Managing work-stress — Full-circle ownership

My personal dance with work-stress

A shiny new gadget

My first real job was 24/7 onsite support for mission-critical data center servers that ran national credit card processing.

As part of the job, I got a brand new Nokia cell phone, which was a big deal then – none of my friends had anything fancy like that. We were at a party at a nearby lake, and I proudly showed this gadget around – then it rang, and I had to jump in the car, leave my friends and drive 100 miles to the customer site. From there on, whenever I was on call, I didn’t sleep well, couldn’t fully enjoy what I was doing, and felt miserable.

What I learned from that is that I don’t do well in jobs where I get phone calls at home. I am telling this story because, for me, being called for work-stuff during my off-times is a deal-breaker. I walked away from jobs that I otherwise loved because I didn’t want this boundary to be crossed. On the other hand, I am totally ok to work into the night if it’s required – as long as the endpoint is in my control. Others don’t mind being on call and enjoy the extra money that goes with it.

Values and boundaries are personal and unique – there is no one size fits all!

Close encounter with burnout – too close

Since that eye-opening moment, for one reason or another, I ended up working in high-stress burnout roles for the coming 25+ years, and for the most part, had a lot of fun doing so.

I started my career with HP/Tandem in that 24/7 onsite support role that I talked about in the intro. I then went to Microsoft, where I had different roles, such as being the national spokesperson for crisis-PR – right in the midst of the Open Source and Linux wars and the DOJ monopoly investigation. After 17 years, I looked for new challenges and found them with Amazon, where I had several leadership positions, amongst others, leading product strategy for a 250+ people engineering team. It was always “more” and “faster” at Amazon, and after five years, I decided to prioritize my family and move to Bozeman – where I arrived right with the start of the global COVID pandemic.

Life has not been boring, and I actually like it that way.

While you’re young, you can do a lot of things that are not sustainable but are fueled by pure energy and naiveté. There was always a lot to do – more than one could humanly achieve – and I had to learn to prioritize and be more effective. That got me quite far and is a key component of achieving anything. You need to learn to make the most out of your time and have the most impact with the resources you have. Cut out the slack, ignore the distractions, simplify what you do, and focus on what matters most.

However, things get harder when you add responsibilities for others. Eventually, being effective wasn’t enough as there was always so much more to do. I also felt the increasing tension between spending time at work (up to 60 hours a week) and wanting to be there for my family and kids. I started to feel tired, lacked drive, and felt bad for not connecting enough with the areas of my life that I really cared about. I didn’t realize it right away, but I slipped deep into burnout. Luckily, I noticed the slippery slope before it was too late, and I decided to take action. I needed to rebuild how I work and learn how to set boundaries while still performing at the highest levels. I had to fix the engine while flying the plane, and I had to do it quickly before serious damage was done.

All along this journey, I’ve been a manager and people leader. I tried to create those spaces of flexibility for my team and appreciated it if team members took full ownership of their areas. It’s easy to grant autonomy when you see true ownership. However, what I learned is that you cannot do that job for other people. You cannot make others happy – only YOU can make yourself happy. You cannot define values or boundaries for other people – they are personal and unique. Everyone is different, and you can not “carry” someone to happiness – everyone has to define their own path and take charge and full responsibility for it.

There is a Zen proverb that captures this well: “The teacher can only show the door. The student has to walk through it.”

What you will find below are some essential principles and rules that helped me protect my boundaries while still performing at high levels at work. It helped me balance work and life by taking full ownership and responsibility for both. It’s showing the door – you need to decide if you want to walk through it, and if you do, you need to make every single step yourself.

Taking charge, taking ownership

Three main principles are key for work-stress management and happiness (in my experience):

  1. Your values are personal. What works for the person next to you doesn’t necessarily work for you. You are the only one who knows them, and you are the only one who can implement them. No one can carry you to happiness.
  2. You only gain autonomy if you prove ownership and accountability first. Good leaders love to delegate – but only if they are confident the job gets done.
  3. Achieving 1 and 2 is hard work and requires constant engagement. If you drop your focus, they will slip.

Understanding and protecting what matters to you

It all starts with YOUR values | What matters to you?

It all starts with understanding YOUR values! A solution that works for the person next to you might not work for you or make you happy. For example, I am perfectly happy dropping lunch to get things done or working late (occasionally) when it’s crunch time. However, try to make me work on a weekend for no good reason, and you’re up for a hard time. Others appreciate the opportunity to catch up on things during the weekend.

You have to understand your values and what is really important to you. It’s personal. It’s not what the other person has. A good way of doing that is to write down all the things you care about (your values) on little cards. You will end up with some 20-30 values. Now give the ones away that you care less about. Repeat that until you’re down to three – those are the ones that really matter to you. Align your life and decisions such that those values are not violated by what you’re doing.

Those values are the guiding stars for you, not to show around. They can be grand, like changing the world, but they can also be as down to earth as having fun or achieving financial stability. There is no right or wrong – there’s just what matters to you. Those values are personal, and there is no need to share them, although it can be helpful if others understand them.

My values are family, integrity, and autonomy. In that order. That is why it’s important to me that I don’t get unplanned interruptions in my off time – it feels to me like breaking a promise I made to my family. On the other hand, I’m ok to plan for extra time to get the job done, as it supports my integrity value and is done within the boundaries of autonomy.

Set YOUR boundaries | What are your non-negotiables?

Like our values, our boundaries are different for each of us. My big boundary is that when I’m home with my family, I want to be home. Period. I don’t check emails in the evenings, weekends, or on vacation. Others do appreciate the flexibility of today’s merged work/life arrangements. For some, it’s a big deal to be able to go out for a walk during lunch. You might need to come in a little later to drop your kids at school or leave a little earlier for your Yoga class.

Whatever it is that is an important line in the sand for you – it’s not one size fits all!

As you think about your boundaries, you can do a similar exercise as the one for values. Write down the boundaries that you care about. Then give up the ones that are less important to you. Work-life balance is always a tradeoff, and you need to know what you’re willing to trade and what you’re not. Know your negotiables and your non-negotiables. Don’t ‘die on the hill’ or get yourself all worked up for the former.

Compartmentalize | When you’re on, you’re on. When you’re off, you’re off.

Don’t spend energy on things you cannot fix at the moment. Once you’re off work, don’t ruminate about things that concerned you at work. Focus on the environment you’re in at the moment, enjoying the activity you’re doing, fully tuning in to your kids or friends, or just taking brain time off. You don’t win anything if you keep thinking about that work task you need to do the next day – it just ruins your time and attention for other things.

Make a clear distinction between working and being off work. Use the time off work to follow your other interests, passions and recharge. Be off. Then when you’re on again, you need to be fully on. Care deeply about work when you’re at work. Be as effective as you possibly can. Forget about work when you’re at home. Focus on the things that matter personally to you.

Give both aspects of your life your fullest instead of dabbling in inattentive mediocracy for each of them. Multitasking doesn’t work, and it burns a lot of switching energy.

Think about doctors: they need to give the best possible care to patients when they are on shift. However, if they keep worrying about them once they’re home, they will not be able to bring on their A-game the next day.

Earning autonomy and flexibility

Autonomy only comes with accountability | The work still needs to get done. You need to own it. Fully!

Everything we talked about above – living your values, setting boundaries, and compartmentalizing – boils down to work flexibility and autonomy in one way or another. However, autonomy is something that is not and cannot be granted lightly – after all, the job needs to get done, and we all have a critical function for the organizations we work in.

Instead, we have to earn autonomy. We do that by consistently demonstrating that we are on top of things, that we think forward, act responsibly, don’t drop commitments, and are accountable and reliable. We demonstrate ownership.

Ownership and accountability mean being clear about the priorities in your work, communicating those clearly, and focusing your time at work on those. It means tracking your timelines and deliverables and not getting surprised by looming deadlines. It means getting started early and not waiting until the last minute. It means proactively planning how you get the work accomplished by the deadline. Work is NOT the place for procrastination!

Ownership also means looking for better ways of doing things or proactively engaging other people who can help relieve pressure. Ownership means making good suggestions to improve your work area.

No surprises! | Communicate clearly, proactively, and early.

One of the first and biggest lessons I learned was: “No surprises!”

There is almost no problem that cannot be fixed if people are made aware of it early enough. There is absolutely no fix to a problem if you learn about it after ‘the ship has sailed’.

If you cannot accomplish what you had promised, you need to give early proactive heads-up. It’s ok that things change, it’s ok that you get other priorities, it’s ok to have unforeseen complications. It’s NOT ok to not tell anyone about those changes or risks immediately. Be proactive and give people an early heads-up if things stray from the agreed-upon plan.

If you cannot do something that you had promised, don’t just throw your hands in the air and hope that no one will notice – rather, look for solutions.

Pace yourself | Life and career are marathons, not sprints.

Sometimes we need to sprint to get things done and achieve the desired goal. Sometimes it’s crunch time, and we need to let go of our boundaries for a little while for the greater good – the challenges the global COVID pandemic brought upon us are a great example of such a time in which we need to go above and beyond for prolonged periods of time.

However, we need to also deliberately slow down afterward. Humans have a way of getting used to pressure and not noticing it until something pops. Like a sprint, you keep running until you’re out of breath, and then you drop to the floor and pant.

Instead, life is a marathon, and so is your career. Notice when you have times where you can recharge and regain your energy. Use those times! Push hard during crunch time and then focus a little more on yourself, your values, and your passions during the times in-between.

Life is a marathon, and muscles grow while we rest them! However, when it’s go-time, you need to be on your A-game.

If I can leave you with three things

1. You need to take care of yourself first!

This includes your health, the things you care about, and time for your purpose and passion.

2. You need to know what matters to you.

It’s different for everyone, and what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for the other. Don’t look at what flexibilities the other person has – be clear about which ones matter to you.

3. Autonomy, accountability, and ownership go together. Always!

You can only set boundaries if you own the expected outcomes and if you hold yourself accountable for the promises you made. That doesn’t mean you can’t ask for help – it means YOU need to be the one who proactively brings up issues early and helps identify solutions.

If you master the tension between boundaries and ownership, you master your stress.
Trust your team and help your team! In the long run, you win as a team – you can only lose as the lone warrior.

Did you like this post? Want to read more? Check out our newest book!

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Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

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If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Take care of yourself!

We’re going to Yellowstone this weekend!

While that’s clearly not interesting for anyone who reads this post, I wanted to make the broader point that it is critical to take care of ourselves. Always, but even more so in a pandemic!

Taking care of ourselves is not just one specific thing that we need to do – it requires a balanced approach. Here is my personal top 10 list for wellbeing (add your own strategies to it):

  1. Eat well – For the Chinese, nutrition is one of the three sources of life energy and the one that we have the most control over replenishing. A car doesn’t run well on bad gas, and we don’t perform well on unhealthy food. Take your time to eat and eat healthily. There is lots of science out there, and much of it disagrees with each other, so find out what works best for your body.
  2. Stay hydrated – It’s embarrassing, but we only learned this when we moved to the US (being hydrated was not a thing to think about in the German culture). Most of our body consists of water, and without it, we perish pretty quickly. Stay hydrated, stay sharp. The jury is still out as to whether coffee counts for this or not…
  3. Sleep enough – All parents know what sleep deprivation does to our brains. Well, if you have a newborn – bad luck (for a while). However, if you don’t, it’s in your control. Figure out what the right amount of sleep is for you and make sure that you get those hours consistently. Work is so much easier if we go into it awake and alert.
  4. Do sports – And with that, I mean the type where you sweat, not the one where you sit on the couch and watch TV. No matter what your preferred mode of movement is, any movement is better than no movement. Go for a walk, lift weights, take a run around the block, practice Yoga,… –  No matter what it is, make time for doing it regularly. You will feel much more energized and balanced after a good workout.
  5. Take a deep breath, take a pause – Don’t try to power through but rather plan for regular breaks. Work focused for a predetermined stretch of time, and then take a break. Get away from your office desk, grab some water, or walk around the block. There’s lots of research that shows the benefit of regular short breaks between periods of focused and undistracted work.
  6. Do one thing at a time – Speaking of undistracted work, do one thing at a time. For one, it’s proven that humans cannot multitask. In addition to being inefficient, trying to do multiple things at the same time also increases our anxiety levels. Work feels more overwhelming. Do one thing and only one thing. Turn off all distractions (email, notifications, etc.) while you’re focusing on a task. Block time for it.
  7. Take downtime / do nothing time – Six days of work, one day of rest. Whatever your formula is, make sure that ‘do-nothing time’ is part of it. Do-nothing time is a time where you have no goals and no bad feelings if you don’t ‘accomplish’ anything. It’s not “I must read a book”, it’s the absence of having to do anything. Try to just follow the flow, to the point where you’re almost bored. Then enjoy that feeling of space and potential.
  8. Get outside – It’s not too long ago that we climbed down from the trees. We are still deeply connected to nature, and being in nature is a major source of energy, rooting, and balance for all of us. Make time to get out into nature! Whether it’s your backyard, a city park, or a remote wilderness – connect with where we came from.
  9. Make time for things you love – We’re all passionate about our work. But I hope that’s not the only passion that you have. Make time for what gives you energy and drive outside of work. Create some art, read a book, play a game, watch your kids. Whatever it is, don’t let COVID distract you from it.
  10. Nurture relationships – Last not least, don’t hide away from other folks. This is not the time to retreat into your cave. We might have some constraints on physical connections these days, but we have powerful technology at our hands to overcome those constraints. Call your best friends, keep close connections with family and friends. Seek energy and support from others.

Often when we’re under stress, we cut down on all of the above first. That’s wrong, do the opposite! Focus on your wellbeing first, which will boost your effectiveness and make you way more successful at your work tasks as well.

Engineer Your Happiness, Count Your Blessings Every Day

How you perceive your world and look at opportunities is much more influenced by your mindset than by your circumstances. External events will influence your happiness in the moment, but after a short time you will bounce back to your ‘natural’ level.

The good news is that we can train our mental frameworks and over time change our perspective on the things we encounter in daily life. We can make ourselves happier and more positive human beings. And by making ourselves more positive we will encounter more encouraging situations and as a result follow more fulfilling opportunities.

Worst day of my life

Every night at the dinner table we do a little round robin where everyone talks about the experiences of the day. It took our kids a while to get there, but now they love it and can’t wait to tell their story.

For a while our 7 year old son had phase where he always started with “worst day of my life”. For some reason he thought it was cool, but we could see how it always dragged him down emotionally.

We can observe the same in us. As grownups we often look back at how hard a day was, all the things that went wrong, all the annoying interactions.

With that we train our brain to pattern match. If we pay attention to something, our brain will look for more of the same and proudly present it to us. When you think about buying a new car, you will all of a sudden see that model everywhere.

Indulging on the things that were bad or went wrong will train your brain to only see things going wrong. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Change your mental frameworks

Instead of thinking back to what went wrong in your day, spend time every day to reflect on what was great, fun or just positively memorable. You can do this throughout the day or in the evening before you go to bed. But do it every day!

Reflect on the positive things that happened every day. Write them down.

Focusing on the positive things will train your brain to pattern match for those. It will help you see the good more easily and more often. It will help you see opportunity to get more of those positive interactions. It will make you happier and more successful.

I bought a little notebook for myself in which I write down 3 positive things that happened to me every day. It’s a great exercise to reflect and boosts your happiness.

We also changed our dinner routine and added the question “What were your 3 most positive things today?” Question before we get into talking about our days. Our kids are fighting for who can share those first and usually end up with more than 3.

I also haven’t heard the “worst day of my life” sentence anymore.

Being happy is in your control. So is being unhappy. You decide.


Did you like this article? Want to read more?

I will keep posting articles here and I have them lined up way into summer 2020. However if you want to get it all in one comprehensive, structured, and grammar-checked (!) view, check out our new book:


Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps

By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk

ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: Paperback, Kindle


If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Reflections on Achieving Your Goals: Not Everything is as Urgent as it Appears


A critical part of being accountable and delivering against your commitments (promises!) is to actually have bandwidth for them, in other words to not over-commit.

We already talked about how it is ok – actually expected – to say ‘no’ when needed. What we didn’t talk about yet are timelines (or ‘deadlines’ to make it even more scary sounding).

Not everything is as urgent as it might appear at first glance.

Clarify expectations

Not everything that comes from your leadership comes with a “drop everything else and do this right now” expectation. In most cases, leaders just want to know when they can expect an answer and have the confidence that they don’t need to spend their energy to track that deliverable for you.

Don’t assume. Clarify and verify.

If a request came in without a timeline or clarification on urgency, don’t assume. Just ask: “Hey, when do you need this by?

No decent leader will hold it against you if you ask, “By when do you need this?” I’m actually pretty sure for most leaders this will register as a plus point (if it doesn’t it’s time to look for a different leader).

What leaders want to know is whether you commit to provide the answer and by when. They want to be confident that you will do it and that they don’t have to worry about it. They will tell you if a timeline is not flexible and why.

As an employee, train your leader to provide that information with her requests in the future. However, also make extra-sure that you are managing yourself against that timeline! It is super frustrating as a leader if you need to keep your own reminders on everything you need, because you cannot rely on open loops to be closed without your constant follow-up.

Understand timelines

Not everything needs to happen right now. In fact, very few things are truly urgent, although many are perceived or presented as urgent or initially appear non-negotiable.

Unfortunately corporate culture has developed many bad habits in order to try to compensate for low accountability:

  • Setting deadlines way ahead of time to build in buffer
  • Setting short deadlines so that people do it right now and don’t get distracted
  • Setting deadlines just because that’s what you do
  • And the worst: setting a short deadline because something was sitting idle on your own desk for too long and now it’s really time to make progress

Understand the true urgency and timeline. Offer a plan to get there. Make sure you hit the plan.

Feel empowered to understand and validate urgency and tight deadlines. Ask for when a task is truly due. If it requires you to drop other things, understand what drives the urgency and what breaks if the deadline is missed.

If you think a deadline has a ‘safety buffer’ built in, ask for the real deadline. However, once you get the real deadline, you must make sure that you will be ready by that time. Otherwise, you just teach your partners to add additional buffers to manage in the future to work around your tardiness and unreliability.

If a deadline is infeasible, check your calendar and priorities and see when you can make it. Offer that alternative plan and check for agreement. If pushed, be clear what you will have to sacrifice in order to make that timeline.

In most cases, you will find that a deadline is actually negotiable.


Did you like this article? Want to read more?

I will keep posting articles here and I have them lined up way into summer 2020. However if you want to get it all in one comprehensive, structured, and grammar-checked (!) view, check out our new book:


Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps

By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk

ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: Paperback, Kindle


If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Spiritual Balance – Week 46: Explore Your Purpose


What is your purpose? What makes you get up in the morning? What keeps you going when the going gets tough?

Understand your values and purpose. Then take a critical look at what you are doing right now. Be willing to experiment and take risks. And always keep your eyes open for opportunities that present themselves.

The passion trap

In many ways we are over-emphasizing purpose and passion today. We tell High school kids that they need to find their passion when they pick a career. An impossible task at that age. Many people actually never discover what their passion really is.

Doing something, that you are sufficiently interested in, with full dedication until you head towards mastery often turns into passion. This is in fact a more likely way to find something that you will be passionate about, than soul-searching for the perfect occupation.

Passion doesn’t come magically for free. It requires dedication and hard work.

Alignment with core values counts

However, at the same time too many of us spend our lives in settings, that go against our core values and our purpose. We do things and execute work that we don’t agree with in principle.

Both trying to find the one thing that will make you happy just by its nature as well as sticking with something that fundamentally disagrees with your core values and purpose are futile.

It is much better to understand what your core values and purpose are, and then experimenting with different things. Once you find something that aligns in principle and peeks you interest, go deep and give it your full self.

What makes you tick

Self reflection and self awareness is not easy. For some of us it comes more naturally, others never truly find it.

If you are not clear about what inherently motivates you and what turns you off, you can start journaling your mini-motivators. Throughout the day, what did you like, what felt great, and what didn’t. When you watch other people, what do you admire and what do you despise. What would you want other people to say about you, and what would you rather not?

Those should be small and in-the-moment things. Don’t overthink it. Jolt down the random reactions and thoughts as they come, for example ‘those meetings as sapping out my energy’, ‘it felt really good to help Joe through his problem’ or ‘it was awesome to solve this situation my way’.

After a few weeks look at those micro-motivators and see what patterns emerge.

Brainstorm on new options

Then reflect on how much those value and purpose patterns are matched in your current occupation. If they are not, make a list of other careers that would get you to a closer match. Don’t go for perfect match, chances are you won’t find that (lucky you, if you do!).

Make a list of those close matches and be aware that you will still have to work hard for them. Nothing will be rosy all day every day. Just setting expectations here.

Make a change, reinvent yourself

Let’s assume that your values and passions don’t align well with you current occupation. That’s nothing to feel bad about. For one, it’s super hard to find good alignment from the get go. In most cases we don’t know enough about the job as well as ourselves when we begin. Also we are (luckily!) changing over time and what might have been the perfect milestone a few years ago, might not fit anymore as our path leads us to the next one.

Start experimenting with the occupations that made it to your list. Or something completely different that just feels right for reasons that you cannot explain.

If we talk about big shifts in your occupation and trajectory, really experiment. Don’t go full in right away without really knowing if you like where you’re heading. Try out a few things on the side. Volunteer in the new occupation rather than leaving your current job only to figure out after a few months that the grass actually isn’t greener on the other side.

Experiment, be flexible

Experiment a lot. Learn from those experiments. Adjust what you know about yourself and tweak the list of things you want to do based on that knowledge.

Recognize open doors and opportunities as they present themselves and find the courage to explore them.

Don’t put yourself under the stress of having to succeed with the first thing you try out.

One of the life lessons I learned from my martial arts teacher was to have a plan but remain flexible.

Have a plan, but always keep your mind open for opportunities that present themselves. Have the flexibility and courage to leverage them. Life is a winding path, not a straight line.

Looking at my own winding path, I can point out at least four rather big shifts in the direction I was heading for. Each shift has set me back a little in short-term – as big change always does – but propelled me toward a much better place in the long-term. I don’t even want to imagine who I would be if I had been stuck in my initial (subsequent, current,..) choices.


Did you like this article? Want to read more?

I will keep posting articles here and I have them lined up way into summer 2020. However if you want to get it all in one comprehensive, structured, and grammar-checked (!) view, check out our new book:


Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps

By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk

ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: Paperback, Kindle


If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Reflection: A Special Note on Burn Out


We talked about different aspects and approaches to increase efficiency and control of your priorities. Those habits are useful for anyone, but consciously and consistently applying them is even more critical if you are working in an environment that is high stress or even conducive to burnout.

Burnout creeps on you and it is not pretty when it gets you. It also takes much more effort to cure it than to prevent it. In the following, I’ll provide a shortlist of principles that have worked for me in such situations in the past. They won’t work universally, but some of them might do the trick for you. If you feel stressed right now, give them a try and see what they can do for you.

I initially called those ideas ‘hacks’ to sound trendy, but changed it to ‘principles’ to make a point: those are not quick and easy fixes. You need to be serious, deliberate and consistent about them. You have to put in energy to make them work. And you need to keep doing it every day.

My principles will move on a spectrum from purpose (to keep your passion and happiness) to time management (to actually make room for all that purpose stuff).

Protect your personal passions

The most important rule comes first:

Know what you care about outside of work. Set time for those activities. Block it on your calendar and then protect it fiercely.

It is important to create a balance between your work and your passions outside of work. There is always more to be done at work, thus having a tendency to slowly creep into your personal life to the point where you suddenly realize that something is fundamentally wrong. Death by a thousand paper cuts. Don’t let that happen.

Know what’s important to you and then create rules to protect it. Those rules need to be yours. Different things work for different people.

For me, family comes first. With that, I have a rule that I don’t work once I’m home. I don’t work on weekends. I might come in early or stay later if I need to, but when I’m home, I’m home. There are a few cases where I deliberately decide that I want to finish something on a weekend, but I have a very high bar for those exceptions.

Create the moments you care about at work

We talked about making time for your personal passions. The same applies to your work passions:

Don’t get lost in tactical work. Set focus times where you do the things that matter to you and that align with your passion.

We all chose our jobs for a reason. We chose them because we are deeply passionate about core components of the role. At the same time, every job comes with a bunch of things we are not quite as excited about. The routine, the day to day, the reactive.

We need to do those things, but we must make sure that we don’t get lost in them and forget what actually excites us. Just as for your personal passions, you must block time for the things that get you excited at work. Again, it’s very personal to you what that is, but make sure it doesn’t get lost in the daily ‘rat race’.

For me, my primary motivators are working with and coaching great people. I also love to solve problems and build products. I’m blocking time for those deliberately. Being a data guy, I even color code my calendar to get reminded every time I look at my schedule if I’m striking a balance that works for me.

Change your mindset

We all have to do things we don’t particularly care about much. After all, we’re not at a party, we get paid to do a job for our company. However, usually there is a reason for the things we do:

Try to understand the reason. Discover the meaning. It makes a huge difference!

There is a reason for everything. While certain tasks might seem tedious and unnecessary, in most cases they serve an important and distinct purpose.

For example, at Amazon, we write a lot of documents and we constantly look at a lot of data. Very often I see the question “why do we need to do this” in people’s eyes. There is a reason. Looking at data helps you understand what’s going on, reflect and learn what happened and why. Then you can develop the right action plan to correct what you’re doing moving forward. Writing documents helps to sharpen your thinking and then to sell your ideas to others to get the proper support to make them happen.

If you look at the true purpose of why things are done, you can find much more satisfaction in doing them. There is ample research that purpose and passion are not defined by what you do, but how you think about it.

Pace yourself

Sometimes we have to push hard and go late. Make sure you don’t make it ‘always’.

There are times when you need to push hard and give it your all (and maybe more). But there are also times when you can recharge your batteries a little. Know when you need to do which.

It’s important to understand when you need to push hard and when you don’t. None of us can go full throttle all the time over an extended period of time.

Push hard when you need to, but also recognize when you have a period where you can recharge batteries. This is not about slacking because that will only catch up with you. It’s about knowing when you have to do 120% and when 90% is just fine. Remove the pressure from yourself when you can and don’t feel bad about it.

When I have the occasional day, when I can go home at 4 pm and enjoy a sunny evening with my family, I cherish that time and don’t feel a tiny bit guilty for not working late.

Treat it like a project

So with all that blocking of time, how do you actually get stuff done?

Treat your work day and tasks like a project. Prioritize, scope, focus, time-box. Don’t idle at work, rather focus and spend your idle time on the things you care about.

We need to treat our work tasks like projects. We need to deliberately manage them instead of just keep going until we will be done at some undefined point in the future, with an undefined amount of time and effort invested to get there.

Start your project now and don’t procrastinate it, even if the start scares you. Every journey starts with the first step.

Avoid unnecessary rework. Put your best foot forward and get it right the first time. If you don’t, learn what was missing and make super-sure you will get it right the next time you have a similar problem to solve. Nothing eats more time and energy (and is more frustrating) than repeated rework and fixing of the same issues.

Time-box how much time you spend on something (after all you want to free up time for the passions we talked about above). Prioritize what really needs to get done versus what just seems urgent or important. If the work is too much, see if you can scope it down without harming the overall outcome. Can you remove unnecessary ‘bells and whistles’? Time-box, and then be extremely focused in that time-box to deliver your best work most efficiently. Treat it like an engineering ‘dev spike’. When you hit the end of your time-box, stop. You need to train yourself to take your focus times serious.

If it’s still too much, it’s ok to say ‘no’ to things. Just know and be clear why you say ‘no’ and what trade-offs you’re making. Communicate the reasons and trade-offs. Communicate them early. It’s ok to not be able to tackle something if everyone knows about it and has enough time to come up with a mitigation plan (even better if you can propose a mitigation plan yourself). It’s not ok to let something slip past the deadline and then announce that you didn’t have time.

Be focused, cut out the slack. Rather than idling at work, double down, be your most focused self and then spend your freed-up time on the things you care about at work and at home.


Did you like this article? Want to read more?

I will keep posting articles here and I have them lined up way into summer 2020. However if you want to get it all in one comprehensive, structured, and grammar-checked (!) view, check out our new book:



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