New Year, New Habits


I wrote recently about how to maximise the holiday downtime.

Now with the return to work upon (though I acknowledge that a great many have already returned to work), an opportunity presents itself to maximise the first few days at work.

Why the first few days back are the most important

Returning to the everyday grind is often seen as a cause for grim thoughts or gnawing self-loathing.

But, I argue that this moment – the first few days back – is the most potent time to introduce new habits and make change, whatever change means for you.

After an extended period of time away from your usual surroundings, returning to the workplace can feel like a mildly surreal experience, something akin to those first moments you’re in another country, taking in the sights and sounds for the very first time.

This is the moment in time I love the most: it’s when my senses are heightened. In practical terms, my recollection of returning to the office after an extended period away largely consists of an increased determination to improve my lot in the workplace.

What I wanted to achieve

With a clearer mind and a brand new notebook, I reckoned I could conquer all of those draining habits I possessed which impacted my effectiveness in the previous year (those which in turn ate into my home life).

I would be a man transformed. I’d take packed lunch into work every day and save a packet on eating out. I’d stop being grumpy with everyone. I’d finish work at 5 every day, get home by 6 and be reading a book by 7. Simple pleasures. Success would be in my grasp.

Why it didn’t work

It never took very long before the dark clouds would gather above me. This was when I realised that my aspirational thinking was unachievable and that dreams of self-improvement were lost for another twelve months.

Two years on, as I return to my freelance work, I have a new perspective on this potent moment in the year. Broadly speaking I didn’t dig deep enough into what I wanted, how I’d go about realising it, and identifying what would threaten success.

What would I do differentLY?

What could I have done differently to maximise the return to work?

A customary list follows.

1. Focus in on specifically what it is you want to achieve

What specifically does improving your workplace experience mean?

In my case, it was finishing on time and not bringing work home with me.What does not bringing work home with me mean? Shutting down at 5, switching off my mobile, not checking social media, and not ruminating about workplace issues.

2. What do you need to change?

For me this was about playing to my preferences for planning, order and schedules. I visualised (and, as it happens, still do) a tidy desk with everything in its own place. I imagined an alarm going off at 4.30pm, signalling me having to shut down tasks, and software. Crockery was washed, bag packed and a quick to-do list drawn up from memory for the following day. If it was still possible to go to work in a bowler hat and an umbrella, I probably would have donned it at this point before leaving the office at 5pm.

3. Identify what’s likely to get in the way of achieving this grand master plan?

I made a sub-list.

– Manager who thinks it’s OK to just turn up at my desk and ask to ‘borrow me’ for a while
– Same manager who thinks its perfectly OK to shout across the department and ask me to ‘come over’ to his desk; rude
– Sound of an email alert
– Twitter
– TV news (we had a lot of TV monitors in our comms department)
– Someone asking me a question about what I had for dinner the night before
– Me asking someone else about a thought that has suddenly popped into my head
– Me trying to banter with the people manning the phones
– Making a cup of coffee in the kitchen; then being distracted by others en route there and back

Even writing out that list is interesting for me two years on.

Why? Because the thing that really stands out to me is the need for interacting with people – whether it’s responding to the department manager or wanting to engage in banter with the people manning the phones. Both interactions satisfy a need for inclusion; both activities interrupt me from my flow, limit success, and risk my plan for the day not being successful.

4. Identify mitigation for the sub-list

This list corresponds with the list above.

– Give yourself permission to say no; just because you’re a manager doesn’t mean you can interrupt me
– Manager has three strikes and then we’re having a quiet word together (this is the kind of thing I’d do)
– Switch off email (commit to checking it on the hour every hour, no more)
– Close down Twitter; put mobile in my bag
– You’re just going to have put up with the TV monitors – you can’t switch them off
– Actually ignore people who ask banal questions to fill the gaping void; pretend not to hear them
– Tell yourself to resist the temptation to engage in banter – they’re not interested in what you’ve got to say anyway
– Commit to making a cup of coffee and speaking to only one person if the opportunity arises

Writing this list reminds me that being in the workplace – open plan – was about needing to reassert control over those areas of my working life I had influence over. And importantly it was this which presented itself as the ‘crux’ of my challenge. Open plan offices combined with on-demand digital services which form the backbone of our work are unsolicited interruptions which have a massive impact on our focus.

5. Identify what had contributed to the ‘ideal state of mind on holidays’

This is loosely described as identifying strengths that helped create a holiday mindset. In my case, it was recognising when I was ruminating, filing thoughts away for later processing, and giving myself permission to use the free time to rest. Identifying the attributes of a positive environment helped reinforce the need for my mitigation.

6. What’s causing the most stress?

Whilst still in holiday mode, identify what project, task, anticipated interaction – at this crucial time between holiday state and working state – was causing the most stress to think about

This one was a bonus activity really – a way of identifying my own self-beliefs stitched into a workplace project. I ended up with a to-do list of further thinking which, if done well, would enhance the current goal. Something for a future blog post, perhaps.

7. Plan for four weeks

Determine what projects/tasks need to be completed within the next four weeks; roughly schedule when project work needs to be completed within the time available in your daily or weekly schedule.

8. Where’s your emergency escape?

Identify your ’emergency area’ in the workplace where you can take yourself off for quiet focus, free of distractions

9. Commit

What I didn’t do two years ago was acknolwedge the toughness of the challenge ahead.

So, if I was back in the workplace two years ago, I’d have told myself something like this:

“It might look easy, but this new plan isn’t a walk in the park. If it was you’d have done before now. So give yourself a break and acknowledge that to achieve all of this you’re going to have re-route a number of neural pathways. The brain can do that – you don’t need a brain surgeon to do that – but it requires rigour, resilience and determination.”