Insights for High Stress Professions
Do You Have Spoons For That?
Energy is a finite resource. The thing is, we don’t all start with the same amount, we don’t spend it at the same rate, and we recharge differently. We know that the harder we lean in (the more energy we spend), the more we need to recover. What we don’t necessarily know is how much we need to recovery. What we don’t usually know is how much energy someone else spent, and how much they need to recover.
To manage this conundrum, people with disabilities, chronic illness or chronic pain have created a metaphor using spoons to depict energy. Each day, you have a certain number of spoons. Each task (discrete tasks like work, cooking, etc. and emotional load of tasks like stress and frustration) cost a certain number of spoons. Days you are stressed, didn’t sleep well, are overloaded, sick or depressed, you start with fewer spoons than normal. You can push through and do more today by stealing spoons from tomorrow, but then you are starting tomorrow with fewer spoons.
For example, say you have 16 spoons each day. If you spend 16 spoons each day, you have “nothing left” at the end of the day. If you push through and spend 18 spoons today, you only have 14 spoons for tomorrow. If you are stressed, didn’t sleep well, are overloaded, sick or depressed, you start today with 12 spoons.
This is a simple metaphor that helps us understand so much. We have different starting points: I may have 16 spoons each day while you have 18 spoons or 14 spoons each day. We spend energy differently: getting dinner ready after a long day may cost me 1 spoon, while it costs you 2 spoons, or ½ spoon.
It also shows how we set ourselves up to crash when we push too hard too long. If I spent 18 of my 16 spoons today, I have 14 spoons tomorrow. If I spend 18 of my 14 spoons tomorrow, I have 10 spoons the next day. If I slow down and only spend 14 spoons the next day, I start the following day with 6 spoons. It would take several days of “having spoons left over” to get back up to having 16 spoons a day.
When we lean in, eventually we have to lean back. After all, we don’t get stronger when we lift weights, we get stronger when we rest after lifting weights. If we expect to keep going, to keep spending tomorrow’s spoons, we are going to crash.
What I love the most about this analogy is it gives a frame of reference for talking to others about your physical, mental and emotional bandwidth. When considering what you are asked to do, you can consider how many spoons it will take compared to how many spoons you have right now. You can say “I don’t have spoons for that.,” or your can say “I don’t have room on my plate for that right now.”
When looking at a team, this gives you a frame of reference to gauge each other’s physical, mental and emotional bandwidth. This can help a leader or a team allocate tasks better. Giving the task to the person that “always gets it done” might ignore the rate they are spending spoons. If something is going on in a team member’s personal life that’s making them start the day with fewer spoons, you can be mindful about how you allocate tasks.
It takes trust in the team and the leadership to have candid conversations about physical, mental and emotional bandwidth. As a leader, you can step up and model these conversations, and model what it looks like to take a knee and recover. Over time, this shows your team that it’s okay to do the same. It’s can prevent and reverse burnout and is better for the collective physical, mental and emotional bandwidth of the team to recover along the way; to not be in a spoon deficit.
#wellbeing #stressmanagement #diminishingreturns #team #energy
I first heard the term Inefficient Overwork from Allison Bishins, a business consultant in the Tacoma Area, who got it from a NYT article. I’ve thought about inefficient overwork and how it relates to procrastination. There are obvious and unproductive ways procrastination shows up, like social media or binging your favorite show when you should be doing something else, and there are sneaky “productive” ways procrastination shows up (see my blog post on this here). Sometimes procrastination shows up in other ways. It can show up as going down rabbit holes, or doing busywork.
Gayle Porter, an associate professor of management at the Rutgers School of Business, when asked about workaholics, said “They’re not looking for ways to be more efficient; they’re just looking for ways to always have more work to do.”
This rang true for me. There are things I put off because they really aren’t that important, but there are also things I put off for other reasons. While I put the bulk of the project off, I might do some things to make me feel better about putting it off. I’ve had to learn to examine what I’m doing because while I may call it productive procrastination, sometimes I’m subconsciously finding ways to make things harder.
I’ve had to come up with a way to categorize what I’m doing based on the impact of my efforts, not by how worthy the work feels in the moment. I’ve come to view these categories as “Pre-work” and “Busywork.”
Pre-work includes things I can do now that will streamline my efforts later. For example, if the task is writing a blog post, outlining my ideas now is something that will streamline the process of writing the article later. It will help me find relevant sources and come up with clearer examples when it comes time to write. I often use pre-work when I have some time to work on a task but I don’t have time to tackle the whole task right now.
Busywork is work for the sake of work. Busywork is spending countless amount of time looking for the “perfect” photo or quote for a blog article. Busywork is creating a chart or graphic organizer of a blog post idea after I already created an outline. Busywork is recopying my blog post schedule. Busywork is rewriting a blog post in my head after I have completed, reviewed and scheduled a post.
Here is how I tell the difference between pre-work and busywork. Pre-work is work I can do now to help make the work I need to do later go smoother. Busywork is work I can do now to put off doing something else. Every example I listed as busywork is further delaying writing the blog post I should be working on, while the pre-work example directly feeds into the quality of work.
Once I know something is busywork, I need to let it go. It's not serving a purpose. If something is pre-work, I get that work done and schedule when I will get to the meat of the task.
#busy #procrastination #productivity
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