focused and give you a greater sense of accomplishment.
Meetings that run long or unexpected requests from colleagues can prevent you from getting an important task done, make you leave work late, or even disrupt family time. How can you set and communicate boundaries so that you feel your time is respected? Start with your calendar. Block out times when you’re commuting, taking your kids to school, or when you’re getting focused work done, making sure you’re marked as unavailable. Next, ensure that you’re setting meetings for an appropriate amount of time, and stick to a focused agenda. If you’re not running the meeting, tell your colleagues that you have a hard stop. You also need to manage communications. Make your preferred way of communicating — for example, email versus Slack — clear with your colleagues, and respond on your schedule, when possible. Most messages can wait! Of course, you can’t always set meetings based on your needs or dictate how people communicate with you. But the goal is to find limits that are polite on the outside and make you feel calm on the inside.
No manager wants a stressed-out team. And while employees have some responsibility to monitor their stress levels, leaders need to play a critical role in preventing and remedying burnout. Start with curiosity. Ask yourself: What is making my staff so unhealthy? How can I help them flourish? Then, gather data by asking your team what causes them to feel motivated or frustrated. Employees may not have a silver-bullet solution, but they can most certainly tell you what isn’t working, and that is often very helpful data. Then, ask your team what they need. Think about small changes, for example, asking: If we had this much budget and could spend it on X many items in our department, what would be the first priority? Have the team vote anonymously, and then share the data with everyone. Discuss what was prioritized and why, and then start working down the list, performing small pilots and assessing what works. The good news is that burnout is preventable, and these low-risk and inexpensive experiments will give you useful information about what you need to change in your work environment.
Every business has subject-matter experts who are the keepers of critical information or who serve as the firm’s institutional memory. How do you ensure that they pass their knowledge on to the next generation, especially if you don’t want to burden the person with training lots of people? Try using what experts call a knowledge cascade, where the specialist shares the information with a small group of people, who are then responsible for teaching the next level down. In its simplest form, this might be a “pay it forward” model, where the expert trains someone, who then directly teaches or mentors others. Or you might try convening a “campfire” meeting where the expert presents lessons to a group of less experienced individuals, and they then discuss and expand on those lessons to generate new knowledge. Or you could think creatively about preserving the expert’s knowledge, for example, interviewing them for a podcast that future employees can listen to. By formalizing a process, you’re ensuring that you’re not only preserving essential information, you’re multiplying its impact for the future.
Why is breaking a habit so difficult? It’s because habits are made up of three components: a trigger (for example, feeling stressed), a behavior (browsing the Internet), and a reward (feeling sated). Each time you reinforce the reward, you become more likely to repeat the behavior. The key to breaking this cycle is to become more aware of the “reward” reinforcing your behavior. First, figure out your triggers. If the habit is procrastination, for example, pay attention to the circumstances surrounding you when you put things off. Do you have a big project you’re trying to avoid? Do you have too much on your plate? Then, try to identify the behaviors you engage in when you procrastinate. Do you check social media instead of working? Do you take on unimportant tasks instead of what you should be doing? The next step is to clearly link action to outcome. Ask yourself what you get from surfing the internet for pictures of cute puppies. How rewarding is it in the moment, especially when you realize that it isn’t helping you get your work done? Lastly, replace the reward with curiosity. Being curious helps you acknowledge the sensations you’re feeling — boredom, distraction — without acting on them.
We all have moments of weakness, but chronic, destructive behaviors can be hard to change, even when you’re aware of their consequences. Our most destructive behaviors — such as angry outbursts, freezing up in high-risk moments, or asserting excessive control under stress — are often rooted in formative traumatic experiences, and uncovering their origins can help. Try to recall scenes from your early years, usually between the ages of five and 20, when the behavior started to appear. Write down what happened and how the behavior was learned. Then ask yourself what need your behavior is serving. Usually it’s an attempt to resolve a painful experience. Next, choose a new narrative for how you can meet your needs with alternative behaviors. Sometimes you need a trained therapist for this last phase, but you can start by writing down what you think a new narrative needs to be. This work isn’t easy – and takes time – but it will help you live a far more gratified life, and those you lead will be especially grateful.
Ego can stand in the way of good leadership. When our egos are threatened, we hold on to past decisions for too long, we react defensively to negative feedback, and we get emotional when we need to be rational. Fortunately, mindfulness meditation can serve as an antidote, allowing you to see things more objectively and to form deeper relationships. Commit to meditating for a short time each day. Find a quiet place, sit comfortably on a chair or cushion, and set a timer for anywhere between five and 25 minutes. Then simply start observing your breath. Allow the mind to detach from your thoughts and to experience a sense of openness. Then use what you gain from this practice throughout your workday. You might quiet your mind with a few conscious breaths before you enter a meeting or open your email. Or practice in the moment: For example, while you’re sitting in a meeting, turn your focus to your breath, and simply notice if your mind has started to take things personally. Even just taking a few breaths in and out can help lessen your ego’s grip.
It’s not always clear how you should think about growing in your career. One thing to try is writing a “from/to” statement that articulates where you are today and where you want to go. For example: I want to progress from an individual contributor who adds value through technical expertise and closely follows others’ directions, to a people leader who creates a clear strategy and delivers results through a small team. To write a from/to, ask trusted superiors and colleagues for their candid view of your current role and your goals. Tell them to be brutally honest, because their transparency will help you figure out how you need to grow. Reflect on their answers and incorporate them into your from/to statement — and then have your colleagues read it. Sometimes people think they’re far ahead of where they are, or they choose a destination that is unrealistic. Your advisers can provide a reality check.
As a manager, you probably have to talk a lot. You want people to have the guidance and direction they need, of course, and there are plenty of situations where you need to speak your mind. But at some point, talking a lot can turn into overcommunicating. You can end up dominating conversations, which means employees’ perspectives aren’t being heard. To make sure you aren’t talking too much, listen as much as you speak. When someone raises a question in a meeting, invite others to weigh in before you. In fact, don’t contribute your thoughts until several other people have offered theirs. That way everyone is included and feels that their input is valued. You can also schedule regular one-on-one sessions with your team members to encourage open communication. Ask employees about their wants, needs, and concerns — and then hush. You may be surprised how much you learn when you’re saying nothing.
When you make a mistake at work, do you replay it in your head for days or even weeks? This kind of overthinking is called rumination, and it can lead to serious anxiety. To break out of the cycle, there are a few things you can do. For one, identify your rumination triggers. Do certain types of people, projects, or decisions make you second-guess yourself? Notice when (and why) a situation is causing you to start overthinking things. It can also be useful to distance yourself from negative thoughts by labeling them as thoughts or feelings. For example, instead of saying “I’m inadequate,” say “I’m feeling like I’m inadequate.” These labels can help you distinguish what you’re experiencing from who you truly are as a person and an employee. Another way to short-circuit rumination is to distract yourself. When your brain won’t stop spinning, take a walk, meditate, or fill out an expense report — do any simple activity you can focus on for a few minutes.
When you need to sell an idea at work or in a presentation, how do you do it? Five rhetorical devices can help — Aristotle identified them 2,000 years ago, and masters of persuasion still use them today:
- Ethos. Start your talk by establishing your credibility and character. Show your audience that you are committed to the welfare of others, and you will gain their trust.
- Logos. Use data, evidence, and facts to support your pitch.
- Pathos. People are moved to action by how a speaker makes them feel. Wrap your big idea in a story that will elicit an emotional reaction.
- Metaphor. Compare your idea to something that is familiar to your audience. It will help you clarify your argument by making the abstract concrete.
- Brevity. Explain your idea in as few words as possible. People have a limited attention span, so talk about your strongest points first.
To make good decisions, it’s important to think critically. And, yet, too many leaders accept the first solution proposed to them or don’t take the time to evaluate a topic from all sides. To guard against these mistakes, there are several things you can do to hone your critical thinking skills. First, question your assumptions, especially when the stakes are high. If you’re coming up with a new business strategy, for example, ask: Why is this the best way forward? What does the research say about our expectations for the future of the market? Second, poke at the logic. When evaluating arguments, consider if the evidence builds on itself to produce a sound conclusion. Is the logic supported by data at each point? Third, seek out fresh perspectives. It’s tempting to rely on your inner circle to help you think through these questions, but that won’t be productive if they all look and think like you. Get outside your bubble and ask different people to question and challenge your logic.
The only thing worse than having a long to-do list is not knowing how you’re going to get everything done. Timeboxing can help: It’s a way of converting your to-do list into blocks of time on your calendar, so you have a plan for what to do and when. Start by looking at your to-do list and figuring out each task’s deadlines. For example, if a promotional video has to go live on a Tuesday, and the production team needs 72 hours to incorporate your edits, then put a hold on your calendar at least 72 hours before Tuesday. Repeat for each item on your to-do list. If you work on a team where people can see one another’s calendars, timeboxing has the added benefit of showing people that the work will get done on time. But the biggest advantage of timeboxing might be that it gives you a feeling of control over your calendar — which can help you feel happier at work.