A number of years ago, my friend, a radio producer, was asked to come up with some ideas for a new show. He asked his boss if he could go and sit by a lake. He knew spending a few hours outdoors at an inspiring location away from his desk would be the best way for him to think big and wild.
The response he received? “No, you’re not allowed to have an afternoon off work.” His boss thought he’d be taking time off to do nothing. Of course, stuck at his desk wasn’t where David was going to have his best ideas. He left the company soon after and found a new employer who didn’t restrict him to his desk.
In everyday life, it’s easy to get sucked into the prevailing culture. We know what’s expected of us and what’s acceptable in our working life. Even when we are remote working, many of us still feel we can’t take time off for lunch, that we can’t go for a walk around the block when we need a break. Presenteeism rules. Even when there’s no one around to notice.
These office rules, real or self-imposed, are holding us back. They’re stopping us from doing our best work. When we don’t go and free-think by a lake—real or metaphorical—we are limiting our own achievements, and limiting our own success.
Here are six short switch-ups to help you approach your work life and career differently:
- Do the opposite. Sometimes, doing the opposite of what makes sense makes even more sense. When Nick got a new job in the east of London, his commute was going to take him on the packed tube. He knew that journey wasn’t going to provide the right frame of mind to set him up for the day. Instead, he worked out he could take the riverboat to work. On the face of it, it was a more inefficient journey, but taking the slow route ensured he always arrived more energized than if he’d taken the tube.
- Experiment with a “FriPlay” afternoon. Working from home can mean extended days, with often little segue from our desks to the family dinner table. Tasks creep into the weekend. Give yourself a break with a FriPlay afternoon. Every Friday (where I can), I’m clearing the decks around 3 p.m. to do something restorative: go for a walk with a podcast, jump on my bike, read a book. I’m giving myself a recharge, and providing vital mental space to cultivate new insights.
- Subtract, not add. A paper in the academic journal Nature outlined a human tendency that often, when we’re asked to improve something, we add something. But many times, subtracting can be a better solution. It’s why people struggle to improve things ranging from organizational red tape to their overburdened schedules at work. So if you’re looking to give your work life a boost, what can you remove to improve it?
- Wear your red sneakers. A few years ago, Professor Francesca Gino taught two classes at Harvard Business School in which she experimented with her footwear. For one class, she wore a conservative suit with dress shoes. For the next group, she paired her suit with her favorite pair of red Converse sneakers. She discovered the “red-sneakers” students were more attentive and thoughtful, and they laughed more. Part of the difference was that the sneakers made her feel more confident and more poised when leading discussions. So, what can you wear from your wardrobe—perhaps a piece you never considered wearing—to boost your confidence?
- Sit on a bench. In his book In Praise of Wasting Time, Alan Lightman relates a story from during his time at the the California Institute of Technology about a fellow student called Paul. Paul used to sit on a bench for hours, receiving disapproving looks from passing professors who wondered why he wasn’t studying. Well, the Paul of the story is Paul L. Schechter, now a famous astronomer and observational cosmologist, and recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship for Natural Sciences. How did he get his ideas? Yes, you guessed it: sitting on that bench.
- Hold a party for one. Many organizations hold annual parties where the year’s achievements are celebrated. Speeches by the boss, some fancy food, and staff awards all feature. What happens then if your company doesn’t hold one, or you’re freelance? Throw yourself a party for one. This is what Terin Izil, a freelance creative director based in New York, did to celebrate her one year anniversary of working for herself. She awarded herself for her achievements, delivered a state of the union address to herself, and went out for dinner with a plus one. When you’re working hard, it’s important to press the pause button and celebrate how far you’ve come. Recognize your efforts and be proud of what you’ve done.
My friend David knew what he had to do—sit by a lake. But everyone’s needs are different. And of course, lakes can be hard to come by. So, the key here is to play, experiment, and see what works for you. What are the changes you can make? How can you go against the grain to boost your career or working life in 2022?
Ian Sanders is the author of 365 Ways to Have a Good Day. Ian has been on a mission for more than a decade to put the fuel back in the tanks of organizations, teams, and individuals through his workshops, presentations, and one-on-on coaching sessions.