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

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.

Be More Effective – Week 25: Take Control, Don’t Burn Out

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Burnout comes from two key issues: the feeling that you cannot control what you need to work on (i.e. not being connected to ones’ work) and the feeling that you can never get on top of all the things you should be doing (i.e. the feeling of not achieving).

Take control (or at least feel like you do). Consciously set your priority for the day. Work around things that control you and find the pockets where you can do the things that matter to you.
Set realistic goals and accept that there will always be unfinished work at the end of the day.

Gain control over your work

One of the biggest contributors to burnout (in my mind) is the feeling that you have endless tasks on your plate and not enough control over how you spend your time.

To a large degree you can change that situation and feeling. Some of us have more control over our work lives, some less, but we can all find the pockets we can control and develop a mindset that helps us feel more ‘on top of things’.

If you just go through your day and wait for others to dictate what you will be doing, you will very likely run into either boredom or burnout fairly quickly. Rather, get clarity on what is important to you, and what you need to do to achieve those outcomes or that kind of activities.

Set time aside for those activities as a ‘passion-balance’ for the work that gets pushed into your day by others. Even activities that get dictated by others can get a different spin if you approach them from a different angle. For example you can look at an activity you need to do as just that, or you can see it as an opportunity to hone a specific skill of your’s or teach others by developing best practices.

It’s ok to not get to the bottom of your task list

Chances are that you have more work that you should be doing than what you can actually fit into a realistic work day and work week.

List out the things that you need to do in priority order. Then assign realistic time to them. Knowing what needs to be done and how much time each task requires allows you to set realistic targets for the day and the week.

Work towards those targets and measure success against that specific set of pre-defined activities, not your complete list of things you should do.

As you work through your list, tick off everything that you have achieved, including the things that were dictated by others. Often when we are busy with lots of competing priorities and to-dos we look back at the day and feel like we didn’t accomplish anything. Having a list with lots of check marks helps you realize how much you have actually achieved.

Know what you can control and what you cannot

Acknowledge when you get sidetracked by unplanned asks and fire fights. Take them as priorities for the day and consciously count them as wins when you’re done. They don’t add to your existing priorities, they just replace some of them. Don’t try to now achieve everything plus the added activities.

Some days, all you can achieve is to deal with an escalation, even if you had planned differently. Other days, you can spend most of your time and your energy on the priorities you picked. Don’t punish yourself by feeling bad in either case.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”
Serenity prayer, Reinhold Niebuhr

 


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

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.

Be More Effective – Week 24: Avoid Fire Fights

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Have you heard someone say before: “I do my best work when I’m under pressure with tight timelines”? I call BS on that, it’s just a sign of bad time management, poor planning and lack of discipline.

Don’t wait to the last-minute. Plan ahead. Finish your tasks as soon as possible.

While waiting to the last-minute increases the pressure on you and will help you to stop procrastinating, it is also immensely stressful. Especially if any additional unplanned but urgent work gets added on top.

Work under pressure is not your best work, even if you might think so because you have trained yourself over the years to only take last-minute work serious.

Rather take control. Plan out your work and try to get it done as early as possible. That allows you to do the work when you actually have time. It will also avoid, that you might end up in a situation where two urgent tasks (one known, the other one unexpected) will have the same deadline.

Getting on tasks early increases your degrees of freedom and greatly reduces your stress levels. All it takes is a little planning ahead and some discipline.

Skip the fire fights, rather train your muscle for discipline. Like any other ability or trait, discipline is just a habit that can be learned, trained and strengthened.

Avoid the stress of last-minute and the mistakes and extra cleanup work of rushed deliverables. Get ahead of your tasks and priorities.

Be More Effective – Week 23: Bring a Little Zen into Your Life

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Clean up your workspace

Let’s look at your workspace (office desk, kitchen counter, tool shed). How much stuff is lying around and cluttering your workspace, and your mind as a result?

If you want to be able to focus on your work and come up with creative ideas, you need to remove distractions. Create white spaces.

Create empty spaces. Reduce distractions.

Clean up your workspace. Find a place for everything and preferrable pick a spot that you cannot see. The only things that should be on your workspace are the project that you are working on right now and the tools that you are using right now.

Everything else needs to go and find a place somewhere else. Likewise, everything needs to have its place. And it needs to be there and only there, unless it’s in your hands.

If everything has its place and can always be found there, you will also not need to make a mad dash through your house to find it when you actually need it (think: your keys). I believe the creative chaos is a myth. I trust the empty and creative Zen space instead.

“Order is contagious.”
Willpower, Roy Baumeister, John Tierney

If your workspace is not clean and quiet, your mind won’t be either.

Create your retreat space in which your brain can calm down and your mind can focus.

Create empty space in time

Don’t stop at cleaning and emptying your workspace. Also create free space in time. Free up time on your calendar, for which you plan to do nothing.

No, that’s not the same as not having a concrete plan an instead running random errands. Plan out a time where you do nothing. Create space for your mind and observe what will happen.

It might be scary at first but try it out. Soon it will feel liberating. Give yourself the gift of time without expectations and without things you have to do or achieve.

Give yourself the gift of a little Zen. With emptiness comes focus. With focus come results and inspiration.

Empty spaces ignite your creativity – both empty spaces in space as well as in time (do nothing times).

Be More Effective – Week 21: Remove Distractions

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Do you envy the artist who is immersed in his painting or the monk who seems to be lost in his meditation? The trick to get there is to tune out all distractions. If we do something that we truly and deeply love, this can happen by itself. For example as you ge fully immersed when you watch your favorite team playing.

However, more often than not, we get distracted by something shiny and interesting popping up just when we started to get into out task. It takes up to 20 mins to fully get back into a task once distracted.

Remove all distractions. Observe what catches your attention and turn it off until you decide to take a break. Deliberately switch between deep focus and unfocused catch-up.

Unless you want to challenge your inner monk and develop focus despite external distractions, you should make your life easier by just eliminating them.

Turn off notifications

A classic distractor are any notifications on your computer or phone. Beeping sounds and popping windows for emails, text messages, IMs or even stupid system notifications pop in our visual field all the time (and the beeping makes sure, we notice even if we don’t look at our phone).

Turn off all notifications. I mean all of them. On my computer and phone, I have no email or text notifications. The only thing that I allow to interrupt me is a text from my wife or kids. Anything else can wait.

Put your phone on silent while you work, or better even, turn it off. If a call was important, the caller will leave a message. Personally I never answer the phone, but that’s a different story and probably a little too nerdy for most.

When you have a break time, go back to your email, pick up your phone, and check if there is something important that requires your attention.

Work in spurts – spurts of deep attention, and then spurts of catching up with distractions.

Snooze messages

You can even snooze emails or text messages for a period of time when you don’t want to be distracted. It’s easy to create rules for that in your email client, and your phone can be put into airplane mode.

Turn your email and texts off for the weekend. I have a rule in my Outlook client that directs my work email to a folder that I won’t see on my phone on the weekend. That rule lets through messages that are marked as urgent. Everything else has to wait until Monday.

Focus on One App at a Time

Now that we have turned of interrupting notifications, we will take it one step further. Kill multitasking.

Windows on a computer look nice. And they distract, dividing your focus across multiple apps.

Do one task at a time. Don’t allow distractions in your peripheral vision. Close all windows but the one you are working on. If you don’t want to do that, open the window / application you’re working in full-screen.

Modern computers support multiple virtual desktops. Move your focus app to a clean desktop where noting else is opened. Ban the distractions in your peripheral vision.

Focus on what you do. One thing at a time.

Deliberately change between one app and checking multiple inputs and signals. Make a choice whether you are tactical or strategic. Both important but not at the same time.

Be More Effective – Week 20: Pace Yourself

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If we want to grow, we need to push ourselves. We need to go beyond our comfort zone and do what’s hard. In order to build a muscle, we need to stress it to the point where is tires out. The same is true for other areas in which we learn and grow.

However, and this is critically important, we also need to slow down and recover. Our abilities grow when we slow down after a stretch push. Our muscles grow in the recovery times, to get ready for the next time when we stress them more than usual.

Pace yourself. Decide when to push hard and when to slow down and recover. Recover and grow. Get ready for the next time you will need to push.

Without those downtimes and recovery periods we won’t get better. Our muscles will not grow. Likewise our abilities will not grow if we operate always and exclusively at the point where we’re close to breaking.

We grow from pushing, speeding up and then consciously slowing down and relaxing again.

We grow if we stretch ourselves, but ONLY if we also allow our muscles and mind to regenerate. Otherwise we just burn out. Pace yourself!

As you take on stretch assignments or go hard to meet an important deadline, make it a point to also plan in (and take) the following recovery time. For me it’s weekdays versus weekends. Find out what it is for you.

When you take a recovery time, do it fully. Athletes don’t practice during their recovery period. You shouldn’t either. Stay away from work, emails and texts during that time. Come back afterwards, refreshed and stronger.

Be More Effective – Week 19: Say ‘No’ the Right Way

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We all have lots on our plates. By design, we have more things we could do, than what we can actually deliver in the given time. That forces us to make prioritizations and double down on the most impactful things.

With that, it’s important to know how to say ‘no’. Here is how I say ‘no’ if I need to. And how I appreciate other’s saying know, so that I can manage around it.

Saying ‘no’ the right way

It’s ok to say ‘no’. In fact, people expect you to be honest enough to say ‘no’ if you will not be able to do something.

It’s not ok to say ‘yes’, but then fail to follow through on your promises or to raise the flag the last-minute.

Say ‘no’ early. Help people understand why you need to say ‘no’. Offer alternatives. Escalate quickly if plans change.

So how do you say ‘no’ the right way?

Start with the ‘why’ (as always)

Explain why you cannot do something. Explain what else you need to do during the same time and why you think that is more important. Provide the background so that others can follow your decision.

If you need to say ‘no’ to your boss, explain to her how you are prioritizing and why you think another task is more important. If she doesn’t agree, list the things that are competing for your time. Ask which one you should drop instead.

Don’t just take on an additional task, hoping you will be able to deliver it without knowing when you would do that feat. Most people prefer an honest push-back over a best of intentions but unrealistic commitment that won’t be followed through.

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.

Ask for when a task is due. Check your calendar and priorities and see when you can fit it in. Offer that plan and check for agreement.

Be realistic and ask people for true timelines. Many people will buffer when they really need something. Ask them to give you the real deadline, but then also make sure that you will be ready by that time. Otherwise you just teach them to add additional buffers in the future.

Offer alternatives

Try to find alternatives if priorities and timelines don’t line up. Maybe you cannot do the update this week because you need to work on an important paper for the team, but your coworker can take the work off your shoulder this time? Maybe the project update this week is not as urgent as it appears and it will be covered anyway in your more thorough update that is coming two weeks from now. Maybe the offsite follow-up can wait a week since you have blocked some dedicated follow-up time next week anyway.

Understand the true urgency and then plan for it. Find alternatives if things don’t fit but need to get done anyway.

For whatever plan, timeline or alternatives you offer – make sure you actually plan and block time for it!

Escalate early if plans change

Only one thing is worse for a manager than a team member who comes the day before a deadline to tell you that he won’t get the work done in time: a team member who tells you the day off.

As soon as you realize that plans won’t happen as initially scheduled, you need to let everyone who counts on your deliverable know. Give a heads-up as early as possible. Have checkpoints ahead of your deadline so that you yourself will know right away if things get out of control.

Escalate early! Given enough time to react, there is almost always another solution. If you only learn about an issue the last-minute, there is usually little that can be done.

Similarly, if you need to de-prioritize or completely drop work that you had initially planned, you need to let everyone who is waiting on you know as quickly as possible.

Again, the ‘why’ does the trick. Explain why things needed to change, what you had to prioritize. If possible at all, offer a new timeline or another solution. Check if that’s ok for the person who was counting on you. Don’t just drop the bomb, or even worse, don’t let the other person find out on their own.