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Need to Simplify Your Work Due to an Illness? Here Are 5 Ways to Help.

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I had a conversation this week where we discussed what seems to be a shame around doing less or simplifying, especially for women. I know so many women with a martyr complex and I used to be exactly the same, and I still find myself doing it sometimes. It’s like I feel I have to help everyone, fix everything. Don’t worry about me, I’m happy to help, happy to do all the work! How many people do you know like that?

Am I describing you? Stress and being overwhelmed can be the kiss of death to a career, but for someone with an illness, holding down a career the risks are even higher. So why do we still pile on the work and pile on the guilt?

If there is one thing chronic illness helped me let go of, it was to let go of being a martyr. Physically being unable to do some things meant I couldn’t just agree to everything, or say yes to every request for help. But don’t get me wrong, I tried! I would be thinking of all the ways I could still do all these things for others, all while struggling with my own life. Eventually I learned to let go of always having to be in control. Eventually I became OK with the idea that I didn’t have to be the person everyone relied on. I didn’t have to be Super Woman. That looking after number one was actually a valid and sensible goal. You’ve got to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.

Over the years I developed tools and techniques that worked for me to help me manage having a full-time career, while also managing chronic fatigue syndrome. The reactions I got from others were mixed and also very telling. I found many (mostly women) had an attitude that I should forget fancy spreadsheets and lists and ways of prioritizing and “just get on with your job.” Comments like, “We’re all busy,” or, “I’m surprised you have time to think about what to do next, I don’t.” Again and again this martyr complex came up. It’s this jealous and hard-done-by feeling of, “Why should she get to be more organized than me,” or a feeling like if you’re not rushed off your feet every day with no time to think then you’re not really working hard.

And therein lies the difference…working hard is not the same as working smart. The quantity of action is not as important as the quality of the action.

It can be really difficult to decide to do things differently and even harder to stick with it when others don’t share your motivation…and why would they? Your motivation is to not collapse, become unemployed, or to lose your income. The stakes are higher for you. So don’t compare yourself to people who don’t understand those stakes. Let them worry themselves into a frenzy, let them get stressed out doing things their way.

When you stick to your guns and people start noticing that you have a system, that you have boundaries, that the work gets done well, that the work gets done better than before, more efficiently and yet you are this serene individual, a calm island in the storm…it’s funny how many people will start coming to you for your secret. It’s funny how many people ask if they can have a copy of that spreadsheet!

So here are my top five tips for simplifying and not getting caught up in the rat race with everyone else:

1. Before you even switch on your PC, walk into the office, or make your cuppa – know what your top one priority for the day is. Set your priority at the end of the previous day when you are most clear on what needs doing next. In the morning when those emails come flying in, when people are demanding your attention, you will easily get confused about what it is you need to do first.

Write that priority on a post-it and stick it to your monitor before you leave for the day. Then when you open those emails or the requests that start coming in the next morning, look at your post-it and decide whether these new things can wait or whether they really are vital… hell, priorities change! That’s life. Emergencies happen, but if you are already clear on your priorities beforehand you will be less swayed by those things disguised as emergencies and more likely to make the smart choices.

2. Manage people’s expectations by under promising and over delivering. You might think you’re being amazing by promising something the same day, but then when a genuine emergency comes along and it doesn’t happen, you look incompetent and you break your promise. Start setting a reasonable turn-around time for tasks and communicate it. If you wish, say it’s likely to be sooner, but manage the expectation from the outset. You will look competent when you deliver before you said you would and you won’t be as stressed.

If you are struggling with this or you have turn-around times already set that aren’t working, have a chat with your boss and see if you can set more realistic targets that make your whole team look more professional.

3. Get everything out your head and into a list, spreadsheet, calendar, or whatever works best for you. Your brain is very clever. If there is something in there that it’s not supposed to forget, it will keep reminding you all the time. If it knows it no longer has to remind you because you have a system of your own, it will stop constantly reminding you and will leave you in peace to concentrate on the real priorities.

4. For the love of all things sparkly and if you only choose one of these tips – make it this one and stop multi-tasking. It does not make you more efficient. You actually lose over 40 percent of your concentration power when you multi-task. You also get into habits of not completing things and doing things half-assed. Instead, choose the one next priority task and focus only on that one thing until it’s finished. Set a timer if you want.

…and remember to have a list to tick it off. Ticking things off a list is a great motivator.

5. Don’t have more than one tab open at one time and only check emails at specific times. OK, so this sounds like it’s computer focused, but it’s not really it applies to paper based and in person too. This goes hand-in-hand with not multi-tasking. If you are dealing with that one priority thing, then only have that one thing open on your PC, that one thing in front of you on the desk, or that one thing on the agenda.

Emails are the spawn of Satan and very rarely are they urgent. In a real urgent situation, someone will pick up the phone, arrive at your desk screaming…or you will hear the sirens! So set times that you check them and shut it down in between. Even if you do an hourly check, scan them quickly for emergencies or from anyone super important. Quickly respond to acknowledge anything that needs it, and if none of them are as important as what you are doing, leave them to a later time.

You can join my free community on Facebook at the link in my profile. Just click on my name.

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Originally published: November 2, 2017
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