It started out as a bit of fantasy, a way to procrastinate on a day I didn’t feel like working. It was a post, or a meme, or some tidbit of inspiration I scrolled through on social media, suggesting I design my ideal day. How audacious! And just the kind of distraction I was looking for.
So, in the midst of a day that was anything but ideal, I wrote out what my ideal day would look like. I figured out when I would preferably like to get up, what I would do (ideally) as a morning routine. When I would start work, how my work day would flow, how much time I had to complete my work (focus time). How much time I would be in meetings or collaborating. What lunch and breaks looked like (remember those?). I identified my ideal stop time for work and what my after-work routine could look like (in a perfect world). My ideal evening was sketched out, including when I would go to bed and how that routine unfolded.
It was a lovely dream perfectly customized for me. And I didn’t take it very seriously, realizing (with a jolt) I’d spent waaay too much time day-dreaming, I rushed back to reality to complete the work I was getting paid to do. That was many years ago. But this little “ideal day design” thing I did on a lark to procrastinate had some sticking power to it. The ideal, the dream I had sketched out, made itself a home in my head. It kept popping up when I had an opportunity to make bits of it happen as my career and worked changed over time. It didn’t die, somehow it became the “north star” in my career planning – and that was a very good thing.
So how did that happen?
As silly as this exercise appears to be on the surface, it does make you think through some things, and recognize those needs you may not normally connect with or advocate for in your career. Let me give you some examples.
These two things are basic examples of human needs, ones we often ignore or compromise because that’s just not the way the work world works. True, but does that mean you give up on the ideal? Continue to compromise? That you don’t consider the opportunity in making some changes that could have big benefits (from a productivity perspective)? This is what my brain kept asking me, and they were damn good questions.
With these questions swirling around, I realized over time how I could make changes within the established 9-5 envelope of work that would benefit me. I shifted how I scheduled my time, prioritizing and protecting time when I was at my most creative so I could get my focus work done with more attention and effortless quality. When I was less likely to be able to focus on nitty-gritty details, I opened my calendar up for meetings, welcoming the energetic benefits I get from being with others. With the pandemic I realized working from home maximized my productivity, well-being and physical comfort. When I sketched my “ideal day design”, I had no idea these things were even possible, but my work output, desired impact and income all went up over time with these small changes – and my employers never questioned my engagement or the way I scheduled my time.
These changes (and their benefits) informed the work I said “yes” to, and what I said “no” to. Having something worth protecting in my work life (my productivity, well-being and overall job satisfaction) meant I could better hold the boundaries I needed to make room for work that challenged me, and take on less of the work that didn’t. I also had a much clearer picture of what was possible for me at work, and where I was headed in my career. It helped me understand what kinds of problems I wanted to solve at work, and who had them.
The “ideal day design” was instrumental in helping me to make gradual changes that have shaped where I am today. It’s contributed to gaining more clarity around the investments I’ve made in myself professionally (including switching professions). It continues to inform where I’m going next in my career, and why that has meaning for me. AND it always puts my well-being at the center. At its essence, this one little exercise provided a safe place to recognize my real needs, and the time to consider the tangible benefits to listening to those needs. In short, it helped me get real.
We tend to think of career planning and self-actualization as needing a big, step-by-step blueprint. I’ve always thought that’s what I needed. But as it turns out, meaningful career planning, that plays to your strengths and takes you to all the places you really want to go, is all about figuring out how to get what you need, so you can keep doing all the things.
Best of all, you earn more at work when you put your needs first. Major AH-HA. And I’m not the only one who’s experienced that unexpected benefit; my clients do too.
I didn't understand the link between my earning potential and happiness at work, but I do now! All thanks to working with Carleen."