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Are you brave enough to commit to these two rules for organizing your work life?

  1. Choose a schedule of work hours that you think provides the ideal balance of effort and relaxation.
  2. Do whatever it takes to avoid violating this schedule.

Cal Newport, productivity guru and Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, calls it Fixed Schedule Productivity. It’s one of his oldest productivity guidelines – first propounded in 2008 – and one that has helped him maintain sanity throughout his busy career.

The first rule allows you to consider work-life balance quite specifically, not as a vague hope but as a concrete schedule. The second rule forces you to make that balance work – to take what could be drastic actions to rearrange your life, rather than jettisoning your preference as too many people do.

In the original blog post, Dr. Newport suggested you might need to dramatically cut back on the number of projects you are working on; ruthlessly cull inefficient habits from your daily schedule; risk mildly annoying or upsetting some people in exchange for large gains in time freedom; or stop procrastinating.

He was a graduate student when he first proposed the idea, so no boss figuratively hovering over him saying, “Now! Now! Now!” But now he is a professor and prolific author of books beyond his field of professional study – so very busy, with deadlines – and manages to make it work.

He says when you have the focus of a specific goal – in his case, “I do not want to work past 5 p.m. on week days!” – you would be surprised by how much easier it is to abide by the rule. In his case, he had to adopt rituals and approaches that worked for him and the fixed constraint he was applying.

In that vein, recently he suggested you might want to consider an Inbox Pause and an Inbox Reset. The Inbox Pause is a software tool that allows you to prevent messages from arriving in your e-mail inbox for a set amount of time. You could, of course, simply not look at your inbox, but too many of us lack that self-discipline. Dr. Newport says the tool reinforces the need to create periods of time when you can focus on deep work.

But he stresses that pausing can’t fully solve the problem of communication overload we face. You need to reset your inbox – or what comes into it. That means studying every type of conversation that’s unfolding over e-mail – and, similarly, instant messaging or text – and assessing whether there is a process, tool, or new rules that would allow you and your colleagues to get the work done differently in the future without trading multiple unscheduled messages. Might suggestions on a project, for example, be connected to the current draft on a virtual task board and read when actually needed, rather than being sent to everyone at inopportune times?

“These resets are a pain. They require you to work with others to come up with more structured ways of collaborating. It would be easier if we could instead deploy hacks or tips all on our own. But in the context of knowledge work, despite what we’ve been told, productivity isn’t personal, it’s instead systematic, and must be addressed collectively,” Dr. Newport writes on his blog.

Dvir Ben-Aroya, chief executive officer of Spike, a platform that combines emails and other team collaboration, recommends stripping the bloat out from your inbox if it’s continually jammed. “When you see too much, you see nothing at all. It’s time to detox your inbox by clearing out the clutter and grout,” he writes on Fast Company.

It may be sprinkled with updates on your Amazon deliveries, newsletters you don’t read, and notifications of updates made to shared Google or Dropbox files. Change default notifications and filter out the unnecessary, so you can focus on what’s important. Mr. Ben-Aroya advises that filtering also include grouping messages per person or topic in folders and setting up rules so that messages go directly to those groups.

Quick hits

  • If you’re having to announce a price increase to a client, Ottawa-based sales consultant Colleen Francis advises talking globally but managing locally: Place your increase in a global context so your customers can see this is in response to market conditions and entirely separate from the relationship you’ve developed together. Also, don’t shy away from the topic of inflation. Get them talking about how they are handling their own price increases.
  • With business travel resuming, try to maintain some aspects of personal balance and resilience when on trips. Consultant Scott Eblin says you’re probably not going to get the chance for full workouts, but perhaps your two-mile run can be replaced by a 20-minute walk: “Look for alternatives that are ‘good enough’ while you’re on the trip.”
  • In presentations, consultant Carmine Gallo recommends one or two slides that starkly present key messages, as Apple did in a recent talk on the MacBook Air with a slide displaying three words: World’s best-selling laptop. You need to be brief and clear, and repeat the exact words in your talk, since that reinforces the message.
  • Life is a series of trade-offs, notes author James Clear. The question is not whether you want to be great at something, but what you are willing to give up in order to be great.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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