Sunday, March 28, 2021

Life Lately - Dealing with my unending workload

A view of London City from Victoria Park

The past few weeks were kind of weird. Despite working longer hours and with more intensity than at any previous time, I kept feeling like I wasn’t doing enough. So I did the usual things – I prioritized even more ruthlessly, I identified things ‘not to do’, I meditated more, and I worked even more hours.

None of this worked. My stress levels increased and I inched closer to burnout. At some point on Wednesday, I thought to myself that I couldn’t continue like that, so I tore myself away from the computer and went on a long walk to attempt a reset.

I started by quantifying things. Because I’ve been logging my daily hours for years, I know I am working about 10 more hours per week than I would be doing if I was going into the office. How could I feel like I was falling behind while working what was effectively six days a week? What did I need to do differently?

A few kilometers into my walk, I realized the problem wasn’t with my productivity or my work habits, both of which I have spent a lot of time improving over the past few years. It was with my expectations.

Another picture from my walk on Wednesday

On one hand, I was underestimating how long it would take to do things. This was mostly because I’m still new to the role. Closely related to this, there was an endless list of new things to consider doing. I was very clear on my priorities, but simply sorting through the endless inflow itself to identify what to do and what not to do was taking a fair bit of time.

On the other hand, living at work (which is kind of what we’re all doing now) made it easier for me to keep throwing time at my tasks in an attempt to keep up with where I thought I should be.

Let’s put it together with an example. Say I start a day thinking I should do five important things. The reality is I only have enough time for three. I work longer hours trying to get to all five, but only manage to do four. I then start feeling like I’m falling behind, causing me to feel stressed. Rinse and repeat.

So I have decided to try doing things differently. First, I’ve capped my target for ‘big things’ (I call them rocks) to do in any day at two. On average, these are things that take some 90 to 120 minutes to do with quality. An example of this is completing an important piece of analysis for a project, writing up a section of an important doc, or preparing material for an external meeting. That’s up to four hours of every work day accounted for.

Second, I’ve decided to stop practicing Inbox Zero. Inbox Zero, an approach to email management aimed at keeping the inbox empty or almost empty at the end of every workday, has been a big part of my work philosophy since 2013. The core of the idea is that you only check emails at certain times during the day, you delete or archive the irrelevant stuff, immediately do what can be done in 2 minutes or less, and move everything requiring more than 2 minutes to a separate folder (e.g. to-do list, read later, reference material). The problem with Inbox Zero in my current role is that I get an absolute deluge of emails. Simply processing them can easily take well over an hour a day (which I think should be the ceiling for processing emails). I'm keeping all the good parts of it, such as only checking email at certain times, but I'll no longer work towards emptying my inbox every single day.

There are a few other smaller things, but these are the two big changes. In addition, I continue to turn off the corporate instant messaging tool when I'm working on rocks, and I turn off my emails outside of my preset windows for checking emails. A high-level view of the workday now looks like: 4+ hours on deep work, 1 hour doing emails, and about 3 hours for meetings, shallow work (think of these as the pebbles), and the likes. Of course, as with all plans, I’ll adjust this as I go on – and maybe I’ll let you know how it works out over the next few weeks.

Have you got any tips for managing your workload in this age where we’re all living at work? Please share in the comments. Also see here a link to a piece from last year about thriving at life and work in the age of COVID-19.

Cheers to the coming week.

1 comment:

  1. I find muting slack channels helpful - It reduces the need I feel to check them. I've set keywords so that if something I care about is actually mentioned, I know.

    I've also started blocking time in my calendar for work need to do. Removed the assumption that I'm free so people don't keep putting meetings in.