After the last two years of ongoing uncertainty, more and more people are being affected by burnout. Labelled as an occupational phenomenon by the World Health Organisation, burnout is so important to be aware of and to know how to avoid.
When you’re caught up in a rushing lifestyle and constantly feel the pressure of a never-ending to-do list, the strategies below will help you reclaim some time and freedom to restore balance.
Firstly, let’s recap the three red flags of burnout:
1. Physical Exhaustion.
This is where you’re not just tired from time to time, but feel a deep ongoing lethargy. Even after a break away you still feel exhausted. It’s like your battery reserves aren’t able to recharge.
2. Cynicism / Depersonalisation.
This is where you become increasingly detached and disengaged from your work. You find it difficult to derive the pleasure you once did or feel your work futile. You feel frustrated, cynical, and disconnected from others and want to withdraw.
3. Reduced Professional Efficacy / Lack of Achievement.
This is where you notice your productivity dropping and even though you keep trying to “work harder” you feel increasingly ineffective. It creates a low sense of morale and sense that you’re not coping despite your best efforts.
Rather than ignoring the signals, ‘hitting the wall’ and having to take six-months off just to recover, it’s vital to protect your own time and energy with powerful boundaries so you don’t head down that slippery slope.
1. Be busy on the right things (and let go of the pebbles and sand)
The rocks in the jar analogy explains that when you fill a jar with rocks, pebbles and sand, that it’s critical to put the rocks in first, otherwise there’s no way you’ll get ever all the rocks in.
This applies on a macro level – what are the rocks in your life? It also applies on a micro level – what are the rocks in your day?
If you don’t have clarity on your most important tasks, you can fritter away valuable time on pebbles and sand (these are often urgent little tasks that somehow seem more important than they really are) which is what causes a sense of overwhelm.
If you notice that you’re always “busy”, but are creating time confetti, a term coined by Brigid Schulte, where you shred your time into such small pieces it’s virtually useless, you need to set boundaries to protect solid blocks of time so you can be productive and feel that sense of achievement.
When you plan your week, be sure to identify what are the top three goals for the week and rather than just have them on your “to do list”, it’s essential to schedule them into your diary as an appointment, to block out that time.
If it’s scheduled, it happens.
Also, If you have a highly responsive role, constant interruptions or additional tasks being given to you, schedule extra time into each day for this. Do a time audit to see how many hours of responsive (but important) work you typically have and leave appropriate windows available in your day.
2. Sign off the day with your top five
Everyone has some sort of “to-do list” but few people use them effectively. Two keys to manage your time well are to create your list at the end of the day and to ensure you prioritise your list.
Set a recurring reminder to prompt you five minutes before finish time to reflect back on the day and make your list for tomorrow. Then prioritise the top five things on your list, numbering them 1-5. It’s rarely the first thing you write on your list that is truly the most important.
I like to do this onto an A6 lined post-it note, adding numbers beside each item, I then stick it on top of my laptop.
As it’s the first thing I see each morning, it becomes an external reminder to focus on the rocks rather than diving into emails, which are usually other people’s priorities.
The human brain is designed to distract you and make you want to tick off the quick, fun and easy tasks first, but if you can identify the rocks and have them down in black and white it makes a huge difference to your day and prevents you shredding your time into tiny, useless pieces.
3. Delegate / Systemise / Negotiate
If you’re overloaded and overworked, you need to either delegate, systemise or negotiate.
Yes, even if you know you’re the best person to do the task, if someone else can do it 70% as well as you can, it is worth handing over (and definitely worth the time delegate it correctly).
If you don’t have anyone to delegate to, systemise as much as you can and learn how to proactively manage your workload when being delegated to. It’s critical to develop positive, assertive communication skills so that when your boss asks you add something to your plate you can turn around and say “Yes, I can do that for you, and I already have these four other projects to complete this week, which one would you like me not to do?” or “which ones are the priorities for you?”
Often leaders are unaware of total workloads or how many things you’re juggling, so it’s vital to get your manager to help prioritise things and negotiate realistic timeframes, maintaining positive, open communication.
If you’re a solo entrepreneur, it can be tricky getting past the tipping point of the ‘doing everything yourself’ phase, but creating systems and procedures and delegating these to others are critical to both your business growth and your wellbeing.
If you end up burnt out, you might not have a business at all. You can start by outsourcing tasks part time on a contract basis so you can grow it over time.
4. Choose your personal policies wisely.
Being able to say ‘no’ to things that aren’t a priority is perhaps the biggest tool in your toolkit. Get good at being able to confidently and politely say “No” when you’re asked to something that doesn’t fit with your priorities.
It all comes back to what are the rocks in your jar.
When you know what’s important you can create personal policies such as “Between 5-8pm is family time”, “I don’t respond to emails on the weekend unless it’s an emergency” or “I always get outdoors for a break in the middle of the day.”
Having a personal policy sends a clear message to others that you value your time and yourself. It shows people that you’re not prepared to drown in the sand (and set’s the example, inviting them to do the same as well.)
5. Disconnect to reconnect
Technology has given us more flexibility than ever, but rather than saving us time, it’s created a constantly connected culture where emails, negative news, phone calls and information overload follow us everywhere we go.
We have to be intentional to switch off from this. Choose to wield the double edged sword of technology well.
Leverage it, for example taking dictaphone notes during walk and talk meetings, but also set clear boundaries so you can be present and really connect with the people in your life – both your colleagues and family/friends.
Multiple studies demonstrate the clear links between social media use and heightened depression and anxiety. If relevant, consider removing apps from your phone, setting digital limits on the use of apps that you know don’t add to your life or switch your household wi-fi off at a set time in the evening. Because technology is so addictive, we need external reminders to help us mange it.
Tony Gaskins says “You teach people how to treat you by what you allow, what you stop, and what you reinforce.”
Avoid responding to emails after hours, or if you do, use the ‘delay delivery’ function so you’re not creating an expectation for others to respond late at night. Set realistic rules for yourself and stick to them (e.g. phone on airplane mode from 6-8pm and 9pm-7am, charge your phone in the living room, go email free all day Saturday etc.) There is no right or wrong, simply experiment and create the rules that work for you.
Remember that your time is yours, but only if you protect it.
For more strategies to set boundaries to avoid burnout, check out PART ONE of this article here
Thanks for reading this article, I appreciate your time.
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