Eighty days into lockdown, Friday’s Zoom quarantine catch-up with friends makes for sober listening. Paloma, financial analyst starts by telling us she was up till 11pm finishing a report the previous evening. Juan, head of Purchasing, follows, saying that his back-to-back video meetings often run through lunch, triggering debilitating migraines. Worse still, Ana, IT project manager, tells us that sudden attacks of stress-induced vertigo are forcing her to take time off work. “I was putting in an average of two more hours every day, yet I still can’t seem to get through it all. It’s crazy”.
Sadly, similar stories of toxic “permawork” are all too common. Yet none of my friends work in front-line essential companies like health, energy or food distribution, nor do they hold key roles, so what’s going on? According to Kristine Dery of MIT Center for Information Systems Research, what we are seeing is “an unhealthy mix of “overperforming” by workers anxious to prove their worth in an unstable economy, combined with lack of appropriate leadership”.
But while many leaders certainly need to up their game, we can’t blame everything on the boss. The unfortunate truth is that overworking is nothing new, and of course, those who have additional caring, domestic and home-schooling responsibilities will have even greater difficulties right now. Yet it’s up to each of us to do what we can to help ourselves “slow the wheel”. And though magic solutions are few and far between, here are some practical tips to help you work and live smarter in these difficult times.
7 Steps to Improve Productivity and Safeguard Well-being
1. Break the “always-on” cycle and become more productive
Agree core hours to be available to the rest of your team, but block off periods for deep work—for analysis, creative work or even just to make sure you get your lunch! Interruptions break focus and cost us extra time at our desks—as renowned researcher Gloria Mark of the University of California found, each time the typical office worker is interrupted it can take over 23 minutes just to get back to the state of focus where they left off. End your day at a reasonable time by not starting meetings after 4 pm—lobby the scheduler and/or enlist allies in order to make it happen. If colleagues ring or send messages outside normal working hours, hold off responding until the next day.
2. Audit your meetings
In line with the above, the First Law of Meetings states: Meetings will expand exponentially to take up all the time available. Now is a good time to audit (if possible, with colleagues) your regularly scheduled meetings. Take a close look at your meeting calendar for the coming month—what changes could you make in view of changed priorities or procedures? Questions to ask: Is this meeting still relevant? Can we reduce the frequency? Or even, is a meeting still needed, or can we do this via Slack, Trello, etc.
3. Turn down the party invite
The Second Law of Meetings states: Invite twice as many people as you really need because you don’t know who does what and you don’t want to upset anyone. Take a leaf from Jeff Bezo’s book and turn down as many meeting invites as possible! Ask yourself: What can I contribute to this meeting? Am I being invited out of inertia? Should someone else from my team/department go instead? Can I attend for only part of it? Is it enough just to read the meeting minutes?
4. Make time for downtime
In our normal routine, time spent commuting, moving between meetings, or even queuing for lunch gives us a short mental break, as well as providing us with a chance to activate our bodies. Try deliberately building in some downtime by making all meetings 10 minutes shorter to allow yourself a break to stretch and silently refresh. Even five minutes is enough to clear your mind or do some Mindfulness to boost focus and relaxation. Try Insight timer or Bhuddify for some guided practices.
5. Set limits: Say NO!
Work is a constant to-and-fro of requests and conflicting priorities. Other people don’t know what you have on your plate normally, let alone right now with family duties added in, so it’s up to you to say No. Saying No is not a sign of being unhelpful; it’s your professional duty to say No. Saying No means saying Yes to getting your job done right, and Yes to a healthy work-life balance. Just remember to say it nicely. And remember that people don’t necessarily know your timetable—your voice mail serves a purpose! In the words of Warren Buffet, “You can’t let other people manage your agenda in life”.
6. Say No to the busy drug!
“I’ll just finish this before I stop”. Sound familiar? Research shows that we get a rush of addictive, pleasure-inducing dopamine just before and immediately after completing a task—that’s why we love ticking off to-do lists! But the truth is, work is ongoing—most of us could all work all night and still not finish. The answer? Learn to live with the discomfort of incompletion, choose your battles and avoid perfectionism. Ask yourself: What’s keeping me busy? Is it worth it? Are there things on my plate I should stop or let go? Ask for help and let others grow. On the home front, for example, my 11 year-old son is doing a great job of ironing and cleaning the bathroom during quarantine, while my 17 year-old daughter has turned out some wonderful meals, all the while learning valuable life-skills. Now or never is the time to delegate!
7. Close the door and get your life back!
For bored Singletons or harassed parents alike, it can be hard to switch off, especially when there’s so much to do and we’re all dressed up with nowhere to go! Set alarms, use technology such as FocusMe, ScreenTime (or others) and enlist partners and children to get you away from your desk and back into your life. Before you leave, help yourself relax by writing a short to-do list of tomorrow’s tasks to prevent worrying and—literally or metaphorically—just walk out that door to relax, re-charge and enjoy your life!
The next time you feel overwhelmed, just pause for a moment and ask: What is one thing I can do to change this? Now, more than ever, it’s up to each of us to change the dynamics of “permawork” to work smart and live even smarter. Here’s a Zoom toast to that!
If you’d like to learn more about fostering resilience and boosting personal and team effectiveness, check out our Remote Team Success series.