New Years is knocking on our doors. For many it has been a long and challenging year. A year in which burnout and stress became more prevalent than ever. Maybe you are reading this article because you are struggling with burnout. Or you are feeling close to it. Or maybe you are feeling overwhelmed, like a pressure cooker about to explode. I have spoken often about the impact of organization on their employee’s burnout but there is also a good part of reaching the point of burnout that is in our responsibility as individuals. And for that part, here are 12 simple suggestions to help you let of some steam and find some inner balance in the New Year. Choose at least one of them to use as a new habit and you will soon feel the reward.
1. Use the word “because”
There is magic to the word ‘because’. Research by Ellen Langer, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, found that simply using the word ‘because’ in a request doubles the likelihood that you will get what you want. In this study, the word ‘because’ did not need to be followed by anything meaningful; just including it the word ‘because’ makes the listener respond as though there must be a good reason.
Doing less work often start with influencing people around us and setting healthy personal boundaries. Whether you are saying ‘no’ to a request, or explaining why you will be leaving work on time (rather than at 8pm), or asking permission to delay the deadline for a piece of work, if you include ‘because’ your agreement will be seen as more rational and acceptable.
2. Switch off
The brain is not built for constant busyness. One very small, but interesting study done at the University of London into the impact of being ‘always on’ suggested that it can reduce IQ as much as smoking cannabis or losing a night’s sleep. While we cannot draw to many conclusions just from this study alone, we do know that brain needs its own time. Gary Small, Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA comments that, while that can be a short term buzz from being hyper-connected, long term it can lead to depression and impaired cognition.
Give you brain a break; be deliberate and intentional when you ‘check in’ on mail, notifications and messages. Set specific times aside to do it in a focused way, rather than constantly grazing… and certainly don’t check your email just before bed (the world will survive without you for a few hours!).
3. Turn off the notifier
Research into office workers has found that they hopscotch between tasks, changing activity on average every three minutes. Whenever we switch tasks the brain needs to re-orientate itself to the new rules of the game. David Meyer, Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan, suggest that jumping backwards and forwards between even just two tasks increases the time for overall completion by up to 40 per cent.
One of the biggest culprits for gratuitous task-switching is the email or social media notifiers. How many of us can resist the allure of the ‘ping’ that announces a new message from the world out there? Yet in taking a peek, we distract ourselves and reduce our efficiency. In recognition of this phenomenon, Microsoft has built an internal app called ‘Thinking time’, which allows staff to turn off all their online apps for a specified amount of time to allow them to think.
4. Kill a meeting
Meetings are a major source of busyness. They are on the increase, and have been increasing steadily in frequency and duration since the 1960s. Some surveys show that middle managers can spend up to 50 per cent of their time in meetings. Yet, the value of many of these meetings is questionable. One study performed a careful value analysis of 7,000 managers in a major company and found that poor planning and management of meetings was costing the business $54 million annually. Interestingly, there may be addition indirect costs as well: Michael Doyle and David Straus, authors of the bestselling book How to make meetings work, have identified something they call ‘meeting recovery syndrome’ – the time it takes to regain focus and composure following a (rubbish) meeting. CEO’s like Elon Musk or Gary Vaynerchuck spoke often about reducing to a minimum the time they and their time spend in meetings.
So, do yourself and your organization a favour in the New Year: kill a meeting in the first week. Identify at least one meeting that you can either cancel or simply not attend.
5. Think of the time … and double it
How do you establish whether you will be able to do something? We think about how long it will take, about all the things we already have on our plate, and we make a judgement; and we get it wrong, persistently. To show this, one study asked college seniors students to estimate when they would finish their thesis. They were also asked to estimate when they would finish their thesis. They were also asked to estimate when fellow students would finish, many of whom they did not know too well. Students massively underestimated when they would finish their own work, but pretty accurately judged the completion date for colleagues. This is something known in psychology as the Planning Fallacy. We overestimate how much we can do; endowing ourselves with greater intellectual and focus capabilities then we really have, and ignore all the contextual factors that could get in our way.
So, next time you are asked to do something, assess how much ‘spare time’ you have for this task given all your other commitments; then halve it. Next assess how long you think this new task will take then double it. Now you can make a better-informed judgement over whether to take it on.
6. Watch the clock and finish on time
How much work do you get through on the day before you go on holiday? Loads, I imagine. Research shows that when we are more aware of time, such as just before a holiday, we are significantly more productive. So the suggestion is simple, if you want to crunch through a lot of stuff in in a short amount of time, make yourself more aware of the time. For example, get a very big clock and put it where you can see it easily, or set little alarms for every 30 – 60 minutes: it will feel like time is expanding!
Do you have a spare room? Is it empty? The fact is, there is something inherent in human nature that, when given space, we fill it. Giving yourself a clear time to finish (weather a deadline for a project, or a time to leave work) helps you in two ways. Firstly,, a suggested above, it raises our time awareness, creating a goal. Secondly, it stops us creating space and time in our diaries, because things will always fill up that time.
7. Start quicker
In 1927, a Gestalt therapist called Bluma Zeigarnik was sitting in a Vienna coffee house with a group of friends. They ordered a few rounds of drinks, yet the waiter never wrote down their order. Zeigarnik was intrigued by this, and, after the bill was paid and the group had left the coffee house, she returned. On questioning the waiter, she found that he could no longer recall what drinks had been order by her group. One way of interpreting this is the brain works with open and closed ‘files’. Once the bill had been paid, the worker closed the file and forgot it. This has become known as the Zeigarnik effect (people tend to be twice more likely to remember things in open files than is closed ones).
You can use Zeigarnik effect to get started more quickly (and procrastinate less) by ‘opening your file’ on a subject early. The things that we normally procrastinate over are the big, difficult or creative tasks, but you can overcome this tendency by opening the file on a job a few days before you actually need to begin the work. In practice, this simply involves starting work on the problem for about 20 minutes, possibly in the form of a mind map. The leave your subconscious to work its magic; when you finally begin the task in earnest, your thinking and ideas will really flow.
8. Clear your head
I recently changed my life – well the performance of my computer anyway! It drives me crazy when my laptop starts to get slower and slower, freezing and crashing. So I wiped out the hard drive and reinstalled everything. In essence I cleansed the system of all the unwanted software and cookies. In doing this, I freed up the processor to focus all its power on what I actually want it to do. It’s now working perfectly again.
The brain work very similarly. We have a very limited processing power at any time. Any thoughts, worries or ideas that you’re holding into are reducing your processing speed. So don’t. I read David Allen’s book Getting things done and the things that made a real difference for me was this: create a brain dump. Find a way of getting things out of your head, of cleansing the system. For most people this means either capturing these things in a notebook or on their phone. There are three crucial elements to this. First, whatever you use to record ideas should always be with you. Don’t try to analyse or sort things as you capture them (because that’s distracting to you current task) – simply write them down. Third, make a habit of going through your brain dump list regularly (for me this is once a day). It’s amazing how liberating it is to be able to get stuff out of you head, with the confidence it will be dealt with.
9. Hold on a minute
Imagine every time you put your shoes on, you had to work out how to tie your shoe laces, as if it were for the first time. You wouldn’t achieve much. Fortunately, with most things, once we have learned how to do them, the process is submitted to memory and it becomes a simple ritual. This automation is one of the core capabilities of the brain. However, it can sometime leave us doing things ineffectively. As Daniel Khaneman brilliantly demonstrated in his book, Thinking fast and slow, mental processing has been split into System One (automatic, fast, intuitive, easy) and System Two (conscious, slow, rational and hard). When we are busy and stressed, we rely more strongly on System One automation, racing into the task following the normal pattern of activity.
How often have we wasted hours or weeks of work because we did not think things through before we started? It isn’t simply a question of planning; it’s also about re-creating. It’s about taking a moment to challenge the process, the purpose or the outcome before diving in. As an incredibly simple example of this, I recently realized I was spending hours a week writing proposal and reports for clients. I steadfastly refuse to write ‘standard’ reports because that goes against my business principles. So I took a minute to ask myself, ‘Is there any other way?’ The solution was obvious – once I took time to look for it: I changed my reports from Word documents to PowerPoint presentations; increased the visuals, and decreased the word count by about 80 per cent. Clients loved them, and I have saved hours of work.
So think about it, how could you take a minute and save hours?
10. Take a (good) break
We all know we should take a break now and then, but do some breaks make more of a difference than others?
There is an old saying, ‘a change is as good as a rest’; but research suggests ‘a change is a rest’. Breaks are costly if you are incredibly busy; they rob us of time when we have precious little to give. So, if you are going to take a break (and, I of course suggest you do!), make sure is a valuable one. Make it different to what you have been doing: scatter when you have been focused; be physical if you have been stuck in your head and on your chair; have a rambling chat if you have silently producing; and be careful about one more coffee if you’re already revved up!
11. Show yourself a little love
How do you do that? By consciously engaging in a self-care process. Self-care is any activity that we do deliberately in order to take care of our mental, emotional, and physical health. Although it’s a simple concept in theory, it’s something we very often overlook. Good self-care is key to improved mood and reduced anxiety. It’s also key to a good relationship with oneself and others.
Knowing what self-care is not, might be even more important. It is not something that we force ourselves to do, or something we don’t enjoy doing. As Agnes Wainman explained, self-care is “something that refuels us, rather than takes from us.” It’s a deliberate look and act on what you eat, how you sleep, how you relax, how you keep yourself fit or how you interact with the ones you love.
Self-care isn’t a selfish act either. It is not only about considering our needs; it is rather about knowing what we need to do in order to take care of ourselves, being subsequently, able to take care of others as well. That is, if I don’t take enough care of myself, I won’t be in the place to give to my loved ones either.
12. … and smile
Burnout is not just a fact, is an experience. We get into spirals of activity, we feel under pressure, so we rush, which make us feel under pressure… The final quick fix is simple: don’t take it all too seriously! Wear your life more lightly. There is ridiculousness to much in ourselves and in our lives. We notice this with startling clarity at times of major crisis, but we are blind to it for most of our lives. We see only the calamitous consequences of non-delivery in our immediate lives, and, as Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert has found, we see our possible future through the rosiest glasses. So, caught between immediate fear and future hope, we get deadly serious (and a little dull).
Why don’t you smile instead? Smiling is good for you: it reduces stress, lowers blood pressure and releases endorphin. You may live longer if you smile more. Yet only a third of adults smile more than 20 times a day (20 times less than children). No matter how much stuff you have to do, you may feel less busy if you smile :)
The easiest way to increase happiness is to control your use of time. So, promise me one thing: In 2020 you will find more time to do the things that you enjoy doing.