Deep Thoughts

A better way to manage your time for creativity, productivity and avoiding burnout

It’s hard to ignore that burnout is on a rapid rise, even before the pandemic people were struggling with increased pressures to deliver more. And, even now in the thick of the pandemic, burnout has accelerated.

From Zoom fatigue, pandemic doom, lack of human connection and loss of purpose. Much is fuelling the alarming rate at which many of us are currently burning out.

In the fall of 2020, Harvard Business Review surveyed over 1500 people from 46 countries in different sectors to understand the state of burnout and wellbeing during the pandemic.

What did they learn? Burnout has become a global problem accelerated by the pandemic. Their stats backed this up:

  • 89% of respondents said their work life was getting worse.
  • 85% said their well-being had declined.
  • 56% said their job demands had increased.
  • 62% of the people who were struggling to manage their workloads had experienced burnout “often” or “extremely often” in the previous three months.
  • 57% of employees felt that the pandemic had a “large effect on” or “completely dominated” their work.
  • 55% of all respondents didn’t feel that they had been able to balance their home and work life — with 53% specifically citing homeschooling.
  • 25% felt unable to maintain a strong connection with family, 39% with colleagues, and 50% with friends.
  • Only 21% rated their well-being as “good,” and a mere 2% rated it as “excellent.”

They also discovered that the millennial generation were most affected by burnout. With the highest levels of burnout from all groups, this was fueled by:

  • Less autonomy at work
  • Lower seniority
  • Greater financial stressors 
  • Feelings of loneliness

So, the data is clear, we’re reaching peak burnout for lots of reasons.

But, one of the main reasons that I’ve seen and experienced myself is from working more hours than ever before, poor scheduling of time and lack of disconnection from work and home.

In this article, I’m going to share an approach to help solve these 3 problems. First off, we have to recognise we cannot be 100% all of the time. No one can give 100% all day everyday, and anyone that does think they do is either completely mad or already burned out several times over.

From working in large scale, fast paced and delivery focused industries across my career. I’ve noticed a common thing that most people struggle with, that is managing time effectively to protect your wellbeing, enable creativity and deliver output.

Sadly, too many people think work is about meetings and that lots of meetings = good work. When in reality meetings usually don’t matter and they’re very rarely where work ever gets done.

Let’s unpack what is perhaps an average corporate worker’s working week and how their time is typically spent across 40 hours.

Ok, I’m making a lot of sweeping assumptions with this image but let’s be honest, most of us waste way too much time in unproductive and unnecessary meetings.

As a result of this, you can see that many of us spend very little time on letting ourselves be creative to actually deliver any output, plus we forget about wellbeing altogether. For some of you, this might be an all too familiar way of living right now.

Let’s explore how we could change that.

Here we can see the typical 5-day working week, and for the purposes of this example let’s say it’s a 40hr week. I know lots of us do way more than this but let’s say, this is what we should be doing.

In my own world (and keep in mind that my own role is very creative focused in building products), I break down my tasks distribution across the week into 5 areas:

  1. Focus/Creative sessions
  2. Meetings
  3. Admin
  4. Wellbeing
  5. Flexible time/free choice of tasks

You might have less or more tasks to distribute across the week but let’s use this example to illustrate how this can work.

In addition to the distribution of tasks, I’ve also provided my energy distribution aka, how much effort/energy I allocate to a task on a given day. I like to break my tasks in a light vs heavy fashion.

Light = tasks that are mostly a series of quick actions and require 60% of my effort.

Heavy = tasks that are detailed, need a lot of focus and require my mental cognition to be on point. I assign these as 80% + effort/energy demanding tasks.

Why do I do this you may ask? Because it allows me to manage my energy throughout the days and week. No one can go 100% on everything all of the time. It’s not possible or healthy for any of us, and it’s the mentality that lands you on the quickest route to burnout.

So, it pays to understand how and when you need to ramp up and down on your energy/effort demands for certain tasks.

This strategy is about long term success over your entire career. Not ultra performance for a few weeks and then spending months and years in recovery. It just doesn’t work that way.

Let’s walk through how this could all come together in a typical working week. Below is an example of an average week for me, including the distribution of tasks across a 40hr week and the energy distribution attached to each too.

Remember, I’m not saying this is what your schedule should look like. I’m in a creative focused role, so this is what works best for me, mostly. To help bring this to life even more, I’ve included the percentage of time I allocate to each task over the course of a 8hr day too.

A couple of things to note here:

  • I always start my week with simple and less time consuming tasks to set up my mentality for the next 5 days.
  • Most heavy (80%) effort/energy tasks are positioned in the afternoon as that’s what works best for my own personal cognitive functioning, and the ability for my mind to focus and build stuff.
  • I schedule wellbeing breaks everyday – whether it’s a walk, workout, break from a screen or stuffing myself with food. What’s important is that I’m managing my energy throughout the week to make sure I can do my best work.
  • I schedule x2 sessions of flex/free choice which I use to catch-up on other tasks or re-prioritise if something else has come my way.

Not all my weeks are perfectly scheduled out like this but they all follow this basic system of task, time and energy distribution.

This means, in any given week, my time distributed across a 40hr 5-day week, looks a little like this.

What’s important to me, is that most of my time is carved out for delivery aka actually building stuff. For me, my time invested in meetings is still too high and doing an activity like this can enable you to figure out where all those minutes and hours are being spent.

Time is the most precious non-renewable resource we have, so we must protect it at all costs.

How you can use this content

  1. Map out your week to discover the main tasks distributed across your average week, how much time you need to invest in them and the energy/effort demands of each task.
  1. If you see a schedule staring back at you with lots of meetings and no time for thinking, creativity or actually producing stuff then this is inefficient – work to make this better.
  1. Use the above as a foundation of principles you can tailor to what works best for you. Perhaps you need more creative sessions, perhaps less. What matters is that you recognise what are the most common tasks you partake in across a week and how you schedule these to align with your energy.

The ultimate goal of all of this is to better manage your time, energy and ability to do your best work without burning out.

Some ideas that’ll help you better manage your time

Use an important/urgent decision making tool to make better choices with task management, and avoid procrastinating over when to start what. Be proactive, not reactive.

Learn how to say no to people and tasks that will derail and steal your time.

Take breaks between tasks, little and often every 90mins – step back, refocus with a walk (or something to get you moving) and re-engage.

Upskill your feedback skills so you can clearly communicate to others when you’ll be focusing on which task and why. This also helps with negotiating deadlines.

Interesting resources

The philosophy that inspired this approach from workout coach Mark Wildman and his tetris of training video series for kettlebell training programming.

Harvard Business Review: Beyond Burned Out article containing the facts and figures at the beginning of this deep thought.

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