When the spiral of the work week makes multi-tasking yield diminishing returns, a few quiet pauses can provide refreshment and perspective. Catherine shares some learnings from her experience as a part-time working mother and executive coach.
When I returned to work on a part-time basis following maternity leave, I believed I would need to make every minute count if I was meant to accomplish all I desired in a shorter work week.
Gone was the luxury of taking ten extra minutes to stroll to and from my preferred canteen on a different floor of the building. Voicemails were a thing to check en-route to the ladies room, not during precious sitting-at-my-computer-screen moments. And, of course, my commute across London allowed me to pack in at least another two hours per day of emailing, pre-reading and agenda-planning.
I was a 'wonder woman', impressed by my own discipline and productivity.
But there was a price to pay for this extreme efficiency. Regardless of waxing and waning external demands, I kept the pedal to the metal - a steady 70 mph at all times. The sheer pace of activity made working feel stressful even on what should have been a relatively less intense day.
There are many ways to address stress:
I won't presume to know what is right in your life, but rather I propose a small internal tweak that is generally within your control, regardless of personal circumstances. I suggest taking your foot off the gas to give yourself the gift of a few quiet moments each day. Simple as it may sound, learning to do this is not the work of a day, especially when always-available technology and some workplace cultures encourage one to appear ever busy.
I am still striving to recognise when I need to take a pause, but, I can say that since I began consciously doing this over the past few years, I have seen these moments pay dividends.
When I entered the field of executive coaching, I was impressed by the calmness more seasoned coaches expressed. They never entered a room buzzing with, "Now, we've got a lot to cover, so we can't lose any time!" Instead, they arrived serene and mentally present.
As I developed as a coach, I learned that an essential step to preparing for my coachees was to give myself time before sessions to let go of the day's to-do list, and focus on being ready to listen to them - mindfulness. Taking this time before a coaching session has become sacrosanct in my coaching practice, and over time I have realised the value of its application to other aspects of my work.
First, a simple scan of the diary can flag to us where we may need to build in quiet moments:
These can be signs to block out a short slot in your diary for yourself.
Even if you're booked solid, consider from which meeting you could excuse yourself early or take five-minutes for a comfort break. If someone else manages your diary, consider whether you can share with him or her the importance of taking these moments for yourself. You may find, as I did, that you have a great ally to help you look after yourself. And what's more, if you exercise the courage to relay this human need, you can take heart in knowing you're role-modelling a good practice of self-care in the workplace.
Apart from formal diary management, I have also learned to spot times when the pace is too great while multi-tasking. Have you nearly tripped while texting on the stairs? Have you learned to chicken-peck type with one hand so that you can eat lunch with the other? If these - or similarly silly sounding multi-tasking tales - are familiar, they can be signs that you need a moment to decompress.
Let me share with you an example of something I changed that served to reduce the level of stress I felt on work days: I used to make calls and read emails during the eight-minute walk between the Tube and my home, hitting the final 'Send' or 'End Call' button as I turned the key to open the door. I realised that I wasn't giving myself a single second to detach from 'Work Catherine' and become 'Mum'. Although I was playing with my son right away, my mind was still whirring about work for a little while, thereby contributing to a subtle, ongoing sense of stress.
Now, I have a rule to walk home from the station without using my phone. I arrive feeling there has been closure to the day - even if know I may need to log on after my son's bedtime. Even better, sometimes my best ideas - for work and home life - float into my thought when I allow myself this mental space.
A quiet moment should be just that, quiet. Become still and notice how you feel. Are you clenching your teeth? Are you feeling upset about something that happened earlier? Sometimes, merely acknowledging what is going on is enough to do.
A favourite use of quiet moments for me is taking time to be thankful. Gratitude can relate to yourself or to others, and it works both ways in terms of time; we can appreciate something that went well in the past, or be glad to have the skills to tackle something on the horizon. Once I have shifted my thinking to look for the good in something, I find it easier to remain positive for what lies ahead.
Lastly, you may find it helpful to summon a 'go-to' image or metaphor in your quiet moments. Years ago, when I arrived at work one morning to find that a group of banking clients had unexpectedly moved forward our meeting - and they were already waiting in reception - my colleague reminded me, "We are swans, Catherine. Swans!" He went on to explain that swans are graceful even while their webbed feet paddle under the water.
I sometimes think of the swans when I have only a second before something demands my attention. The image instantly conjures the feeling of poise and smooth movement. A graceful swan, a soaring eagle, a palm tree in the breeze - choose whatever works for you.
Once you find the quiet, you may not want to let it go. Thus far, I have commented on how to take quiet moments for yourself. However, with practice, you will spot opportunities to bring the quiet into exchanges with others, too - at work and at home. You may want to build contemplative pauses into the meetings you lead or encourage your colleagues to take their time before responding to you. Quiet moments can help you manage a sense of stress, and they can even help you reduce the stress others around you feel.
So, you have finished this article now. Before you slay the next dragon in your day, take a deep breath and appreciate you have just done something for yourself. I wish you many more such quiet moments.
Catherine Law, Management Consultant and Executive Coach, wife, and mother of a five-year-old boy