Reflection: A Special Note on Burn Out

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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:

 

Capture

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

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