The Work Habit Rules I Aspire to Live By

by Leda Marritz

I am a very self-motivated and occasionally anxious person, which means that at work I’m often in good shape in terms of my to-do list while simultaneously feeling quite worried about getting everything done. As I’ve gotten further into my career and taken on more responsibility, I’ve also worked longer hours, and have started to use more of my free time to think about work, to respond to emails in off hours, to delay outside interests, and to sacrifice good habits (like getting more exercise or making time for breakfast). This soothes the consistent feeling that I am somehow not doing enough.

I don’t like how this is affecting my life, though. I may feel momentarily more productive at work, but the sensation is fleeting. Lately I’ve been experimenting with setting clear boundaries both at work and during non-work time in an attempt to make my job feel more manageable and prevent it from using up all my energy. Here are five work habits that I am trying to incorporate — sometimes successfully — as I understand better what I want for myself at work.

Rule No. One: No email 15 minutes after waking up or before going to bed

This is a really hard one. I used to wake up,meditate for 10 minutes, and then get myself ready, eat breakfast, and leave the house. In other words: I didn’t check my work email before sitting down at my desk. In the last year, though, as my job got busier, I stopped meditating and spent those 10 minutes (and more) reading my work email literally moments after waking up. While checking email prior to going into the office temporarily soothed some anxiety about not knowing what the day would hold, it also made me anxious earlier because I immediately threw myself into the workday rather than giving myself time to wake up, get nourishment, and have a few moments to let my mind be awake but resting. On the balance, this was definitely not better for my state of mind. Now I try to wait until 15 minutes after getting up to check my email (although I will be the first to admit that I don’t always succeed).

Rule No. Two: Pick up the phone, instead of relying on email

I love replying to emails and clearing them from my inbox; this is one of my biggest “monkey work” fallbacks. It makes me feel productive despite the fact that it doesn’t necessarily affect my overall workload (and sometimes results in an instant-message like volley of emails that then clogs up my inbox again). However, I’ve found that there are many instances where email, while fast, is actually not the most effective way to communicate with people or move a project forward. For that, I often have to reach for the phone. A phone call gives you an opportunity to discuss things with more nuance and detail, leaves less room for subjective interpretation of tasks, and also builds rapport and trust (hopefully) in a way that email doesn’t. Obviously it won’t be necessary in every case, but I find that my initial reluctance to pick up the phone is often overcome by the value and efficiency of having an actual conversation.

Rule No. Three: Be specific

This goes directly with “pick up the phone,” but the value of being specific can’t be overstated. It’s pretty easy to assume that people understand exactly what you want or need and by what date, yet I frequently find myself in minor situations of confusion or misunderstanding, even with people I work with all the time, because we have made too many assumptions about what needs to be done. Being specific with other people, whether those you manage or those who manage you, helps people feel heard and more confident in their ability to deliver projects as needed. This is definitely an area where I have to remind myself to slow down and think about what I’m actually trying to express before doing anything else.

Rule No. Four: Set deadlines (even if you move them)

Deadlines are nothing new as a productivity tool: It helps people to stay organized when they knows what is expected of them and by when. But because I’m pretty self-motivated, and anxious to start most projects immediately, I rarely set strict deadlines for myself. I recently began managing someone else, however, who asks for deadlines every time we discuss a new project for her. Having my colleague remind me that we need to discuss project deadlines has actually helped me in an unexpected way: It allows me to delay non-urgent tasks (and any worry I have about them) in order to focus on work that actually does need to completed in the near-term. This is the reverse of how deadlines seem to work for most people, but, oh well.

Rule No. Five: Try not to worry about being “nice”

Doing your job well sometimes requires being direct and demanding with people, which can feel not “nice” or typically feminine. While I don’t wish to be defined by niceness, I also struggle with feeling like doing my job well means thatI might be perceived as excessively tough or difficult (something a man behaving the same way might not be subject to). Still, worrying about how you’re being perceived is not something we can control, and ultimately distracts from what we should be doing. These days, I aspire to be tough but fair, and try not to let myself get hung up on wanting to be perceived as nice. This is sometimes really hard.

I don’t achieve all of these things, or sometimes any of them, on any given day (or sometimes even week). But having them as goals helps me keep some perspective and accountability about my values and where those intersect — or don’t — with the reality of my job.

What work habit rules do you aspire to live by?

“The Grindstone” is a series about how we work today by Billfold writers Leda Marritz and Stephanie Stern. Looking for advice? Want to see a specific issue covered in the future? You can email them here.

Leda Marritz lives in San Francisco. You can read more of her writing at

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