Swamped by work? This simple and brilliant tool will help

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One of the first things many of us do when feeling overwhelmed is write a to-do list. “I used to be really into to-do lists,” says former Silicon Valley tech designer, John Zeratsky. But then, he says, “I noticed a few problems with my approach”.

“The most important things never showed up on any to-do list,” John writes in a post on Medium. “My best work happened when I spent hours in flow, intensely focused on a single task,” he says. “These projects […] didn’t need to be managed  —  I needed to clear my schedule and do them. The list was never complete. At best, I felt like a super-productive machine”.

If you feel like you’re continuously working, but never really ‘done’, we’ve rounded up some ways to take a more holistic approach — a simple time management hack can cut through the clutter, and bring fresh meaning to your work life.

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There are three types of highlight

In order to solve this dilemma, John came up with an obvious yet radical approach: focus on one highlight per day. As John and co-author, Jake Knapp, explain in their book Make Time, everyone should have a daily focus that answers the question, “what was the highlight of your day?” This activity typically falls on a middle road, between an incidental task (“answer emails”) and a grand ambition (“launch my own business”). “A highlight is the one thing you want to prioritise and protect in your day,” John tells The One You Feed podcast.

According to both authors, there are three types of highlight you can organise your day around. The first is time-sensitive, meaning the urgent projects you just have to get done. The second falls under satisfaction, so the things you don’t necessarily need to do but you want to. Doing so will help you develop in some way, for example, learning to use a new software tool. This kind of venture is often pushed to the sidelines, so making it your highlight will give it the breathing room it deserves.

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Making a joy activity your highlight means it becomes a priority

The third kind of highlight is joy: something you really love to do. Unsurprisingly, we give joy activities the least focus in our day-to-day lives. “Even when we do get to them – having something fun planned after work, for example – I often feel like we’re skidding into that activity with no energy and no ability to focus,” says John. Making a joy activity your highlight means it becomes a priority: you plan the rest of your day around it. And therefore, you enjoy it a lot more than if you merely try and squeeze it in.

Imagine you’re having a long lunch with friends. If you make this the highlight of your day, you will carve out room in your schedule before and after the event to ensure you’re not rushed. And you can dedicate the afternoon to smaller, simple tasks, to take the pressure off. Perhaps a long run in the evening is your particular slice of joy. In which case, you arrange to leave work bang on time, and do whatever you need to to fit other activities around it.

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By making highlights happen, you fill every day with meaning

The genius of this method is that it helps you to prioritise the things that really matter. Highlights give focus to the sort of activities that would not make it onto your average to-do list. And yet, they bring far more satisfaction than the throwaway tasks we scrabble to tick off. With highlights, you still get the important things done. You also create space for the goals that matter to you, in a more concrete way than big dreams can achieve.

When it comes to workplace happiness, it’s a win-win. You’re not frittering your hours away on endless to-dos. And by making your highlights happen, you stop time from blurring, and fill every day with meaning.

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You might bring energy and meaning to your daily life

Research shows that when people find meaning in their work, the risk of career burnout dramatically lowers. You’re less likely to feel drained and fed up when you’re really engaged with what you’re doing. However, just doing what you love isn’t enough: it’s the way that you do it that counts. “When you look at people who are thriving in their jobs, you notice that they didn’t find them, they made them,” Ashley Goodall, author of Nine Lies About Work, tells The New York Times.

You don’t need to change everything about your job to find satisfaction. If you focus on your daily highlights, you’ll move away from the things you loathe and towards the elements you love. Instead of getting lost in to-dos, you might bring energy and meaning to your daily life. And that’s something we can all get on-board with. Doing this allows for more headspace to do the things we all like, too, like travel.

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