Our research indicates a terrifying 43% of knowledge workers do not get their most important work done during the workday. And that number is growing at a rapid pace. In his recent book, Dying for a Paycheck, Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, commented that “Working hours in the United States are particularly long and irregular, a situation that has gotten worse over time.” In one survey quoted in the book, 81% of respondents checked email on the weekend, 55% logged in after 11 p.m., and 59% looked at email while on vacation. One not surprising result—67% of respondents to a recent Gallup survey reported feeling burned out at work sometimes, very often, or always.
We Are In The Midst Of A Crisis Of Overload
Ironically, one of the most significant effects of overload is that it disables us just when we need all of our faculties to juggle so many competing priorities. Overload is detected as a threat by the primal system of the brain—the amygdala—and in response it sends fuel to our large muscle groups preparing them for fight or flight. This feeling of threat makes us more defensive, reactive, and unable to see a clear path forward. We are officially stuck in a vicious cycle.
So what can we do to escape? Focus on the four things you can actually control: your personal well-being, your energy and attention, your beliefs and assumptions, and your own behavior.
The mind body connection is well-established even though we have a tendency to operate as if our brain is simply a device we power on early in the morning, and expect to run at a continual pace until we turn it off at the end of the day. In fact, your brain is an organ just like any other. If you want it to perform at its best, you need to provide it with sufficient fuel in the form of sleep, exercise, nutrition and breath. These are the first things to go when we’re in a crunch. While there’s no shortcut when it comes to taking care of yourself, one mid-day reset button you can try is triangular breathing.
TRY THIS: Triangular breathing: Breathe in slowly to the count of 3. Hold your breath for a count of 3. Exhale to the count of 3. Repeat 3 more times.
Energy And Attention
As a society, we have gotten ourselves into a habitual state of “continuous partial attention” which refers to our attending to everything at once and nothing in particular. One neurological consequence of this state is being on high alert, as if we may need to spring into action at any moment. This cultivated sense of being needed at a moment’s notice makes it nearly impossible to disconnect for fear of missing something important. But the hidden cost is never being fully present to our own lives.
TRY THIS: Establish email blackout hours. Set a norm with your team or create an out of office notification that provides an alternate way to reach you in the event of a real emergency. Encourage your team to do the same.
Beliefs And Assumptions
Beliefs are the lens through which we view the world and like a lens, they can often distort it. We call it a “limiting belief” when that particular assumption prevents you from seeing the full range of alternatives. When we are overloaded, our beliefs can lock down and become very black and white, painting us as the victim and our managers, customers, company, etc. as the aggressor. But if you want a solution, you may need to shift your belief to a more powerful one that assumes “there is always something I can do, even in a challenging situation.”
TRY THIS: One of the causes of overload is the inability to prioritize and stop doing something that has been underway for a while—the sunk cost fallacy. If you operated from the belief that “My time is my most valuable resource,” what might you stop doing?
Your Own Behavior
The first step in shifting your behavior, is shifting your beliefs. Once you start to recognize how much control you have over your overload, new options will start to materialize. You’ll start holding a higher standard for what you say yes to. You’ll renegotiate timelines on last minute requests. And you’ll replace the fear of missing out (FOMO) with our much preferred joy of missing out (JOMO).
TRY THIS: Scan your calendar for low value activities. Recurring meetings often consume a lot of time without adding much value. Reassess whether your attendance is really of value and start using that decline button.
While the state of modern work is taxing, it doesn’t have to be terminal. Take back your work life by focusing on what you can truly control.