Like many of my classmates, shortly after college, I joined the ranks of a top strategy and management consulting firm. I knew I was signing up for long hours.
But the reality of that didn’t really sink in until a few months in, when I asked for a vacation day to go to a friend’s wedding.
My request was granted. Sort of.
My wife handled the long drive to the wedding, while I spent my “day off” in the passenger’s seat working furiously on my laptop (with occasional stops at cafes to recharge my computer and send emails via the free wifi.)
This pace continued for months. Even on national holidays, I would hole up in my apartment to work.
I began to wonder how long I could continue.
Did I Hate What I Was Doing?
Did I hate my job? My Boss? Was I working in a toxic or negative workplace?
No, in fact, the opposite was true.
Yes, I was in a high-performing organization. But it was also very supportive. I was getting to hear and shape the stories of some of the most prominent philanthropists in the country (Melinda Gates, Ted Turner.) I was supporting the efforts of one of the largest nonprofits in the country to reverse the growing epidemic of diabetes.
Yet, as this pace of work continued, I began to care less about my work. What I had once done with zeal and drive, I began to do to get it done.
No, I Had Too Much of a Good Thing
While I didn’t recognize it then, what I was experiencing was an early sign of burnout: apathy towards my work.
According to Dr. Christina Maslach’s assessment of workplace burnout (the Maslach Burnout Inventory), there are five dimensions to the experience of burnout:
Two of them connect to the apathy I was feeling: depersonalization (unfeeling or impersonal response to one’s work) and cynicism (indifference or distant attitude towards one’s work).
Burnout was upon me.
But how could I be burning out in a job I loved at an organization I loved? After all, society has largely stood behind the advice of this old quote—
“Choose a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
A five-year study in the UK found that the mental health of 20% of the top-performing leaders of UK businesses is affected by corporate burnout.
Or consider the experience of a high-performing specialist at one of the largest technologies companies. He was given the opportunity to play a manager role on a project he really cared about.
A few weeks into the project, here’s what happened:
“We had a really important conference call I had spent a lot of time preparing for. The call went well, but when I finished the call, I realized I was feeling really sick. It got worse after that. I went to the doctor later that day, and he told me I had pneumonia. I ended up in the ER the next morning and couldn’t work for the full next week. It was a shocking moment for me. I’m young and healthy, but I realized that if I push myself, I will burn out.”
As my own path to burnout became more certain, I resolved that there must be another way.
Similarly intrigued by this possibility, a co-worker (Colin) and I started meeting every other week to discuss productivity. We didn’t have much of an objective and it showed. We had little to show for six months of meeting. So we decided to tweak our approach slightly:
Tracking Time to Boost Productivity
To give more rigor to our meetings, we decided to define a metric for our productivity: average weekly hours worked. We began measuring it and setting goals for reducing it. So it was a metric of unproductivity, really.
In one month, we decreased our average weekly hours worked by 10%. Over the ensuing six months, we brought it down by 15-20%.
But we were still getting just as much done as before.
We didn’t quite know what we had done to make such a difference, other than tracking our time and meeting bi-weekly. But we saw, for the first time, that our previous work habits—checking email too frequently, not using a to-do list consistently, underinvesting in creating templates or habits to standardize our work—had cost us a lot of time.
This was the first time I realized that most people have no idea how much time they could be saving if they took an intentional approach to time management.
But it wouldn’t be the last. What started as a bi-weekly meeting with my coworker, Colin, evolved into a 3-office initiative involving over 40 colleagues that spanned two years.
How I turned Coping with Burnout into a Business Model
This experience ultimately led me to leave that job and found Zarvana, a company that offers time-saving services to professionals.
It became an extension of my personal experience, teaching others from intuition and experience: what had worked for me and my team or what we had read worked for others.
But then, we asked ourselves a question: Could we actually calculate how much time people could save by adopting time-saving practices?
To find out, we began to explore what the research said. At first, we’d just sort through clickbait headlines (“Save 8 hours per day on interruptions” or “6 ways to give great feedback”) with no references to actual data or analysis in many of our favorite business and management publications.
Then we headed over to Google Scholar and SSRN (according to Malcolm Gladwell, “the greatest website on the Internet”), and dug into the academically published papers. We read through papers on radiologists processing x-rays, how to cut in line, and analyses of 0.5M tasks entered into an online to-do list.
And, lo and behold, we were able to begin to establish a menu of research-backed, time-saving practices and assign actual time-savings to each of the practices.
Our findings confirmed what Colin and I tasted several years ago: we can literally save in the order of hours per day by adopting a handful of best practices… hours… every day.
Our initial research has found significant savings in 7 key areas:
- Managing your tasks and prioritizing - savings of up to 2 hours and 28 minutes per day
- Managing & minimizing interruptions - savings of up to 2 hours and 27 minutes per day
- Giving effective, frequent feedback & delegating well - savings of up to 1 hour and 45 minutes per day
- Controlling your email - savings of up to 1 hour and 21 minutes per day
- Overcoming procrastination and lack of motivation - savings of up to 1 hour and 13 minutes per day
- Mastering keyboard shortcuts - savings of up to 37 minutes per day
- Streamlining how you manage your work & projects - savings of up to 30 minutes per day
While you can’t just add savings across these seven areas to find total possible savings—since there is overlap in the savings across areas—the amount of time-savings possible surprised even me. In a big way.
Many of our greatest career opportunities will be demanding and stretching, pushing us beyond where we feel comfortable.
The risk of burnout is high
In a recent Gallup study of nearly 7,500 full-time U.S. employees, 28% of millennials claimed to feel frequent or constant burnout at work, compared with 21% of workers in older generations.
An additional 45% of millennial workers say they sometimes feel burned out at work, suggesting that about seven in 10 Millennials are experiencing some level of burnout on the job.
But burnout does not need to drive us from careers we love.
Real research and analyses show that we can get way more done in less time if only we know and then make habits out of science-backed practices.
At Zarvana, we launched the Time-Finder—a 10-15-minute online diagnostic—to help people understand exactly how much time they could be saving and how.
To date, the average total savings found by those taking it is an astounding 3.52 hours/day!
The Most Effective Ways to Save Time at Work
Across the seven areas, here are the 3 practices that offer the most savings, each over 40 minutes per day:
1. Get a “do not disturb” sign = 47 mins/day saved
In-person interruptions are a pain, especially in the age of the open office. To address this challenge, researchers from Zurich, Switzerland and North Carolina developed a traffic light-like light that would automatically pick up on and indicate workers’ availability. This light, which came to be known as the FlowLight, was mounted on a user’s cubicle wall or outside a user’s office. FlowLights were shipped to 450 workers in 12 countries: participants used them for 1-2 months.
The FlowLight resulted in 46% fewer interruptions. Some participants even reported that the lights motivated them to finish their work faster. (Further, 85% of users were still using the light 2 months after the study ended.)
2. Don’t miss deadlines = 45 mins/day saved
Keith Wilcox, a researcher out of Columbia University, analyzed half a million tasks entered into a popular to-do list app and found that when users changed the deadline for a task, it took them an average of 16 more days to complete the task than when they kept the original deadline.
Missing deadlines is not a once in a while occurrence either—users changed deadlines on 51% of tasks.
To see some of the best tips on how to estimate how longs tasks will take so that you never miss a deadline again, read: Professional Project Managers’ Tips on How to Maximize Productivity.
3. Schedule out your whole day = 43 mins/day saved
What’s best for our daily productivity: a to-do list or simply our calendar?
The answer is both. Here’s why:
Beginning in 2005, a large radiological services company had researchers analyze 2.7M cases their doctors processed (these were mostly images such as X-rays, MRI etc.). These tasks were randomly assigned to each of the doctors by the firm’s queuing system.
For 2.5 years, doctors didn’t have to follow the company policy on the order in which images would be processed They could call the shots themselves.
In total, the time it took to read an image was 13% higher for the doctors who deviated from company policy.
Why? Only because of the added time spent deciding which task to do next.
The takeaway is simple: we should use our to-do list to schedule out everything we’re going to do each day into our calendar and then, just let our calendar direct our day.
So, what do you think?
The main reason young professionals burn out at their jobs is feeling constantly overwhelmed by a mounting pile of tasks, seemingly impossible to tackle within the desired timeframe. Fortunately, there’s a way, backed by research and made easy for you to access, to change that. So don’t let burnout be the reason you leave a job or career you love.
- Which of the 5 signs of burnout are you experiencing or have you experienced recently?
- What would it look like for you to take an intentional approach to becoming more productive?
- Which of the suggested time-saving actions could you put into practice tomorrow?
Drop me a line in the comments! I can’t wait to hear your thoughts.