There's a lot in the press at the moment about staff burning out, feeling overwhelmed or suffering from lack of engagement. It's not surprising, with budget cuts, staff cuts, restructuring and a general sense of uncertainty in many sectors, there's pressure for employees to know more, do more and achieve more than ever before.
Many workers often feel they have so much to do that they need more hours in the day. If you're one of them, don't worry, you're not alone. According to a one study, a vast number of people are using modern technology and multi-tasking to cram 31 hours of activity into 24-hours. Doesn't sound wise does it?
All these gadgets and labour saving devices that were designed to save us time and enrich our lives have actually created a personal disaster area for many people as they've become so wrapped up in checking emails, calling friends and family, updating social networking sites and checking in with work on their 'smartphone' (surely it's how we use it that makes us smart, not the phone?) at the weekends. Is this you?
I'm all for progress but not when it's not managed properly and ultimately it's our responsibility to be vigilant with how we let technology rule our lives. Especially when the biggest excuse for not staying fit, eating well and taking good care of ourselves is lack of time. Do we really not have time or are we allowing all these other distractions to hijack the valuable time we do have?
Why not try a new approach?
Rather than seeing how much you can pack into each 24-hour period, think about how efficiently you can get things done. Ask yourself, do you need your email switched on all the time, pinging away with new messages distracting you from whatever task you're trying to complete? Do you need to check your phone every 5 minutes to see if you've missed a call or SMS? Do you need to be involved in every work meeting going or social event – online or offline – that's taking place?
Technology is brilliant for managing your schedule but if we're not careful it can eat time. This is often time that we would have spent being active or taking exercise, planning, shopping and preparing great meals, taking some time to relax and unwind or to spend quality time with the people close to us.
Multitasking and continually trying to pack more in can actually be counter-productive as the quality of what we're doing suffers. Constantly multitasking can also lead in the short term to frustration that nothing is getting done to the best of your abilities and, in the long run, to burnout either mentally or physically.
So here are some tips on how to show your technology who's boss. By following these rules, you'll be able to achieve what you need to AS WELL as have time for the richer things in life like looking after yourself.
1. Check your email a limited number of times each day. If you're brave go for once in the morning and once in the afternoon. To begin with you may need to check every 90 or 120-minutes. Set aside a chunk of time to deal with the messages and then turn it off again. I find that dealing with emails at 9.30-10.15am, 2.00-2.30pm and 4.00-4.45pm works well.
2. Decide in advance how long tasks will take and allocate them only this time. If you approach a job with the attitude that it'll take as long as it takes, you could be there for hours and you'll get easily distracted along the way. If you decide in advance how long something will take then focus on it without distraction, you'll complete it quickly and efficiently, often well within the time limit and you can move on to the next thing on your list.
3. Pay attention to the rhythms of your day. Each day block out 90-120 minutes at the time you know you'll be at your best to perform the most important tasks of the day. If you're a morning person this will likely be between 0800 and 1100. If you prefer the second half of the day it will be some time between 1600 and 2000. Everyone is different but we all have slots throughout the day when we're sharper than at other times. Plan to make the best use of these slots and leave less important tasks for the times in-between.
4. Schedule regular moments through the day to check your To Do list. Many people set out their tasks first thing on Monday morning and review how they got on last thing on Friday afternoon. A lot can happen in a week and, left unchallenged, minor interruptions can become major distractions. Check your progress regularly throughout each day so that you can stay on track at all times. You'll also be quicker at prioritising tasks and delegating where necessary, the more often you check your progress against where you need to be for each working day.
5. Manage your phone time by using your voicemail. It's amazing how many people call others when they're a bit bored or have some time to kill but not much to say. I particularly remember one afternoon a few years ago when I received calls from someone who was stuck on a train (bored), someone who was delayed at an airport (bored) and someone out for a walk on their day off and not sure of the best choice to make for their lunchtime sandwich (bored). I love a chat when the time is right but if you're busy and you answer all of these calls you could lose hours in a day.
Let some of these calls go to voicemail and 9 times out of 10 the caller won't even leave a message but will leave you alone and call someone else to kill time instead. If something is urgent they'll leave a message and you can get back to them right away. If it's really urgent, they'll keep calling until you pick up.
A final thought as I'm writing. It occurs to me, following some recent research we've done with executives we've worked with over the last few years, there's one further tip that holds all the others together.
6. Establish some seriously good reasons to make sure you always work efficiently and effectively. My geography teacher used to tell us of 'Fitzgerald's law of traffic' (he being Mr Fitzgerald) which is that traffic will always expand to block up additional road space provided for it. This law can be adapted widely I feel (I've seen it's relevance with bookshelves, household storage, office space to name a few working examples) and is never more relevant when we think about work.
Those that work effectively do so because they want to get results and get on with the next challenge, whether the next challenge be another work project, spending time with their family, training for the London Marathon, mastering the electric guitar or writing the latest fiction blockbuster. Incidentally, these are all projects currently being tackled by individuals that we've worked with recently.
So the last thing to consider is maybe not what can you remove from your schedule, but what can you include, that's fun, rewarding and life-affirming, that limits the time and space that work can creep into, and will make you more efficient in everything else you do. In short, beat burnout with balance.
Give these tips a try and you never know, you might just get a bit of your life back.
Jeff Archer is Director of The Tonic Corporate Wellness which specialises in helping individuals and businesses reach peak performance. He is also a lifestyle coach, presenter and author of The NLP Diet, Be Your Own Life Coach and Teach Yourself Fitness.