Are you burnt out AND struggling to complete your work on time? These are dangerous problems that seem opposing. They are both solved with one easy solution. I close my laptop at 5 pm every day.
The COVID-19 lockdown brings time management traps to light. With most of daily life shut down, it is easy to work any hour of any day. This sounds amazing, but it is a false gift that leads to the scary place of burnout without accomplishment.
First trap, if we work most hours, we will burn out. Our brains are muscles, and they will tire, which leads to mistakes and losing the motivation for work.
Second trap, if you know you can work all day long, it is too easy to work on low priority tasks before high priority tasks. You falsely think you have plenty of time to get to the important stuff. Sometimes we subconsciously put off the crucial work because it is harder than the trivial tasks. Completing something easy gives a false sense of accomplishment when doing a critical job is what is needed.
These two dangers breed into severe problems when we spend 12 hours working on low priority junk, and get burnt out before we got the critical work done.
Elixir out of poison:
This article isn’t just a manager’s motivational speech. I learned this skill through a painful and scary year, where I almost had to give up work permanently.
I was poisoned last year during a medical procedure. This attack on my health severely limited my ability to work for months. A year later, I’m thankful for all of I learned and grew from the experience. One of the most valuable lessons was how to prioritize my work.
During the worst of the sickness on any given day, I had no idea if I could work and, if so, for how long. I was fortunate that my company and boss were flexible and that I had lots of PTO.
Every morning, I woke up with the worst feeling hangover I can imagine. My brain was buzzing in total fog with sharp pain. I never knew if my brain would wake up. Could I go to work, or would I be stuck on the couch all day? My wife and I figured out a morning sobriety test. I would take my medicine and sit and have coffee and sometimes even play video games to stimulate my brain. After an hour or two, my wife would make the call if I were safe to drive. We knew if I could drive, then by the time I made it work, I would be able to be productive. But I never knew how long. I usually had about 6 hours until fatigue set in, and I would need to jump in the car and get home.
These limited and unpredictable working hours gave me an advanced degree in priority management. I didn’t know how long my workday would last, and I never knew when I next would be in the office. This uncertainty forced me to only work on the most critical tasks.
I quickly learned how to find critical tasks. Jumping on the first shiny object could lead to something essential, not getting done. If I spend 3 hours in email and 3 hours in stupid meetings, my entire working day is wasted without providing value.
I quickly learned to drop all non-productive work and useless conversations. I had no choice but to learn to work efficiently and effectively. Being productive at work turned into a tremendous medicine. It reminded me that I had value, and it motivated me to get better. I needed to keep working and find ways to be productive, given limited time and energy.
Handling email was a critical lesson. It turns out browsing my email looking for the 20% that must be read and the 10% that need responses takes almost no time. Quickly scanning my email for something important takes seconds. Most of the emails that require attention could be addressed in less than 2 minutes. I learned the discipline to immediately take care of something that takes less than 5 minutes to complete.
Training, expense reports, and timesheets are tasks I hate, but it turns out they are easy and require almost no energy. Even though they don’t seem valuable, they are necessary – no reason to delay. I didn’t have time to wait since I didn’t know the next time I would be back in the office. I no longer waste time writing these tasks on todo lists or carrying the emotional burden of leaving them incomplete. Now, I just do them.
Efficiently getting through the useless pieces of work, allows the time and energy to accomplish meaningful results without having to overextend.
Another more subtle learning was that I didn’t need to spend much time on strategy, planning, or todo lists. Most of the time, it is quite apparent the three most critical tasks. There is no need to spend time strategizing when it is obvious what needs to get done. Cutting out the planing saves mental energy. Do the most important thing first and do the minimal but necessary work to drive it to a conclusion — this harsh but straightforward way of working allowed me to thrive during these three months of uncertainty.
I discovered I enjoyed my work a lot more during this poisoning. I only took-on the highest value and highest impact tasks, and I made sure I completed them. Dropping the non-value tasks and energy-sucking meetings gave the space for making progress despite my limited availability. Hyper focused priority management makes me feel more productive and valuable.
I was within days of needing to go on disability. I was within one day of no more PTO. But just in time, I found the treatments I needed. I was eventually able to get back to full speed.
This extreme training ground showed me how to complete 45 hours of work during an unpredictable 30 hours. I kept these new skills and mindsets of being a lot more productive. Now I have the extra time and energy to do even more in-depth and impactful work during reasonable working hours.
I learned that intentionally limiting your work hours will force priorities, better decisions, more focus, and bring more fun to work since you are working on what truly matters.
For one week, boot-up and shut-down your computer at the same time every day. What does it feel like to end your day with tasks undone? Do these feelings help prioritize the next day? After one week, observe how, with the limited time, you naturally migrate to the essential work.