I read an interesting article today about how the prevalence of Burnout at work is getting out of control.
Almost no one will disagree with that, but it also reminded me that while nearly all of us really are overloaded, there are some overloaded people who don’t burn out. In fact, many of them have the gift of enjoying work, and life, in spite of their overwhelmed work demands: they are able to stay positive about it and above the fray.
There are, of course, a ton of ways to attain that positive view. Stress reduction, balanced life style, positive thinking, etc., all are good examples. But you need to add to that the following: effective management of your workday.
An “Ah ha” Experience
I want to reflect on an experience that I had the other day that’s illustrative of the latter of those as a way to avoid burnout.
As background, I recently wrote an article on how to dig out of an overloaded task list. I wrote it because I had allowed my own MYN task list to exceed the MYN/1MTD size limits (see that link for details), and it was bugging me: I was starting to feel overloaded.
So I followed my own recommendations, and worked to get my list under my recommended size limits. I ended up with fewer than 25 items in my entire visible task list. Fewer than 5 were critical and the rest were optional for the week (in 1MTD/MYN language, they were Opportunity Now tasks).
By the way, for those who use MYN, note that using MYN Defer-to-Review to schedule most deprioritized tasks to later dates was absolutely key to getting this cleanup accomplished. So if you are an MYN user, be sure YOU are using Defer-to-Review, too. But I digress.
Cleaning up my list felt great! It was so refreshing to see a reasonably-sized list throughout the day and not feel the weight of an impossibly-long list of to-dos. It was good to know that the entire list was a good and authentic one, and as a result I took it much more seriously. And since, in that cleaning, I examined every item before dismissing it, it felt great to free myself from the weight of worrying that some items in my unattended list might possibly blow up in my face soon.
The Process of Letting Go of Tasks
But even more interesting was this: with each task that I deprioritized by hiding to the future (or deleting), I realized I was going through a process. The process was one of deciding not to care about that task. It was deciding that I can, in fact, postpone or let go of that task in the interest of the larger good. The larger good, of course, is sanity. And the other larger good is clearly deciding to focus only on my most important things—to do those well, and to let go of those things that don’t make the cut and that I know I cannot get to anyway.
The letting go process can be very hard for many people.
Why so hard?
First of all, when we dismiss a task, there is a sense that we are breaking a commitment, either to one’s self or to others. You see, in the act of writing down a task, we tend to make an unconscious commitment to doing it, and that commitment lingers, often well past the timeliness of the task.
This is where I want to express my admiration for David Allen’s writings in which he tells his readers that they are allowed to “renegotiate commitments,” whether with themselves or with others, when they find themselves overloaded. I encourage all to embrace that thought. You really can renegotiate your commitment to a given task and postpone or let go of it. This is of course easier to do if you work for yourself, which leads to this:
Getting Past Fear
The other emotion felt by many when doing this is fear. You fearfully ask yourself: Will I look bad to my boss or my clients if I ask for an extension? Will it hurt my career if I don’t get it all done like a superman or superwoman?
That fear issue is a tough one. The good news is that in some cases, such fear is misplaced. What I mean by this is if you were to go to your boss and describe the impossible list you have been assigned, I suggest that in many cases your boss will say “You are right, that list it too long. Let’s prioritize it and get it down to a reasonable size.” So you see, the solution to any renegotiation is often to talk it through with the stakeholders: your boss in this case.
But that doesn’t always work. First, in some extremely fast-paced industries, super performance IS expected—it’s the norm—and the management thinking is “get on board or get out.” I actually feel this is okay, as long as you are able to recognize that if it’s not working for you, you should get out—and not feel bad about getting out. You are not a match for that industry, don’t feel badly about that.
And second, in some more-normal-paced industries, the management of some companies has simply become cynical. They know they are setting unreasonable expectations for you and just don’t care whether you can handle it or not—their boss is pushing them, so they are going to push you, and you are expected to make it all happen.
Put Up or Move On
This second one is unfortunate. If it’s extreme it represents bad management. It represents short-sighted thinking. So you have a decision: Do I put up with this or move on?
To make that decision, my recommendation is to do some soul searching. Ask yourself: “What will it take for me to match my view of a reasonable work-life balance with my need for money, prestige, and challenge?”
In my own work life, I’ve been all over the map in finding that answer. At times I let myself get way overcommitted in the interest of better money. Later I’d find myself swinging back to more reasonable solutions. I am currently in the “more reasonable” zone. I am happy with it and I suggest to all that it’s the best place to be.
But that’s a personal decision everyone will need to make as they prioritize what’s important in their life.
Start with Your Current Tasks
In the meantime, get accustomed to making those hard decisions about your current task list and renegotiating or letting go of tasks that just are not going to fit into your schedule. Get your task list cleaned out (follow that link to learn how). It will feel great, give you better focus, and still allow you to reach the core goals you want to reach.
And read the article about burnout. Perhaps it will motivate you to find a solution.