Managing your time is the best thing you can do to avoid burnout

We don’t feel happy at work because we’re not actually doing anything valuable.

When you trap people in a system of debt, they can’t afford the time to think — Noam Chomsky

Now, Chomsky was talking about real debt when he said this — student debt, in fact — but the point can be made more generally. If we’re continually servicing the demands of a debt of any kind, we don’t have space to think well.

Leaving financial struggles aside, what are the debts we tend to have?

  • always feeling behind with our work
  • an endless to-do list that we never finish
  • owing work to many people
  • frustrated ambitions

These debts can be as crushing as financial debt, and are usually the reason we don’t feel happy at work, or that we don’t perform the way we want to. It leads to that feeling of being on a treadmill. You think things like “just as soon as I get a free hour or two, I’ll get on top of this”, or “the holidays are soon, I’ll be able to sort it out then”. You add extra time by working on an evening or a weekend. But, just like building new roads, work expands to fill the time available and you don’t get the situation fixed up.

Deloitte research shows incredible strains on the attention of modern workers

The stressful feelings often compound due to the consequences of working so hard just to keep up. As Chomsky suggests, you don’t get time to think. That means you’re not doing your most creative, valuable work: it’s then quite possible to lose confidence that you’re still able to do that work. You’re not sure any more that you’re capable of lifting yourself out of where you are.

In the long term, this leads to occupational burnout. Per Wikipedia, burnout is “characterized by exhaustion, lack of enthusiasm and motivation, feelings of ineffectiveness, and also may have the dimension of frustration or cynicism, and as a result reduced efficacy within the workplace.”

One of the characterizing experiences of burnout is the feeling of putting the work in, only to see nothing change. In the end, you might decide to quit and find a new job. It’s an extreme way of zeroing out your obligations, and doesn’t do anything for the fact that they’ll pile up again pretty soon.

Escaping the downward spiral

The only answer to this commitment debt is to find a way to manage your time and your expectations. By this I mean that you spend your time on the things that are most valuable to do, and that you don’t continue to create “mind debt” by taking on unimportant tasks. To do this, you need understand what “valuable” means to you, and set some boundaries.

Like many phrases, “time management” may tend to conjure specific images for you, based on your experience. You might have first formed an idea about it at school, getting homework assignments done, or in exams, making sure you got through all the questions. For some, it might have onerous implications. If you’re like me, your mind might react along the lines of “Don’t tell me how to spend my time, I’ll do what I want!”

Nevertheless, you are constantly performing the act of time management. It’s just that if you don’t control the process yourself, you default to the method your brain comes equipped with: which is mostly optimized for a hunter-gatherer lifestyle from around 10,000 BC. That’s the system that gets hopelessly overwhelmed by today’s workplaces and technology.

Search the web for “time management” and you’ll find a bunch of advice to help. Find a technique that works well for you. One good starting point is this post from Kate Matsudaira. But don’t get sucked in to fiddling with your method before you understand—and validate—the purpose behind everything you need to do.

Regardless of the strategy you use to get there, the essence of managing your time is uncovered by answering the question “for whom?” And the answer to that is “for yourself”. Ultimately, you want to be doing the things that align to your priorities, values and ambitions. Every day you get to make the choice whether you’re caring for yourself, or not.

The only way you’ll believe this works is to try it. So, if you’re stressed, feeling overcommitted or burning out, start now. Take ten minutes aside from those pressures and make an intentional choice about what you’re going to do with the rest of the day. Then do the same tomorrow, and every day.


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