Main illustration: Rachel Tunstall
When you’re working in a fast-paced industry, it’s all too easy to reach burnout no matter what role you’re in.
And when you work on multiple concurrent projects and across lots of teams, the risk of burnout isn’t just high, it can feel inevitable. Many individual contributors (such as researchers, visual designers, content strategists, data scientists) who work horizontally across teams can be viewed as an infinite resource. We come in, we work our magic (usually in a short space of time) and then leave again to do the same on another team.
“We wonder why teams expect the work to happen faster and faster and with tighter deadlines? It can become a vicious cycle, fast”
Sometimes when we’re working in a “service” function, we do ourselves a disservice. We essentially “drop into” a project with an unrealistic deadline, do the work anyway and then leave. And we wonder why teams expect the work to happen faster and faster and with tighter deadlines? It can become a vicious cycle, fast.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Avoiding burnout at work requires a lot of different strategies, with an emphasis on self-care – this is even more important in the world of remote work, where the divide between work and life is more blurred than ever. But it also involves carefully allocating the time you have at work, and protecting yourself from becoming over-burdened.
Communicating your process to other teams and colleagues, and clearly setting realistic, sustainable expectations, is a key part of this self-protection. Establishing an understanding of not only how much work takes place, but how long it takes and how your projects are prioritized can drastically change your work life as an individual contributor.
Here are some useful tips to monitor your workload and guard against workplace burnout.
Make your roadmap visible to everyone
The first step to communicating your process is making sure your project roadmap is transparent and visible to everyone. Your roadmap is a hugely important material that should be accessible to everyone. This can be a pretty straightforward thing to do. For instance, if you have your roadmap in Coda or spreadsheet, ensure that it’s accessible for everyone in the company. Then you can link to the roadmap from your internal wiki team page or have it pinned to your team’s Slack channel.
“If a person isn’t aware of what else you’re working on, they could assume you just don’t want to work on their request”
For individual contributors who tend to work horizontally across teams, it’s imperative that all your colleagues know that you collaborate on multiple projects, not just theirs. This will help immensely when you’re trying to communicate to someone why you can’t work on their project. In theory, if a person isn’t aware of what else you’re working on, they could assume you just don’t want to work on their request – this can result in tension, further exacerbating the risk of burnout.
Reveal realistic timelines
Understandably, most people don’t have a very in-depth knowledge around the nuances and intricacies of other disciplines. This can lead to them greatly underestimating the time commitment that various projects can require of other teams.
To resolve this, consider sharing estimated timelines for different types of work that you do. For instance, to raise awareness of what goes into each research project, we include a timeline in every research plan.
By highlighting all the critical building blocks of a project that used to be invisible to colleagues, we’ve created more realistic expectations from other teams of your bandwidth. That in turn leads to more reasonable expectations of our ability to commit in future.
Practice the art of the “positive no”
So how do you respond to a request that you’re unlikely to be able to prioritize? Without a proven strategy here, you’re more likely to get pulled into projects you can’t realistically accommodate. Enter the “positive no.”
This term was made popular by author William Ury in his book The Power of a Positive No. The concept is pretty simple – a positive no consists of a “Yes! No. Yes? statement.” In Ury’s words:
“The first Yes! expresses your interest; the No asserts your power; and the second Yes? furthers your relationship.”
When you have a team requesting more of your time or resources than what is possible, it’s important you don’t dismiss those requests by stating “No, I can’t work on that.” This isn’t going to help with building meaningful relationships with other teams. Let’s face it, these requests will be inevitable – not every necessary project can be carefully scoped out far in advance, after all.
Instead, respond with something like “That sounds like a great idea. Can we chat more about this to see if I can fit it into this cycle?”
Another technique that works well has been used in improv comedy for years whereby you use the term “Yes, and…” instead of saying “No.” By doing this, you’re actively removing yourself from a negative mindset when faced with a difficult request, while allowing yourself to shape the level of your commitment.
By using terms like this in your vernacular, you’ll notice these tough conversations around bandwidth become easier to handle. Now you won’t be shutting people down, but opening up the conversation to gauge what they need, while also communicating what your constraints are.
Treat any ask as a request before committing to it
You’re probably going to find that even when you proactively share your roadmap and practice the art of the positive “No”, ad hoc and sudden projects will still arise. When faced with more demands than you can handle, a valuable approach is to differentiate between broad requests and actual projects that need to be worked on.
“This can be a great forcing function for colleagues to think deeply about the ideas they have, so that it’s no longer a fuzzy concept but a well-considered idea”
Ask colleagues who are making requests on your time to outline why it is a priority. This crucial step will dissuade other teams from approaching you before their needs are fully scoped. In a research context, for example, you can ask people to scope out requests by asking questions such as:
- Why is this research taking place?
- What decision do you plan to make based on the results of this research?
- What are the high-level research questions or hypotheses?
This can be a great forcing function for colleagues to think deeply about the ideas they have, so that it’s no longer a fuzzy concept but a well-considered idea. Depending on your discipline or the size of your team, this process can evolve into a fully fledged request intake system, with set criteria determining the prioritization of projects.
Consider the boulders and pebbles
A common ingredient in workplace burnout is the sense of an overwhelming amount of work without a clear sense of how to spend your precious time most effectively. In these situations, it can be hard to get clarity on what you should do next to have the most impact, and a feeling of being overburdened quickly follows.
“This is why prioritizing your tasks is so important, but it can be surprisingly tricky to master. The “boulder/pebble” metaphor can be hugely helpful when learning how to manage your workload effectively.”
“The vase may look full with the two big boulder projects in it, but if you look closely, there’s still room for smaller, lower-priority projects. These are ‘pebble projects'”
Imagine a big glass vase. The vase represents a working cycle (a month, a quarter, what have you). Inside the vase are some big boulders. These represent your “priority projects”, which are projects that tie into a company goal or correlate to the success of a new feature or product.
Every cycle will always have one to two boulder projects. The vase may look full with the two big boulder projects in it, but if you look closely, there’s still room for smaller, lower-priority projects. These are “pebble projects” – in a research scenario, these can be anything from rustling up a quick survey to get feedback from customers, to pulling together a one-pager on some recent research. It can also be a personal goal like writing a blog post or speaking at a meetup or event.
The boulders should dominate your work time, the pebbles should be accommodated around the boulders where possible.
Once you adopt this metaphor to consider your work, you’ll be surprised how easy it becomes to conceptualize the demands on your time as either being boulders or pebbles. You can also share this metaphor with other teams, helping them understand how you will have to squeeze their requests in around your main priorities.
It is a useful way of communicating the respective levels of effort that goes into different projects – other teams may not be aware of the time or effort required to produce something that may appear effortless to them. Letting them know a request will be closer to a boulder than a pebble is important context.
The metaphor also helps you gauge your own workload – have you been spending enough time on the boulders, or have you been diverted by too many pebbles?
Avoiding burnout in the workplace is more important than ever, particularly at this stressful time. It’s vital that we learn how to protect ourselves from over-committing on projects, with the resultant risk of burnout, while still making the biggest impact we possibly can. Hopefully, these tips and strategies can help you do just that.