Insights for High Stress Professions
Cybersecurity is a stressful professional field. An unrelenting workload, an ever changing landscape, and round-the-clock availability is a surefire recipe for high stress and burnout. It’s difficult to maintain your wellness as a priority in the face of all of these challenges.
That’s why I want to arm you with tips to create healthy work habits that are practical, powerful, and easy to fit into your already overloaded day. You are human, and that’s actually your greatest asset in this field. As a human, you have multidisciplinary expertise, intuition, and better communication skills. However, you don’t function at 100% when your batteries are running low.
I know: when the pressure is on and you have momentum you don’t want to stop. I know there’s an unrelenting workload, and it feels like you may never get caught up on it. I also know you will perform better if you take a break and reset yourself. The first thing you can do is learn to prioritize what’s on your desk.
1. Ruthlessly Prioritize Your Time and Tasks
If you don’t prioritize your time/tasks, they will be prioritized for you. So begin each day taking a few minutes to establish your priorities. What are the three most important things that need to happen that day? If these three things get done, then you know your day has been a success.
This is easier said than done, and this can have a big impact on your confidence, your focus, and your bandwidth.
But let’s not stop there; a decent amount of your job in cybersecurity may be putting out fires that weren’t blazing when you set your day's priorities, which throws off your ability to accomplish your priorities, or even prioritize at all. Some of these fires may be more important than the priorities you set for the day, and some may not be (even if they feel urgent). Either way, you can navigate this: Define what constitutes a priority. When a fire comes to your attention, is it truly a higher priority than your other tasks for that day? If so, see to the fire. If not, focus on the priorities you set for the day and save this fire for another day or another team member.
Here are some questions to help assess a priority. The more items you can easily answer ‘yes’ to, the higher the priority:
So, if one of your three items for the day is scored a three out of five, and a fire comes across your desk that’s a four out of five, you should see to the fire and allow one of your other priorities to be pushed down on your list. If this fire scores lower than the priorities you set for the day, then you should keep your focus on your priorities, rather than jumping to put out the fire.
2. Recognize Your Stress Indicators
Those of us in high stress professions, leadership roles, or with competing demands between work and home (read: most of us) have learned to ignore the indicators that our stress is rising. It’s like if we know we’re stressed, we will suddenly get overwhelmed and not be able to focus or perform, so we pretend we aren’t experiencing stress. Of course, this is the same as deciding the fuel gauge in our cars is a nuisance, so we ignore it, then seem surprised when we run out of gas.
Stress builds up until it makes us crash in some way (sleep, illness, injury, errors, fights, etc.), and only then do we concede that we may be “a little” stressed. However, ignoring our stress indicators doesn’t serve us because it’s easier to manage stress when it’s lower, just like it’s easier to calm down from feeling annoyed than pissed off, and calm down from feeling nervous than panicky. The fact of the matter is, we need to re-learn how to recognize how stress shows up for us to manage and prevent stress.
So, how does stress show up for you? Do you get irritable and impatient? Do you get headaches or an upset stomach? Do you crave certain snack foods? Do you get fidgety? Do you make more mistakes? If we learn to attend to our stress indicators, we can address our stress while it’s still manageable and small practices still have an impact. Have a plan for what you will do (breathing, meditation, walking, watching a funny video, etc) when you notice your stress levels rising. The rest of the healthy habits in this article are great strategies to try out when you recognize your stress level is rising.
3. Just Breathe.
Breathing is one of the most simple and most powerful things we can do to affect our physiology. Breathing can help us calm down, maintain our composure, or improve our focus. We can take a few deep breaths, breathe slowly for a few minutes, or do a full guided breathing practice.
There are many different styles of breathing practices out there, and ultimately you should use the one(s) that feel most comfortable and impactful for you. As we get stressed, our breathing gets more shallow and our inhales get longer than our exhales (which triggers fight or flight). Start with just breathing slowly, with your belly (not your shoulders).
Use the links below for some guided coaching on different breathing techniques so you can learn which are most effective for you:
4. Move Your Body
Our bodies are pretty amazing machines that put up with us sitting in weird positions and staring at screens all day long. One of the best things we can do is get more movement into our day. When we stay too still or are sedentary, our bodies get really tight. As a result, we develop trigger points and muscle imbalances, experience more pain, and have a greater risk for injury. Moving our bodies increases blood flow, aids digestion, helps us think more creatively, increases the distribution of oxygen and nutrients, clears stress hormones and waste, and releases endorphins.
Find ways to get the type of movement you like most throughout the day. You can get it in longer exercise sessions, and you can also get it in micro-activities that fit nicely into your day. These micro-activities can include:
Just get more movement throughout your day. You and your body will notice a difference.
5. Rest Your Eyes
Most, if not all of your work is in front of a computer screen. You can do things like change the brightness and use blue-blockers, but your eyes are still taking the strain of staring at a screen all day. It’s important to rest your eyes periodically. Do that by:
6. Get Outside
Most, if not all of your work takes place indoors. It’s even possible you’re in a room with no windows. Getting outside, especially in the sun, can improve mood, focus, concentration, and even lower anxiety and depression. These benefits come from a combination of fresh air, movement, sunlight, and simply changing the scenery. Getting outside also helps anchor you to the time of day which helps you maintain your circadian rhythm. When you’re disoriented about the time of day, your sleep will be negatively affected. Get outside by:
7. Eat Good Food
When you’re working on an intense project and building momentum, it’s easy to forget to do things like stop and eat. It’s also harder to make healthy food choices at that moment (especially if/when you’re limited in what is easily available, or often don’t realize you’re hungry until you’re starving). Also, when we wait until we are starving, then shove down a lot of food, we encourage a roller coaster experience for our blood sugar. The more we overload our system, the more intensely we may crash later.
To keep this at bay, we need to have readily available healthy snacks: fruit, nuts, granola bars (anything that’s ready to eat and not too messy or complicated). Eat at more regular intervals so your body knows it can process the food as you go. Bonus points for eating away from your workstation.
8. Leverage Technology and Gadgets
There are all sorts of tools and gadgets to help us get the most out of our focus and productivity, such as:
It’s easy to get caught up in the frenzy of your day and forget to engage in healthy work habits. But if you take the time to assess priorities and focus on recognizing stress indicators as well as instituting daily healthy habits, you will help prevent cybersecurity stress and be able to focus on succeeding in your field.
Trust is knowing someone has your best interests at heart, knowing someone cares about you as a person as well as your performance, knowing you can show up as you are, and knowing that person will be there when you need help.
Every action we do (or don’t do) impacts trust. Building trust means choosing behaviors that build trust rather than what is easy.
Trust is more than this warm fuzzy feeling we have with other people, it’s actually observable, measurable, and has a significant impact on team performance. In research conducted by Paul Zak, people at high-trust companies reported less stress (74% less), more energy, fewer sick days, more engagement at work, more life satisfaction, less burnout and 50% higher productivity than people at low-trust companies.
So how do we build it? We build it by showing up in the moments that matter (hint hint, they all matter, big and small). Here are some ways we can “show
Create Psychological Safety and Belonging Cues
In Dan Coyle’s book The Culture Code, he describes psychological safety and belonging cues as the source of trust.
Psychological safety is the feeling that we can ask questions, speak up, and take risks without being punished. Psychological safety can be built by setting clear expectations, inviting engagement and monitoring people’s responses to engagement. Keeping a tone of curiosity is key to these steps promoting safety. This is an area where our tone, body language and unspoken messages have to match our spoken messages. If you encourage people to come ask you questions, then get irritated or stressed when they do, they hear the message that you don’t mean what you say.
Belonging cues are actions, behaviors, body language and words that indicate to our people that they matter, they are seen, and they belong. Belonging cues include the energy invested in the exchange, valuing individuals, and signaling that the relationship will sustain in the future. This is being approachable, and making the other individual feel comfortable (as in they can show up as their full self and not have to but on an act to fit in).
Clear is Kind
In Dare to Lead, Brene Brown simplifies a strategy that builds trust, accountability and shared vulnerability: Clear is Kind, Unclear is Unkind.
Miscommunications happen. Notes get lost in the noise. Implied tasks aren’t always clear. We may think we are being nice and supportive and efficient by not addressing every detail, but it is actually unkind because it relies on assumptions and creates confusion.
Taking the time upfront to dig into expectations and increase clarity feels like it slows the process down, but how much time is wasted because teams didn’t have these important conversations up front? How much time is wasted thinking someone should have known an important factor, though it was never communicated to them?
Make space to talk through things. Ask clarifying questions where you think mistakes or misunderstandings may occur.
Brene Brown uses the phrase “Paint Done” with her team. It’s a code word in her team that means describe to me what the finished product looks like.” This is where one person is asked to describe what a finished product will look like (tasks, due outs, etc), and this allows both parties to check for understanding and identify where they aren’t on the same page.
Perhaps you read a recent blog post I wrote on Spoon Theory. I love spoon theory. I think it’s such a simple visual way of communicating physical, mental, collaborative, creative and emotional bandwidth. Our physical, mental and emotional energy reserves (bandwidth) are limited resources that must be replenished on a regular basis. Everything we do “costs” some amount of physical, mental or emotional energy.
As leaders and members of resilient teams we need to get in the habit of checking in with ourselves and with each other to see where we stand and what we need. Someone that has a stressful event going on at home cannot perform optimally at work because the stressful event is consuming a disproportionate amount of spoons (energy), leaving less for work.
As a leader, it’s important to normalize conversations around a person’s energy, bandwidth and ability on any given day. As a leader, you can facilitate recovery and redistribution of spoons. We can take this further by evaluating how we are distributing tasks. When assigning or distributing tasks for different projects, rather than thinking about how much time a task will take, ask who on your team has the spoons for this project? Or perhaps a certain task would cost one person many spoons, and another person minimal spoons.
This builds trust by creating shared vulnerability and increasing clarity. It gives a language to talk about what you need and trust that your team will respect and support you where you are.
Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead: Brave work. Tough conversations. Whole hearts. New York: Random House.
Coyle, D. (2018). The Culture Code: The Secrets Of Highly Successful Groups. New York: Bantam Books.
Zak, P. J. (2018). The neuroscience of high-trust organizations. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 70(1), 45–58. https://doi.org/10.1037/cpb0000076
Does it feel like your hair is on fire all day long? Do you tend to run late? Do you schedule things back to back? Does it feel your roles are bleeding over into each other? Do you get bombarded as soon as you walk in the door? It’s time to build in buffers.
A buffer is space between two things to keep them from colliding. Buffers give us breathing room, they give us space to deal with the unexpected things that come up, help us set boundaries, and allow us to dictate the flow of our day.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, or that you need more time to reset between events in your day, you need to build a buffer. You need to create space in your day.
I want to share three types of buffers. The most straightforward and common one we hear is a time buffer. Less common types of buffers include mental buffers and physical buffers.
If you schedule meetings or appointments back to back, you have no time to reflect on the last one before you jump into the next. There is no room for the first one to run late or take extra time to answer questions. There is no room for traffic or other unexpected things that often come up. There is no time for you to take some quick actions from the last meeting or appointment. There is no time for you to refocus and prepare for what’s next.
A time buffer is creating a block of time in your calendar after an event that allows you to decompress, recover, reset, refocus, put out fires, answer questions, hit traffic, etc., before you have to get going on the next thing in your calendar.
How long your buffer needs to be can change based on factors like whether an event tends to run over, how draining you think it will be, the bandwidth you have that day, etc. You should actually schedule a buffer into your calendar (especially if others have the ability to schedule things into your calendar). If you think it will take 20 minutes to get somewhere, you should plan to give yourself 30. We tend to estimate time based on best case scenario (as in no traffic or accidents or needing fuel), so giving ourselves 30 minutes allows for a more realistic commute window.
How you transition from one mental space to another. Think of a mental buffer as a warm-up or cool down. A mental buffer acknowledges that to do the next task, you need to be in a different mental or emotional space or state than you are in right now, so you need to transition to that state. This is like getting to work and it taking a while to “settle in” to work mode, or getting home and needing some space before your family jumps in and needs something your energy and attention.
To create a mental buffer, you need awareness, time and tools. You need the time it will take to implement tools to collect yourself and raise or lower your mental and emotional energy to match the situation you are about to face. For example, acknowledging that you aren’t in the right mental or emotional space to respond to and sensitive email or have a difficult conversation, so you deliberately decide to not tackle those tasks RIGHT NOW. Then, you deliberately choose to use a tool like rhythmic breathing, loving kindness meditation, mindfulness, or exercise, to deliberately change your mental and emotional energy to get where you need to be for the next task. You can’t have a tough conversation with someone if you are depleted or if you are on edge. Getting where you need to be mentally and emotionally to be present and engage effectively with others is a service to you and to the other person.
Physical buffers look and sound more like boundaries or containers and are intended to protect physical spaces and the mental energy around them. It could be keeping work and electronics out of your bedroom, creating physical buffers to protect sleep. It could be creating a specific area in your house where work or homework are done. This not only helps keep your home more organized, but it protects mental space. If you are trying to focus in the same physical space where you relax, sleep, or play, it will be hard to maintain focus because your brain associates that space with other things, not with work. A physical buffer can also be leaving your work station for lunch and breaks.
Some work from home experts go as far as to recommend separate devices (here, here, here, here, here and here). As in have a work computer and a personal computer, have a work phone and a personal phone. That way, when it’s time to put work away, you completely separate yourself from the work devices and only use home devices. You aren’t tempted to switch screens and check work email because it isn’t even set up on your personal device. I understand the logic here, and acknowledge that it’s not necessarily a practical or a feasible options (as I type from my both business and personal laptop and check social media on my both business and personal cell phone).
What can you do to create space in your day? What do you already do to create breathing room?
Welcome to my third post of the Building Resilient Teams series. To me, you need high trust and high engagement to have a resilient team trust and engagement are what build capacity for resilience. Adaptability, however, is how resilience is actually enabled. Adaptability is the ability to recognize when things aren’t working, change to new directions, come up with new ideas, and know when to double down and when to move on.
A team with a culture of adaptability knows how to do good work but also knows when it’s time to change the methods. A team with a culture of adaptability can predict and better prepare for challenges, take things in stride, and come up with innovative solutions that become future best practices.
Big Picture Focus
A team that lacks adaptability sticks to the way things have always been done, often because they are bogged down in details. When we are bogged down in details, we can’t see that a process is now outdated or redundant and we can’t see that a strategy will cause more problems than it will solve.
Maintaining a big picture focus is about two main things: staying focused on the mission or desired outcome and staying aligned with our values.
If we are focused on the mission or desired outcome, we may see that as long as we still get the job done, some of the steps along the way were redundant. If we are focused on the mission or desired outcome, we can come up with a new way to get there when an obstacle prevents us with following the plan we initially created.
If we stay aligned to our values we can be proud of each step we take along the way. If we stay aligned to our values, some decisions are made clearer.
Build a Learning Mindset
A learning mindset is curious. A learning mindset enjoys research and trial and error. A learning mindset makes mistakes, has failures and setbacks. When a learning mindset has mistakes, failures and setbacks, it mines those experiences for what they can learn so they can make better decisions next time.
It’s not about celebrating failures or trying to make us more comfortable with the feeling of failures. A learning mindset is about celebrating the learning that happened and acknowledging that learning is sometimes uncomfortable. We try. We make mistakes. We learn. We try better.
Check In With Yourself and Others
Checking in with yourself and with the members of your team is about seeing how you are doing in stressful situations or times where you or your team needs greater adaptability and seeing what you or your team needs to make that happen.
A burnt out, drained or disengaged team can’t see new opportunities or strategies. Over-reliance on certain team members adaptability can burn them out. This is about using your resources well.
When we get in a rhythm, we sometimes forget to look up and look around. What tools does you or your team need? What skills do they need to learn? What obstacles are they having that are avoidable? Are there problems that some team members solved but didn’t share with other team members?
Make this a regular thing. Build the habit so you and your team are comfortable speaking up if they have unmet needs that hinder their performance and adaptability.
Engagement has been a huge buzzword for the past several years in the business world. There are statistics showing high engagement is correlated with lower absenteeism, higher retention, higher safety records, higher quality records, higher customer satisfaction, and higher productivity and profitability. Employers stand to reduce costs of healthcare, lost work or productivity, turnover and recruiting, and increase profits and customer retention. Check out an infographic on the ROI of employee engagement here.
There are different ways to measure engagement, and there are different ways to approach improving engagement. In this post, I want to focus on ways to improve engagement in terms of how well a team utilizes internal resources and promotes sustainability; how employees lean in to their work at a sustainable pace, and how they prioritize recovery to maintain health and productivity.
What is rewarded?
In most behavior change models, there is some sort of reward (intrinsic or extrinsic) for desired behaviors; we wan to reinforce what we want to see. Each workplace has a culture of behaviors that are rewarded, and behaviors that are discouraged. I say culture of behaviors because it doesn’t really matter what is written in policy manuals, there are certain things that seem okay, normal, or preferred in a certain workplace, and things that aren’t. These things send powerful unspoken messages to the team members and can cause discord, confusion, and disengagement. For example, it may be stated that work-life balance is a priority on the team, but if team members are praised for putting in overtime or always being available, the team receives the message that 24/7 commitment is expected over work-life balance.
Here are some examples of common workplace behaviors. Which behaviors are rewarded (formally or informally) on your team?
It’s a time to rally (or it isn’t)
This one is huge! In our jobs and in our lives, there are projects, disasters and events where it’s a time to rally. By rally, I mean it’s a time to dive in and put in over 100% effort and rally all of your resources to get this job done or manage this crisis. Intense effort, focus and resources are vital to dealing with this situation.
The thing is, this should actually be a small percentage of our lives and workloads. Not every situation a time to rally. At my last job, we were a high performing team that cared deeply about our mission to help Soldiers build resilience and performance. We were also burning out. A big factor in many team members burning out was an inability to discern when it was a time to rally (all out effort) and when it wasn’t, and we did this at a cost to our wellbeing.
Now let me clarify something before going any further. If it’s not a time to rally, it doesn’t mean it’s a time to slack off or half-ass a job. When it’s not a time to rally, continue to do good work at a sustainable pace that’s mindful of yours and others resources. If it’s a time to rally, it’s a time for all out sprint efforts.
The thing about sprint efforts is they are short, intense bouts of effort. If you watch sprint-based athletic events, you see athletes put in all out effort. Then you see them hunched over, sucking wind, focusing on recovery. Sprinting isn’t a sustainable pace. You can’t continue sprinting indefinitely, and you need time to replenish your energy systems before you can sprint again.
Look at the work that you do and create a ranking system. Some types of work on that list are a time to rally and need that all out effort. Some types of work on that list just aren’t. Also, the things that make it to the “time to rally” list should be less than 10% of the workload.
The most important thing to factor in when it’s a time to rally is recovery. After that rally period, we need to focus on replenishing the energy and resources we spent during that rally period because we depleted them. We can’t go from rally/spring speed to normal speed and expect to keep going.
Employees with high engagement know what is expected of them, and they have the resources and tools they need to do their job. These are critical factors in engagement. Similar to we can’t be in rally/sprint mode all the time and we need to recover, we need predictable rhythms in the workload. We can’t keep putting all the hard projects on the same people, we can’t sustain top speed, and we need to build in periods of recovery (beyond weekends and vacation time).
A way the United States Army did this is by creating RAG training cycles. RAG stands for Red Amber Green. Each training cycle was color coded, and had certain expectations of training, pace, readiness and recovery built in. Each unit rotates through these training cycles on a predictable timeline. Leaders can look ahead at their training calendar and see which cycle they will be in at a given point of time, and plan their training and efforts accordingly.
Green cycle was a period where a unit was ready to deploy. This meant they were fully trained and equipped and ready to deploy to a combat zone to complete their mission. Soldiers put in long hours, the mission always came first, and emphasis was put on things that enabled them to continue at this pace.
Red cycle was a period where the unit was in recovery mode. They had come off a deployment. Emphasis is put on recovery, health and wellness, and reintegrating back into the family. Soldiers may have appointments and show up for formations, but they aren’t kept at work for long hours so they can focus on other things.
Amber cycle is an in-between period. Soldiers are gearing up for green cycle by focusing on building and refining their mission-specific skills and correcting any deficits. Soldiers are putting in regular hours (more hours than red cycle but fewer hours than green cycle).
Here’s something I find neat about RAG cycles: they can be staggered over different units. One unit may be in green cycle while another is in red cycle. This means at any given point in time, you have one unit that is green, or good to go and ready to deploy, you have one unit that is amber, or actively involved in training and can be a “backup” for the green unit, and you have one unit that is red, or focused on recovery and not able to be called up right now.
If you lead a team, different individuals can be in different cycles at a given time. This allows for individuals to prioritize recovery after those rally/sprint projects because other team members can take on projects.
If you lead a team of teams, you can stagger teams so each team knows when their busy season will be an when their recovery season will be.
Headquarters, Department of the Army. (2018). Training (ADP 7-0). Retrieved from https://armypubs.army.mil/epubs/DR_pubs/DR_a/pdf/web/ARN12051_ADP%207-0%20FINAL%20WEB.pdf
#engagement #resilience #ResilientTeams #team
Resilience is more than just a buzzword. Resilience is also more than just being able to continue carrying on. Resilience is about the ability to grow from tough experiences, to bounce back effectively after setbacks, and come together to stay strong when facing challenges.
Resilience in teams is about a team’s ability to navigate challenges, to maintain health and abilities of the team members, and to collectively recover from setbacks. There are clear differences between resilient teams and non-resilient teams in terms of what they do and how they handle warning signs, how they address chronic issues, and how they follow through after challenges.
Why is resilience important in teams? According to organizational psychologist Karlyn Borysenko, “a team that demonstrates resilience will produce better results over an extended period than a group that is not resilient because they are invested in the mission of the organization, able to adapt in the face of a challenge and support each other to achieve their mutual success.”
This is great! We want resilient teams. They will perform better, come up with more creative solutions to challenges, keep going and recover well from setbacks. But how do we get there? Resilience in individuals is about skill building providing individuals with the tools they need in order to be resilient. Resilience in teams is about changing the culture. Changing the culture creates the environment and provides the resources that allows individuals to use the tools that make them resilient, and the team to grow.
There are three cultural shifts we need to make in order to build resilient teams. We need to build a culture of engagement, a culture of adaptability and a culture of trust.
A culture of engagement is about passion and commitment to the work and to the team. A culture of engagement is also about moving at a sustainable pace; knowing what is expected of you, knowing you have the energy and resources to get it done, and having the ability to properly recover to maintain health and productivity.
A culture of adaptability is about handling change. A culture of adaptability is a culture where we take risks, make mistakes and learn from them, a culture where we anticipate challenges and change tactics to meet those challenges. It is also a culture where we can shift roles and workload based on individual and team needs.
A culture of trust is the foundation of everything else. A culture of trust is about knowing all individuals on the team are about the mission while having the best interests of each individual at heart. A culture of trust is about a team where each individual, with all their skills and differences belongs and has what they need (tangible and intangible) to get the job done.
Stay tuned for my next few blog posts where I share some tools for building cultures of engagement, adaptability and trust.
Alliger, G. (2015). Team resilience: How teams flourish under pressure. Organizational Dynamics, (44), 176–184.
Borysenko, K. (2019, January 2). Why Team Resilience Is The New Employee Engagement. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/karlynborysenko/2018/12/27/why-team-resilience-is-the-new-employee-engagement/#7189cbc45176
Davis-Laack, P., & Westfahl, S. (2019, June 17). 5 things that resilient teams do differently. Retrieved from https://www.fastcompany.com/90364553/5-things-that-resilient-teams-do-differently
#resilience #team #ResilientTeams
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
When something is a priority, it’s important. It’s protected. It should be done or thought about before other things. Also, when everything is a priority, nothing is.
The thing is, depending on how you classify your priorities, higher priorities might be based on someone else’s expectations, consequences, importance to your daily life, importance to your larger goals and purpose, or deadlines. In the absence of clear criteria, we tend to use urgency and priority synonymously. The more urgent something is, the higher priority it is, but when urgency controls your priorities, you spend most of your time putting out fires.
Urgency is pretty clear. When something is urgent, it is time sensitive or has a pressing deadline. If not, it’s not urgent. Importance is less clear, that is, what makes something important or not important isn’t as obvious as a pressing deadline.
Let’s explore some ways to look at what’s important. If something is important, it adds value to your life. It contributes to your passion or purpose, or it betters your life or the life of those you care about. If something is important, there are consequences if you don’t take action.
The thing is, when something is really important, we tend to know about it and can plan things around it. This means we can use our time well and give important things the time they truly deserve. This will keep us from spending our time putting out fires that don’t truly require our time and attention.
Colonel Blum wrote a widely respected and distributed article about the difference between important and urgent, and looking back at his career, what he would have done differently. Something is important if you can say yes to the following three criteria:
One way to balance urgent versus important tasks is to use the Eisenhower Matrix (check out free worksheet here). Using urgent and important, we can create four quadrants: Urgent and Important, Urgent and Not Important, Not Urgent and Important, and Not Urgent and Not Important. Once things are divided into the quadrants, then the quadrants tell you how to approach these tasks.
Another way to think about prioritizing is to think of Priorities and priorities and how they nest together. P-Priorities are the big picture things you want in your life and for those in your life. How you want to feel, what sort of life you want to live, the things in your life you don’t want to compromise. p-priorities are the ankle-biter things that come up on a regular basis that need attention but may or may not move you toward the P-Priorities. The p-priorities can be established for the day or for the week. Knowing your P-priorities helps you respond to what’s really important when things pop up and vie for your attention.
When examining opportunities, determine if these opportunities or tasks support your P-Priorities. When looking at the things filling your plate, determine how well the p-priorities feed or serve the P-Priorities. Look at your day’s priorities, do they help serve this week’s priorities? Do this week’s priorities support this month’s priorities? This year’s priorities? If your day’s or week’s priorities don’t nest into or feed your month’s or year’s priorities, then it’s probably just busywork and not helping you life the life you want.
#priority #timemanagement #goals #values
To manage your time well, you need to get really good at protecting your time from things that aren’t as important. A way to protect your time is to create time blocks. These are designated slots of time in your schedule that are allocate for specific tasks.
This works because we tend to protect things that are scheduled into our calendars by not scheduling other things to occur in the same time window, and limiting multitasking. These time blocks tend to be protected for things like appointments, meetings, transportation, and family time. The time that isn’t already dedicated to something can look like free time when you glance at your calendar, but we know better. There are things we need to work on, tasks we need to accomplish. We need to protect time for those too. Say you are the lead on a project. Others might see you as “available” and come ask questions. It’s important they do this, but it also prevents you from getting your tasks done. If you block time in your calendar to get your stuff done, others know you aren’t available right now and can come at another time. This also helps protect you if someone else can schedule your time. If they see white space, they assume you are available; if they see time blocked out to work on something, they know you aren’t available.
What are the things you need to get done but never seem to make the time to complete? What are the things you aren’t able to get done because others assume you are available to help them? These can be work related things, but they don’t have to be. Time blocking is just blocking out time in your calendar for what needs done. If it’s the first 30 minutes of the day for checking email, if it’s time at lunch to eat away from your desk, if it’s exercising in the evening, if it’s protecting family dinner time, if it’s a time of day you no longer check your phone or email, it can be blocked out in your day so you (and others) plan around it.
Time blocking simply protects your time for a particular thing, but it doesn’t tell you how you spend that window of time. To be efficient and effective in our time blocks, it can be helpful to use a strategy called power hours. Power Hours structure how we spend our time and help us get the most out of our limited focus, build in recovery, and accounts for “warming up” to the task and common distractions.
We have a limited ability to focus intensely on one task. With training, we can get up to about 90 minutes, but most of us are at about 15-30 minutes of focus or concentration. Once our focus is broken, it takes 5-15 minutes to get back to the level of focus we had before.
Power hours help ease us into the work we need to get done instead of expecting us to go from flow and focus on one thing to flow and focus on something different. A power hour consists of 3 phases.
Phase 1: Warm Up (5-15 minutes)
In this phase, we are “warming ourselves up” to the task and the focus it will take. We establish our goals or what needs to get done, we gather necessary materials and we reduce distractions. Ways we can reduce distraction include filling our water or coffee, silencing our devices, going to the restroom, clearing the desk, etc.
Phase 2: Intense Focus or Work (30-40 minutes)
In this phase, we are getting work done according to the plan we created. If we have a small distraction, we bring ourselves back to the task at hand. If we have a large distraction, it may be better to see to the distraction and restart the power hour once you’ve dealt with the distraction. This time window is flexible based on your ability to maintain intense focus. If you can focus without interruption or distraction for 15 minutes, then phase 2 will last about 15 minutes. If you have trained your ability to focus without interruption for 90 minutes, then phase 2 will last about 90 minutes.
Phase 3: Reflect and Recovery (15 minutes)
In this phase, take a few minutes to reflect or review what you accomplished. (What did you get done? Did you plan your work well? Did you manage your distractions well?) Then you do something to recover. Take a walk, get a snack, refill your drink, watch a funny video. Get up from your chair and do something to let your brain shift gears.
If you have 3 hours blocked for a particular task or project, you can break it into 2-3 power hours based on your ability to maintain intense focus on that task. If you’re on a roll and want to stay in phase 2, it’s up to you. If you stay in phase 2, you can maintain momentum, but will likely be depleted when you finish. If you move to phase 3, you can recover some energy and brainpower and pause to look at the big picture, then do an abbreviated phase 1 before getting back into a groove in phase 2. You will lose some momentum, but you’ll check in on the big picture and manage your energy and brainpower better throughout the day.
A Power Hour is adapted from a study skills strategy taught to cadets at United States Military Academy.
#calendar #timemanagement #priority #powerhour
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