Thursday, May 7, 2020

How to Avoid Burnouts While Working at Home


The COVID-19 Pandemic’s physical distancing has meant a lot of knowledge workers (people using a computer to get work done) have relocated to home or some other isolated location.

But how are you coping with the rapid shift? What are you doing to ensure you’re not overworking?

Some of you already know that I’ve spent the last 12 years working from home, with the last seven having homeschooled kids. It’s been a learning process and something that took time to figure out. I know some of you were thrown into this and have had to learn quickly.

I’m hoping I can help with sharing what’s worked for me to ensure I don’t work too much, while still getting a lot done and keeping sane.

I suppose that last point is arguable!

I’m sure you already know the importance of creating a routine (skilledatlife link). In the words of Aristotle, “Excellence is not an act, but a habit”. So, my routine is meant to create habits that create virtuous cycles (wikipedia link).

So, here’s an outline of my daily routine:
  1. Start the Day Right
  2. Do the Most Meaningful Work First
  3. Get Fit, then Get It Done
  4. Get Personal
Having this routine doesn’t mean I’m inflexible. If an urgent and important matter comes up, I take care of it. My goal for the routine is to get 20% of all activities done that are the most valuable, assuming that 20% gives me 80% of the benefits for achieving what I want (the Pareto Principle - Wikipedia link).

The key takeaway from the routine is that I’m not working back to back. I’ve intentionally even added 5 to 10 minute breaks between each segment of work (40 to 50 minute blocks). The day has physical activities interspersed with mental ones to not only refresh, but give myself time to digest information.

Below’s the breakdown of the routine.

Start the Day Right

Tim Ferriss (link to his blog) of The 4-Hour Work Week (Amazon link) has a great line about having a rough morning and feeling the weight of all that you need to get done: “Sometimes, you think you have to figure out your life’s purpose, but you really just need some macadamia nuts and a cold f%#?ing shower.”

My mornings typically start at around 7 or 7:30 AM. After washing up, I start out a morning ritual of sorts:
  1. Take Care of PetsWalk down to let out the dogs and feed the cat (if someone else hasn’t done it already)
  2. Hydrate & Start the tea kettleGet a tall glass of water to hydrate. I don’t start caffeine until later in the morning. When I do, a good Early Grey, a dash of cardamom mixed in with some Pu-erh tea (webmd link) does the trick (read about possible benefits of Pu-erh tea - healthline link). To get that going, I start the tea kettle.
  3. Breathe20 to 30 deep breaths using my diaphragm to fully expel out the air, preferably outside, but really anywhere. This is to ensure I’m fully awake and the lungs have cleared up, giving me sufficient oxygen to think clearly. Such exercises could also strengthen your lungs to be better prepared to fight COVID-19 (webmd link).
  4. Brew TeaThe water is boiling by this point and I pour it over the tea pot with the loose-leaf tea.
  5. Get in a Good StretchAs I’m stepping into my 50’s, I’ve noticed I’m more rickety and take a bit longer to get going. I do a 5-minute morning stretch that’s a combination of different yoga poses. They open up the cramped joints and muscles, as well as help me with continuing my breathing exercise from earlier.
  6. Move to the OfficeI pour a cup of tea and move to my office to continue my morning warm up.
  7. Give Gratitude & Think AheadI spend 2 to 3 minutes thinking about and truly feeling how grateful I am for three things. They could be as simple as how good the tea smells, or as mundane as having a roof over my head, or as profound as how much humanity has moved forward in the last 200 years.

    Next, I spend 2 to 3 minutes thinking about the top 3 things I want to get done today. These are the tasks that are meant to get me closer to my goals. Everything else is secondary and can wait. I think through what I need to do to get each one done and what I would gain once I get each done. 
That may sound like a lot, but it usually takes me about 20 to 25 minutes to get everything above done.

Do Your Most Meaningful Work First

I don’t typically take morning meetings unless it’s with someone from a different part of the world and the meeting fits in with my top 3 things I need to get done today.

My mornings are reserved for taking advantage of my highest level of energy, clarity and creativity. You’ll want to time your creativity based on your own circadian cycle (Wikipedia link). It’s part “priming the pump”, part feeding the brain and part creating something. I use blocks of time for each, in between which I take 5 to 10 minutes to grab a cup of tea or a glass of water and do something physical like pull ups or push ups. This 5 to 10 minute break gives me space to let things settle.
  1. Journal - 20 minutes
    I’m a high order and planner type. So, I like to start with writing in my digital journal. This is partly to help me focus on my goals, and partly to rant. I typically read a few axioms I’ve written or pick a quote from my list of favorite quotes and really think about what it means for a few minutes.

    Next, I rewrite my 6 goals of the year. I end up writing these using slightly different wording each time, but the purpose is to remind myself what I’m after.

    I then write what activities I’m doing today to get me closer to each goal.

    Last, I write 5 to 10 ideas about blog topics, politics, random thoughts, products, or services. Most of these are garbage, but I know it’s important to keep the creative juices flowing. When I can’t come up with anything, I take two things that don’t belong together and bring them together. How about a coffee maker that uses the coffee grind to massage your feet? Good idea? Maybe not, but I put two things together that didn’t belong. I’ve moved a little bit beyond conventional.
  2. Read - 40 to 50 minutes
    Reading is how I seed for new ideas or approaches. There are way too many books out there to read them all. I choose books both in and, mostly, outside of my area of expertise to help me get ideas I can apply to work and personal life.

    I read and take notes of anything useful or to question and posit about what the author’s suggesting. I’m not reading just to read. The notetaking and commenting in the book makes me engage with it and be active in the process. By the way, even if you’ve been reading all of your life, you’ll get something from learning How to Read a Book (Amazon link).
  3. Complete Goal-Focused Activity(ies) - 120 to 150 minutes
    This is the creative part of my day. It’s time to put all that’s been brewing in my head and get done the most important activities of the day. Whether it’s writing a blog post, developing a new software solution design for a client, writing a proposal, working on marketing or sales, this is when I get it done. I still break this time up into 40 to 50-minute blocks, unless I’m in the zone (Wikipedia link) and just want to keep going. 

Get Fit, Then Get It Done

  1. Get Fit: Gym + First Meal - 70 to 90 minutes
    I’m not a fan of gym work at the end of the day and I prefer to use the core of my morning on my most important work. I also like the kick of energy I get from a midday workout combined with my first meal by about 1 or 2 PM.

    Once done with the workout, I take 20 to 30 minute to enjoy my shake or meal. I then grab a decaf green and passion herbal tea and head back to my desk.
  2. Answer Emails - 30 to 50 minutes
    I use emails purely for activities that don’t require immediate feedback. If I need a faster answer, contact, or action from someone, I call or text. For immediate responses, nothing replaces a phone call. During my email time, I’m reading and responding to emails. I aim to touch an email once. I either respond, delete or create a new email. I may chek emails again a bit later.
  3. Take Meetings / Answer Forum Questions / Sharpen the Saw - 90 to 120 minutes
    I schedule most of my meetings for the afternoon. The exception is what I mentioned earlier: when people are in a different time zone and our time difference is too great to accommodate an afternoon meeting.

    I also use this time to answer questions on various Product Forums, LinkedIn Groups/Messages, or attend a presentation/lecture.
  4. Read Blogs, Saved Articles, News - 30 to 50 minutes
    I’m at the end of my work day by this point at about 4:30 to 5:30 PM. So, I spend some time reading blogs, saved articles or news highlights. My rule of thumb for most news articles is that if the article heading fits with my goals, I read it. The exception is when there’s something that has an immediate impact. 

Get Personal

  1. Do Some House Chores - 40 to 50 minutes
    It’s time to help with the family. I may help clean the house, go out for groceries, do minor repairs around the house or take care of the yard.
  2. Walk the Dogs - 30 to 40 minutes
    This can be just me and the dogs or a walk with the family. Both are peaceful and intended to set the stage for the rest of the night. The key is to avoid scheduling calls or checking my phone for anything. The focus is on nature and being with the dogs and/or family.
  3. Close the Day with Family - 120 to 180 minutes
    I’ve spent most of the day at work and the next two to three hours are dedicated to helping out with dinner, talking with family, enjoying a meal together, playing a game and helping the kids get ready for bed. Lately, that’s meant we retire in the kids’ bedrooms and each of us reads our own books.

    I try to avoid work at the end of the day. I make an exception to this if I’ve fallen behind in what needs to be done during the day. That would have to be an exceptional case when I have to get a project or presentation shipped.

  4. Write a Problem to Solve & Read - 20 to 30 minutes
    If I’ve been struggling with a personal, professional or customer problem, I physically write it in my paper-journal and think for a few minutes about it. The step is intended to get the subconscious to think about the problem while I sleep (themuse link).

    Finally, I spent about 20 minutes reading a book to relax and fall asleep.
That’s the whole day.

You’ll want to experiment with this ot find other activities that best fit your needs and personality type (themuse link).