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Are these Magnificent Seven Time Wasters fuelling your burnout?

Are these Magnificent Seven Time Wasters fuelling your burnout?

We are all trying to manage and deliver more, at work and at home. With so many demands on our time, it can be difficult to know how to ensure everything receives adequate attention. Invariably something crashes. Increasingly as we cope with the fallout from the pandemic, the risk is it’ll be us.

Often driven by work related anxiety, the quest for ever greater productivity is a major contributor to burnout. The feeling of ‘I can get through this if I just did one more thing’ has a major obstacle in the way. We simply don’t have any additional time.

If this isn’t bad enough, others are delegating their own pressures to get more done and our time boundaries are increasingly being pushed. We’re moving towards an ‘always on’ existence. If ever there was a need to eliminate behaviours that drain time, it’s now.

Don’t manage time, master it

Is better time management the answer? Techniques such as to-do lists can often lead to overwhelm. We think it’s much more beneficial to your approach to time if you stop thinking you can manage it. The secret is recognising how you spend your time - so that you can control that.

That’s the basis of our book ‘Time Mastery’. We wrote it to help people master their time, and not be controlled by other people’s priorities. It’s about developing an approach to time that that is efficient and fits in with your priorities.

The Magnificent Seven Time Wasters - and burnout

At the core of the book are seven behaviours that really are the enemy of making effective use of your time. We didn’t write the book specifically about burnout but, each behaviour is very relevant to it - especially now. If you’ve identified with any of the time related pressures we’ve mentioned above, there’s a very strong chance burnout is affecting you.

What’s more, you may well recognise your own behaviours in our ‘Magnificent Seven Time Wasters’. If you do, we’ll address how you can find further help at the end of this article.

Time Waster #1: Thinking or talking about things that you cannot influence or control

For every second spent thinking or talking about something you cannot control, you are taking time away from thinking or talking about things that you can do something about. What’s more, these thoughts can contribute to emotional exhaustion, which is a key element of burnout. (Maslach 1998).

There’s certainly much to think about at the moment, and time away from our offices can fuel intrigue further. Can we do anything about them? It’s highly likely we are spending more time than is productive thinking about what we can’t realistically control. It’s also quite possible that not even our leaders have the answers.

You may be keeping in touch with colleagues to keep networks going, that’s perfectly understandable. However, if you are merely complaining to each other or, arguing a point of view to someone who doesn’t care or can’t validate it, ask yourself is this worth your time?

Time Waster #2 - Fantasising about the future (positively or negatively)

It’s reasonable to worry about the future or speculate what it may look like in the current climate. But, there’s a difference between this and actually visualising goals for a positive future. This difference manifests itself with two questions. Is what I am thinking about realistic? Am I going to do anything about it?

Time spent fantasising - either positively or negatively - can be addictive. However, it isn’t time spent making you any more able to deal with what you have to contend with in the here and now. However, visualising an optimistic future (something that you can look forward to and plan to action) is very healthy right now, especially when so much is outside of our control.

Time Waster #3 - Going over, in your head, conversations or situations that have already happened

Your brain has a tendency to bring up unsatisfactory situations again and again, and make you remember them. Feelings of anxiety, uncertainty and injustice are rife at the moment. Difficult conversations are being had, or worse not happening at all. There’s plenty going on for the brain to keep reminding us. It’s a major cause of sleepless nights and that’s the last thing anyone experiencing burnout needs. It also can lead people to become more cynical and despondent about relationships, which is a contributory element of burnout. (Maslach 1998).

The key is to pay attention to what your brain is trying to tell you. Can you take action on it, or learn how to? Making a plan of action will calm your brain down and reduce the distraction. Or, is it something you can’t influence - in which case, the guidance in Time Waster #1 applies.

Time Waster #4 - Doing activity without a clear outcome for you

Remote working, a possible vacuum in guidance and the need to be seen to be productive are a recipe for ‘activity drift’ and can stop you using your time well. Some habits or tasks may have no clear outcome - so ask yourself, ‘What does this get for me?” And ‘Should I really be doing this?’.

This clarity may prevent you doing work that drains your time when you may not need to. It sounds obvious but a classic symptom of burnout is feeling compelled to work a lot, even if the things we are working on are not urgent or critical. What’s more, we don’t notice when we are doing it which is how burnout can creep up on us. However, if you do think you may be burning out, ruthless prioritisation is your friend.

Time Waster #5 - Having too many open loops at one time

Open loops are ideas, activities and decisions that you have started or opened - but haven’t completed or closed. The minute you think about something, you open a loop. A bit like having too many applications open on your desktop, it drains the power, impacts processing and is just exhausting to look at.

Open loops are a contributor to burnout because they prevent people from feeling they have accomplished something - a key dimension of burnout according to Christina Maslach (1998). So closing some loops, deciding to focus your attention where you can accomplish most is a key mitigator for burnout.

If your workload - both job and family related - are increasing your open loops, one of the ways you can respond is by deciding when you will deal with the activity on your terms. One of the benefits of remote working has been the rise of asynchronous communication, taking a judgement call and responding when we see fit. However, while it can allow a re-organised work day, the danger comes when people end up working late - itself a contributor to burnout.

Time waster #6 - Over-thinking without taking action

If something runs around your head without taking you forward then this is a waste of your time and energy. Just as we have a tendency to think through what we cannot influence, we can let the same concern, or challenge occupy our minds without resolution. And that just tells the brain to keep thinking it over, breaking concentration and reducing what we accomplish. This in turn can compel us to work longer to make up the time.

Over-thinking can start a vicious cycle. Unless you have a plan of action, you’ll feel gridlocked and possibly overwhelmed. Even small steps towards taking action can make a big difference.

Time waster #7 - Believing perfect exists

Do you believe yourself to be a perfectionist? Are you waiting for what you consider to be perfect? The perfect job, idea or the perfect timing to launch a project? Perfectionism is the enemy of success, because nothing is perfect. No job, piece of work or even relationship. So here’s where the danger lies. Are you not taking action, or possibly even feeling like what you are achieving at the moment isn’t good enough - because it’s not perfect?

Perfection also leads to a feeling that you are not achieving in the way you want to (even if progress is being made), which is a symptom of burnout (Maslach 1998). Given all that is going on at the moment, perhaps expectations of perfect are unrealistic anyway, so give yourself (and others) a break. You can still have high standards - but taking the edge off your perfectionism will get more done.

So, how can you master your time and manage your boundaries?

One of the many techniques we cover in Time Mastery is to learn how to respond to other people’s requests for your time. At the moment it’s very understandable to agree to do more, because you want to be seen as productive and you may be worried about your job security. Yet this kind of response may send a signal that causes people to not respect your time or take up too much of it.

We communicate our boundaries in the language we use. And others respond to this language. When someone asks for your time it’s a request. You can say yes, no or maybe. Reflecting on the responses you give can help you identify why you may attract people who don’t respect your time. This can also help you understand how some of the situations that have impacted on your time have arisen.

Would you like a free chapter from Time Mastery?

Start the journey to how you can master your own time and not be controlled by other people’s priorities. Download the first chapter from our website, there’s no need to give us your details.

Download the first chapter of Time Mastery

Are you at risk of burnout?

If you are worried about burnout, the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), is the most commonly used tool to self-assess whether you might be at risk. It explores three areas: exhaustion, depersonalisation and personal achievement. You can complete an adapted version of the MBI easily yourself from our website, there’s no charge. We’ll also share further advice to help you manage your level of burnout.

Take the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI)

Ref: Maslach, C. (1998). A Multidimensional Theory of Burnout. In C. L. Cooper (Ed.), Theories of Organizational Stress (pp. 68-85). Oxford University Press.


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