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:

 

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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.

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.

Reflection: Don’t Get Stuck in End-Goal Obsession

computer-767776_1920We are all too often focused (fixated) on the end goal and forget about the necessary individual steps that lead us there. Since we don’t know exactly how to reach our goals, we don’t make progress and get increasingly frustrated.

The problem is that most individuals, leaders and businesses focus on output metrics and try to improve them. At Amazon I’ve learned to focus on improving input metrics instead. It’s a powerful shift in mindset if you want to have true impact.

Focus on the things you can manage. Measure inputs and real-time metrics rather than outputs. Design your metrics to support your long-term plan, not short-term gains.

The problem with output metrics

Output metrics (e.g. profit, user base, user retention, downloads) are the outcomes that a business wants to achieve and the ultimate goal is to improve them as much as possible.

The only issue with that is, that output metrics or business outcomes are the result of many right or wrong actions that have already been taken and many right or wrong decisions that have already been made in the past. It’s very hard to look at a lagging profit or user metric and figure out what to do specifically. And by the time the output metric is lagging, it’s in most cases also too late to course correct anyway.

Input metrics help shape outcomes

The better metrics to look at are input metrics. Input metrics are measurements of the things that need to go right in order to generate great outcomes. At Amazon we focus on input metrics first and foremost.

For example, if you build a new app and want to grow your user base quickly and sustainably, you should not spend all your energy looking at the number of users. Probably you shouldn’t look at that at all for the first few months. Instead you need to get your inputs in shape. For instance, is your product what users want (what’s your app’s rating in the store, what are the negative feedbacks from users)? Are your marketing campaigns effective (what are click-through rates, how is your conversion rate for downloads and sign-ups)?

Focus on inputs more than on the outputs when you look at the funnel. Input metrics are early warnings. They are also much more actionable than output metrics. It’s much easier to react on leading click-through rates or customer feedback about insufficient UX, than to look at low usage numbers and guess what might be wrong.

Focusing on inputs sets you up for the long run

Too much focus on output metrics can also incentivize you to make bad long-term decisions in order to gain short-term benefits (just look at Wall Street to get an abundance of examples). Focusing on input metrics will guide you to build the right systems and set the right priorities for long-term growth.

I saw an example for that conflict just recently during MBA interviews. I asked candidates how they would decide which of two prices (same product, different suppliers, different pricing) they would offer to a customer. Most candidates will provide the standard answer: “the price that offers the best margin and thus the best profit for the company as long as it’s within the constraints (buying power) of the customer”. That answer maximizes the output metric (profit).

If you focus on input metrics, the above is the wrong answer (and btw, don’t give that answer in an Amazon interview). Your input metric is to have lots of happy returning customers who trust you. If customers are happy, return often and trust you, they will make great business with you over time. The right answer is to “always offer the best price to the customer”. It’s the better long-term strategy and it will drive the right outcomes. That’s why at Amazon customer obsession always comes first.

Closing with a non-business example

To drive home the point, I want to close with a non-business example.

As you know by now, I care a lot about living a healthy life. And I believe in measuring progress.

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” – Peter Drucker

In the past I did track my progress on outcomes like my weight, my overall fitness (how do you even define that?) my energy levels and so on. You get the idea. The problem is that those ‘metrics’ change slowly and are pretty hard to influence directly since they are the result of many things playing together.

In recent years I changed my focus to a small set of input metrics: (1) exercise every single day, (2) sleep 8 hours a day and (3) drink 2 liters of water every day. Those metrics are simple, they are accurate on a daily basis and I know exactly what to do if I miss any of them. They are also very easy to track on my Fitbit or Apple watch.

You might guess it already, but since having that focus I saw great improvements on my fitness, weight, energy and general feeling of wellbeing without actually focusing on any of those outcome metrics specifically.

Reflection: Build and Establish Good Habits

joy-2483926_1920Heads-up – this is going to be a long post, but it is crucial for making our changes stick. Bear with me and take your time to read it.

We are now 14 weeks into building healthier habits for a more productive and balanced life. That means somewhere between 5 to 10 new habit changes already, depending on which ones and how many you decided to pick up.

Before we move on to a whole new area (being more efficient at your work), let’s talk a little bit about how we make all those habits stick.

How do we make them stick?

How can we avoid to flip-flop from new habit to new habit every week and bouncing back to bad behaviours as soon as we take our eyes off a recent habit change?

In the past I’ve tried to follow the rule that you have to keep a habit for 30 days to make it stick, but to be honest more often than not this didn’t work for me. More recently I came across two books that provide good frameworks that do actually work (at least for me).

  • “Mini Habits”, Stephen Guise – Simple to read book that focuses on making habits so small that you cannot possibly fail to just do them.
  • “Atomic Habits”, James Clear – A more scientific exploration of the topic with many suggestions on how to make habits stick.

The following is a summary of the rules I found most effective from those books. Read the books for more suggestions as well as the science behind them.

 1 – One small change at a time

Don’t boil the ocean! You will get frustrated and will give up.

Don’t try to change more than one behavior or add more than one habit at a time. Don’t pick habits that reflect your end goal, but rather focus on the next immediate step that will get you there.

Don’t boil the ocean. Pick one habit at a time. Make your habit changes too small to fail.

Instead pick one habit per week and focus on it. Focus on only that habit until you reliably repeat it. Then you can add a new habit to your list. If you notice that you stopped doing the previous change, go back and add that habit back again.

Make your habit change small. Instead of trying to turn end goals into a habit, focus on the immediate next step. For example, instead of saying “I will lose 10 pounds”, make it a habit to drink a refreshing glass of water every time you want to grab your habitual can of soda.

Make your habit changes small, make them easy. Make them too small to fail.

Small changes add up. Rather than making a heroic effort and keeping it for two weeks, make incremental 1% changes and keep going at them for the rest of your life. Nothing beats the impact of consistency (the “Compounding effect of 1% changes.”, James Clear).

2 – Don’t break your streak

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” – Peter Drucker

Once a new habit is truly a habit you will do it naturally. Until then you need to ‘manage’ yourself to stick to it. Usually the best way to do that is to track and keep a log that holds you accountable.

Track of your progress to keep you going. Don’t break your streak. Never fail twice.

Tracking your progress helps to keep you motivated as you see the rewarding days, when you kept to your habit, adding up. It also serves to hold you accountable because once you have a chain of successful days, you don’t want to break the streak.

How you track your habit doesn’t matter as long as you do it. Find the way that works best for you: a wall calendar that you tick off, your personal journal, a jar of marbles that you fill up every time you did a specific habit, an app on your phone that you always have with you. Personally I like to use both a wall calendar for a big longterm habit that I’m chasing, as well as an iPhone app (Streaks) to keep track of my progress on the small changes throughout the day.

Try your best to not break a streak. It is motivational to see how you add day after day to your list of little wins. Try to not drop the ball, work hard to not break the streak.

Having that said, life will happen. Every now and then something will come in the way of your habit. That is a crucial point in your habit-forming. One of two things will happen: 1) you broke your streak and will now have a much lower bar to dropping the habit again the next day or 2) you get right back to your habit the next day. To be honest, the first response is much more likely and it dooms you for failure on your desired longterm changes. The biggest risk to a habit is not the start but keeping to go.

To prevent you from dropping your habit once you face the first obstacle, make it a point to never fail twice in a row. It’s ok to fail every now and again. But NEVER fail twice in a row to do your habit.

As a side note for habit tracking apps: I like the iOS Streak app which lets me track six habits at a time. If I successfully did a habit for six weeks, it most likely sticks and I can replace it with a new one. If it doesn’t stick yet, I will wait a little longer before I take on the next habit. Tracking six habits at a time is a reasonable balance between ambition and feasibility.

3 – Make it automatic

Your will power drains through the day. Have a plan. Make your habits a reflex.

We all start our days with the best intentions. We stick to our priorities through the morning and then the curve balls start hitting us. We get tired, we get worn out. We come home exhausted, drop in front of the TV, have a couple of drinks. Then we go to bed, slightly frustrated about ourselves and have the best intentions to be more disciplined the next day. The next day won’t be any different though.

Have a plan. Make good habits easy and bad habits difficult. Make your habit a reflex. Identify trigger points.

The problem is that we cannot trust ourselves as we get more and more tired throughout the day and our willpower gets depleted by the obstacles, challenges and decisions we are facing.

We need our fresh mind to make the right decisions for us. We need your well rested brain, with its full reservoir of will power and sight of the right priorities to make the decisions for us, before the tired brain can kick in and take over.

Make a proactive plan of ‘if, then’ decisions. You will be tired in the evening when you come home. Make a plan what you will do when you want to drop in front of the TV (“when I want to grab the TV remote, I will rather pick up a cup of tea and the book I started reading”). Make the plan while you still have your priorities straight, not when you’re tired. That way you will not need to decide when you’re tired, you will only need to execute.

Identifying and setting triggers for your habits is an additional technique that you can use. Put your gym bag in front of your door so that you have to pick it up on your way to work. Make fruit and veggies visibly available in your house and make candy hard to reach. Put away the remote and place a book in its place. Get the TV out of your bedroom, set nighttime timers that switch off your devices and lights.

You can also add a new habit to something that you already do habitually (“when I grab my morning coffee I will do 10 push-ups”). It’s an easy way to trigger a new good behavior through a behavior that is already ingrained in your daily life.

Make your habit a reflex, so you no longer need to make a conscious decision. Make good habits easy and bad habits difficult to start.

4 – Work backwards from who you want to be

“Identity is stronger than goals. Your believes of yourself drive your behavior.” – James Clear

So far we talked about how you can make very specific behaviors stick. It’s a very narrow approach and requires will power. After all, you want to change something AGAINST what you perceive as your natural preferences.

To take this to the next level, you need to change your natural preferences. You need to change who you think you are and what preferences that person has. You need to change your image of yourself.

Decide what type of person you are and then make the decisions such a person would make.

However, don’t get stuck at dreaming about what type of person you would wish to be. Decide what type of person you are.

Are you a healthy person? Are you a person who doesn’t drink alcohol? Are you a person that exercises every day? Are you a person that spends quality time with his kids and family every day? Are you a person that creates a piece of art every day? Are you a person who helps someone every day?

Decide who you ARE. Then make the decisions such a person will make.

Are you a person who doesn’t drink alcohol? Well, then it’s easy, you don’t need to buy beer anymore and you don’t need to mull over whether you should have a drink at the work party or not. You’re a person that doesn’t drink alcohol. Period.

Many years ago I decided that I never ever want to drive after having had a drink anymore (I neverhad an accident or issue up to then, but I also didn’t want to take the risk anymore). I didn’t know back then, but I decided to not be a person who drives after they had a drink. And I never once did since then, nor did I miss it.

For in the moment decisions, it doesn’t matter as much what longterm goals you have or what person you would wish to become when you grow up. What matters is what person you decided that you are already and what decisions such a person makes.

Decide what person you are TODAY and make the decisions such a person would make.

Healthy Habits – Week 13: End Your Day With a Mindfulness Exercise

These days, almost every day is stressful. We are stressed at work, with our kids, our bills, you name it. And worst, it doesn’t stop anymore. We’re always connected, we take work home and feel guilty if we’re not available 24/7.

As a result, we cannot turn off our minds and worries at night. We subsequently don’t sleep well, don’t get enough rest and are starting the next day on the wrong foot and even more tired. And the spiral goes further down.

Wind down at night. Do a mindfulness exercise. Meditate, do Yoga or Tai Chi. Have nice dinner conversations with loved ones. Leave it there.

Break that spiral by consciously winding down at night. Specifically, try to do a mindfulness exercise at night before going to bed.

Do some meditation before you go to sleep. There are plenty of phone and Alexa apps that will guide you, if you don’t have experience meditating. Pick you favorite.

If meditation is not your cup of tea, do some Yoga, practice Tai Chi, stretch gently, take a bath with some candles, snuggle with your dog (or cat) or just have a relaxed dinner table conversation with loved ones.

Be grateful for the day. Be grateful for friends and families. Be grateful for the experiences of the day and the ones that still lay ahead for the days coming. Great ones, and challenging ones, experiences are what makes our lives interesting and worthwhile.

Pick whatever works for you and do it. When you’re home, be home. Wind down, be mindful.

And most important: don’t go back to your work after a mindful break and before you sleep. Close your day and keep it closed. You don’t want to stay awake all night and think about the things that ‘keep you awake’, you want to be relaxed and marvel about the connections and experiences you had.

Healthy Habits – Week 12: Go to the Gym

dumbbells-2465478_1920We started with daily push-ups in week 2 and freed some extra time in the morning by skipping procrastinations in week 3.

How about we put that time to use by going to the gym in the morning at least a couple of times a week. Don’t decide in the moment though, plan ahead of time what those days will be and block the time in your calendar. Get you gym bag ready to grab the evening before.

Make an appointment for your health. Go to the gym in the morning.

It doesn’t matter whether you go for strength, cardio or flexibility. Weights, running or Yoga are all good. Of course it’s best if you cycle through all of them and create a balanced portfolio of workouts. You can get to that over time though, starting with one type of exercise and then adding more variety as you advance.

However the most important thing is that you block some real time for yourself and your health. Make an appointment with yourself to go to the gym, individually or by joining a class. See what works best for you but make your health a priority.

Healthy Habits – Week 11: Walk at Work, Take the Long Way

We talked about standing last week and how important it is to switch between sitting and standing work. Standing is a great improvement over sitting, but we can do better. Easily.

Get in some walking time. Take the longer route.

Our modern lives are structured around convenience, or might I say laziness. We don’t need to take the stairs but can just hop into the elevator to get to the next floor. We don’t need to walk to our coworker around the corner but can just message them. We don’t even have to walk to meetings in the same building anymore since we can just join virtually from our desks.

Break that laziness and get in some activity for your body throughout the day. Instead of messaging, walk. Instead of dialing in to the meeting, just go there. The meeting is in a different building, even better, you get more walking time. Instead of taking the elevator, walk a couple of flights of stairs. If you walk to a meeting, take the longer route, not the short cut.

Maybe every now and then you can even convince your coworker to go on a walking meeting with you. Unless you need to review material in your meeting those are magic. Try it for your next 1:1.

Small changes add up, compound over time and matter a LOT in the long run. Find the ways in your daily routine in which you can squeeze in some extra movement!