How to continuously improve your work life

I’ve already shared what I’ve learned about working productively. Now, here’s a simple review you can use to continuously improve your work life.

But first a confession…
An important part of the Getting Things Done methodology, of which I’m a devotee, is a weekly review. For years I’ve struggled to consistently implement the GTD weekly review, but I’ve never been able to completely integrate it into my professional life. Creating a regular review habit isn’t easy for me, and, I suspect, for many—and that’s why my success with a work life review could be valuable for you.

An accidental discovery
I fell into doing a work life review by chance. When I was an information technology consultant I billed my clients at the end of each month. As I added up the billable hours I found myself thinking about the work I had just completed for them: the effort it took and the aspects I did or didn’t enjoy.

As the months went by, based on what I was noticing, I slowly started to make changes in:

  • How I was doing my work.
  • The kinds of work I promoted to potential clients.
  • The clients I chose to work for.

For example, I realized that working with clients who paid well but wanted me to be at their beck and call, or who treated me disrespectfully was not worth the stress and occasional unpleasantness I experienced. Over time I dropped these clients and became better at choosing work situations that were a better fit for me.

My monthly work life review became an essential part of my professional routine during the 23 years I was an IT consultant. Twelve times a year, with the results of the past month’s work spread before me, I gave myself the opportunity to reflect on what had happened and what I might like to change. This practice made me a better consultant—and a happier one!

But I’m not a consultant!
Even if you’re not a consultant or self-employed, invariably there will be aspects of your work that you can make choices about, and a regular work life review will still be useful. Implementing a work life review is important because, in the constant rush to keep your business healthy and responsive or to keep up with the demands of your job, it’s easy to neglect to review the direction of and satisfaction with the work you perform. When you don’t take the time to do a regular work life review, your relationship with your work is likely to get stuck in a rut.

For example, during a review perhaps you’ll notice there are certain work tasks you like better than others. At some point you may be able to alter your job duties so they’re more aligned with what you’ve discovered you prefer. Or you may be given an opportunity to delegate activities that don’t fit with your abilities or interests. Being aware of what you want for your work environment makes you ready to act on openings that could appear at any time.

Even if your manager or boss directs every minute of your workday, a work life review can still be a useful exercise if you’re considering changing your job.

Getting in the habit
If you’re convinced that a work life review would be useful for you, it’s helpful to tie it to a regular and appropriate work activity, because it’s hard to make time for, and easy to put off such optional activities. My end of the month billing was ideal, since it required me to review all the work I’d done over the previous four weeks. Look for similar kinds of reviews you already perform as part of your work, and see if you can incorporate a work life review at the same times.

It’s important to schedule a regular review. Once a month worked well for me.

Review tasks
Here are questions to ask yourself during each work life review.

  • What activities am I spending time on?
  • How much do I enjoy working on each activity?
  • How stressful has my professional life been since the last review? How is that related to the amount and type of work I’ve done?
  • Could I change my work emphasis to make my professional life more enjoyable/lucrative by:
    • Concentrating more of a particular subset of clients, or by giving up a client?
    • Focusing on the kinds of work I enjoy/find more lucrative?
    • Turning down work offers that my reviews have indicated are not a good fit for me?

I didn’t find it necessary to include the development of action outcomes at the end of every review. Rather, I began to notice patterns over several months and these helped me make changes, both small and large, to my consulting practice when the right opportunities presented themselves. You may prefer, however, to include a brief evaluation at the end of each review, perhaps in writing, so that you can discover recurring themes from one review to the next.

I encourage you to develop your own design for your review. You may decide, like me, on an informal, intuitive review, or a more formal process with fixed questions, written responses, an evaluation, and action steps. Ultimately, creating a review that works for you and is easy to implement regularly is what’s most important.

Perhaps you already use a work life review? What do you do, and how has it affected your work life? Share your process and discoveries here. And if you are inspired to start a work life review, I’d love to hear how it works out!

Photo attribution: Flickr user jamescridland