All the competing demands on a UX researcher’s time can easily lead to burnout. Here’s how I built a more balanced — and more impactful — work life.
“What’s your day-to-day like at Facebook? Are you working long hours? Do you have decent work-life balance?”
I get asked these kinds of questions regularly by people who wonder what it’s like to work as a researcher at Facebook. They look at me in near-disbelief when I say my work-life balance is the best I’ve ever had. But it’s true, thanks to strategies I’ve developed over the last several years. These strategies have allowed me to be a more effective researcher by learning to take care of myself.
I’ve certainly been burned out before, pre-Facebook — working long hours, trying to pack in too much into each and every day, feeling totally drained.
How did I break out of burnout mode? By learning to work smarter, not harder. As a result, I work fewer hours, and I feel less drained at the end of the day.
Let’s start with how I spend my time. I wish I could say I’m all productivity from 9 to 5, but realistically that’s just not the case. Instead of looking like this:
… my day usually looks like this:
I try to lean into these highs and lows of the day. I do the most intense work in the morning. This is typically when I focus on writing up research findings, either as notes or presentation decks. If I try writing a research readout during the afternoon slump, it takes forever and usually has to be re-written anyway. Writing while I’m drained means working much longer hours and feeling more exhausted.
Afternoon, or times when I’m feeling low energy, are for my easier work. This could be simple (but time-consuming) coding, or responding to emails, or checking in with a team member on a project, as chatting with people is often an energy boost. I try to have 1:1 meetings in the afternoon — ideally outside if the weather’s nice, or while having a snack.
For those particularly low points in the day, I try to remember that I’ll do better work in the long run, and usually am faster at my work, if I take a break to take care of myself. For me, that could be a 20-minute nap, a snack, taking a walk, or having a quick stretch break. And then I come back to work feeling more focused and refreshed.
I also try to find time to add fun into my time at work, and into the work itself. We spend too much time at work to not have some fun. This might mean adding some gifs or images into my research readouts, or just taking a few minutes to joke around with friends.
Finding the right mix
In an average 40 hour week, most of my time is spent running research, participating in meetings, strategy work, keeping track of what’s happening through our internal tools, and a bit of self-care. When I’m setting up my schedule, I try to maintain a healthy balance of these essential elements. I don’t achieve the ideal balance of these activities every week, but knowing what I’m aiming for helps me recognize when one part of my work is starting to crowd out the others.
A note about meetings: they are so easy to hate, but as long as I’m maintaining the right balance, I tend to love them. Meetings mean opportunities to connect with my team members and keep research findings top of mind. I find that if I spend too much time on heads-down research, I lose the opportunity to advocate for users and connect with my team.
Build relationships, not just reports
It’s all too easy to end up in a research factory, churning out report after report that doesn’t have impact. But to be at my most effective, I need to get to know those I’m working with. For me that includes PMs, engineers, designers, and others. What are their questions? What are their priorities? It’s worthwhile to figure out how to best work together rather than going off in the wrong direction.
For one team I worked with recently, I learned that time was of the essence. The faster I delivered my research, the more action they could take on it. So my reports were simple bullet-point decks quickly highlighting what went well in the sessions and what we needed to change for the next round of changes. The reports would take me just a couple of hours to put together, and likely had some typos. But it was what the team needed to move forward. Coming to accept “imperfect but fast” saved my sanity, as it meant I didn’t work late trying to get the team a perfectly polished deck every round.
Re-setting when things go off track
I still sometimes get off track and start to feel a bit burned out. I say yes to too many projects, or I don’t manage to block my mornings well enough for heads-down work. So I start to feel sluggish and snappy. That’s when I hit the reset button and use my strategies to re-manage my time and my relationships before I start burning out.
What can you do to save your sanity? How do you balance your time, particularly as a UX researcher? Comment below.