5 unexpected things I learned this summer

Grace Marshall — №23 with Mike St. Pierre

5 unexpected things I learned this summer

I’ve just taken a whole month off this August. It’s the second time I’ve done this and I’m glad to report that the world did not end. In fact, I had a great time, full of fun with my family, but I have to say I still haven’t got it all worked out, so “How to have the perfect summer” is an article that will have to wait at least for another year.

I did, however, learn some valuable lessons.

1. When you have great systems set up, you miss them when they’re gone

Great systems are ones that tick along nicely in the background. Unobtrusive, unnoticed, and often undervalued. Until you stop using them.

I chose to stay connected via e-mail when I took August off this year, to keep in touch with my team, workshop enquiries and a few side projects.

But I decided not to keep my inbox at zero, thinking that I would just skim and cherry pick, leaving everything else until I returned from holiday. I thought it would be easier this way. How wrong I was!

I ended up missing the simplest things and had to be chased. Quick jobs took longer because I had to go back and find them, and the amount of headspace this took up was hugely disproportionate to the amount of work I actually had on my plate.

What I learned was that my productivity systems really work! And when I don’t use them, I miss them. Even the simplest things can be missed, forgotten or become harder, when you don’t have a trusted system to keep track of them.

2. “I’ll just” are dangerous words

There were a few side projects and loose ends I decided to allow into my time off in August. They didn’t seem like a big deal. They seemed simple and self-contained: an interview here, a review there, someone who wanted to publish an article that I’d already written.

But when the publisher comes back and asks for your author bio and links, which you don’t have with you because you’re away from your computer, that’s another thing you need to remember. Another thing you need to come back to.

Taking the kids to visit a new workshop venue was fine. The kids enjoyed their hot chocolate and almost got themselves a window cleaning contract! But for me, the visit led to e-mails to confirm what we’d agreed, letting other colleagues know what needed to be done, checking it had been done correctly, and on it goes.

Every action has potential to generate further actions. Every decision you make has an impact on other people and other projects. Every answer you give can lead to more questions. This is the way of the world we work in.

If you say “I’ll just” be aware that work can be bigger than it initially seems. Make sure you decide where to draw the line and say “I’m done”.

3. Doing someone a favor might actually be doing them a disservice.

I love helping people. It’s both my biggest strength and my biggest weakness. So when someone asks a favor, I find it hard to resist.

When I know I can give a quick answer that will help someone else get unstuck, I want to help. I want to give them an answer.

The problem is, my brain is not in work mode. It’s not fully engaged to scope all the ramifications, possibilities and knock on effects of that decision. I’m not in the best position to figure out, “What does that mean for everything else we’re working on?”

I can give an answer, but it won’t be my best answer. I can try and do someone a favor, but I won’t be able to give them my best. I can say yes to helping someone, and end up doing them a disservice. Sometimes “no” is actually the kinder and more honoring answer to give.

4. That list of things you say you’ll get around to in the holidays — adds up!

Before the summer, I did a lot of work with universities. It was the time when students had left campus, teaching semesters had ended, and technically they had more time for “everything else”.

“Everything else” ranged from building work to faculty changes, policy reviews, exam boards, personal development, PhD theses, and more.

In short, the quietest time of the year became the busiest.

The same thing can happen to our holidays. Our work days can be so busy, that everything that doesn’t need to be done right now gets saved for later. We tell ourselves we’ll get around to it in the holidays — DIY projects, fixing up the car, medical check ups, decluttering, redecorating, visiting family and friends, trips and travel, health and fitness, reading, personal projects — our holiday lists can easily become bigger than our work lists!

It’s easy to be just as busy in the holidays, and that can be plenty of fun too! But if a rest is what you really need, you may find you need to be deliberate about making that happen.

5. Someday needs to become a real day to actually happen.

I had one very exciting play project over the summer — a book proposal I’d been invited to write. The run up to the summer had been so full on, I didn’t have the headspace to get it written, so I decided I’d get it done in the holidays.

When did I actually get it written? On the last day of the holidays.

Because as exciting as it was, it was also scary, and therefore susceptible to procrastination. Because the holidays are busy, and in truth, there were very few moments when I didn’t have something to do. Because someday needs to become a real day in the calendar before you can make it happen.

Writing my first book book was on my “someday” list until I had a contract with a deadline. Learning to run was on my “someday” list until I enrolled in a beginners running course and committed to running three times a week. Meeting my best friend for a spa day was on our someday list for two years, until we actually booked in the date and made it happen.

What did you think you’d get round to doing this summer that is still hanging on your someday list? It’s time to put a real day in the calendar.

So what have I learned this summer?

None of this is new actually. I know all of this and I even teach some of it. But sometimes we have to go over old ground with new experiences, to take that learning deeper. Sometimes we have to break our own rules to discover just how valuable they are.

Ideally, we’d all be able to switch off completely from work when we take time off. But, if for whatever reason you decide to stay in touch, make sure you use the systems that work for you. Set boundaries, and be just as clear and deliberate about how you choose to spend your time outside of work as you do at work.

I, for one, have a newfound appreciation for the things I teach and use, to help me to work well and live well. And it’s good to remember that I am human, and always learning.

Photo: Flickr / De Vetpan Archive - siebewarmoeskerken.nl CC BY-2.0

Grace marshall

Grace Marshall

A naturally disorganised productivity coach, mum of two and author of “21 Ways to Manage the Stuff That Sucks Up Your Time”. She is also a Productivity Ninja with Think Productive, one of the UK’s leading productivity training companies, helping organizations across the world survive information overload and get more done with less stress.

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