Those of us who were working from home before the pandemic struck already knew about its delights andchallenges. I love that I can take a break and even a nap whenever I want to. On the flip side, it’s easy to get distracted, and it can be hard to maintain separation between work and nonwork time.
It ’s not easy in our culture to let yourself take a break during the workday. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve suggested friends newly working from home(WFH) that it’s really okay to take a nap during the day if you need one. There’s always so much to do, and some workplaces are worried that you might slack off, so they create guilt-inducing accountability measures. But try it if you can! You’ll be far more productive when you wake up refreshed instead of trying to power through the day when you’re exhausted.
Rather than allowing ourselves breaks, there’s a tendency to power through the day no matter what, thinking that’s what productivity is about. When we do that once in a while, it’s not a big problem, but when it becomes a constant thing, it has negative effects on productivity, health and emotional well-being, and eventually leads to burnout.
Burnout is a growing concern now, with so much upheaval due to the pandemic and the political, social and economic instability we’re undergoing. Not to mention the abrupt transition to WFH. I really feel for parents who have children at home, creating the need to somehow handle child care and oversee schooling while working.
I’m now caring for my busy, active and delightful toddler granddaughter three afternoons/evenings a week. If you’ve spent much time around children, I don’t have to tell you that infant, toddler and preschooler care is job in itself. So is supporting older children’s education and tending to their other needs. Parents trying to manage the multiple demands of work and child care/schooling with little to no support may be especially likely to burn out.
One way to counteract the currently heightened likelihood of burnout is to adopt business coach and author Charlie Gilkey’s time blocking approach.
Time-Blocking for Burnout Prevention
I first learned about time blocking as Charlie’s client. Here’s what he shared with me.
The four basic time blocks are focus blocks, admin blocks, social blocks, and recovery blocks. They help us regulate how much energy we expend, and make time to renew and restore that energy. Work (energy expenditure) and recovery (energy renewal) are equally important.
Time blocking involves matching up the energy demands of the tasks you’re doing in a given day with the time of day when your energy is usually in the right place for those tasks. So there isn’t a one-template-fits-all approach. We each create our own time-blocking system and adapt it as needed when our circumstances change.
Focus blocks are 90-120 minutes of working hard on high level work that calls for intensive cognitive and creative energy and focus. In my work, planning an expressive writing workshop or writing a blog post falls into this category. I usually need 2-4 focus blocks for tasks like these. Charlie recommends no more than 2 consecutive focus blocks without a recovery block (see below).
Admin blocks are 30-60 minutes set aside for important tasks that don’t take the intense energy of focus block tasks. For me, that includes things like updating client forms and workshop announcements, or preparing invoices. I often schedule admin block either before or after a focus block.
Social and/or Service Provision blocks are 90-120 minutes for times when you have the right energy for connecting with family, friends, colleagues, and clients. These are social because they involve the exchange of energy that happens in personal or professional relationships . My social blocks are for things like breakfast with a colleague, a walk with a friend, providing coaching sessions, or facilitating expressive writing groups. As an introvert, I find social blocks are highly rewarding even as they take a great deal of my energy. Even a brief recovery block after a social and/or service provision block is important for me.
Recovery blocks vary in length.They’re for recharging ourselves, and we need to be intentional about scheduling them. If I don’t, I have a way of skipping them because I tell myself there’s too much to do. That voice urging me to push on puts me on the road to burnout. Our work is important – it enables us to live out our purpose, make an impact, and make a living. But it take energy, and the demands on our reserves can be nonstop. In order to do our work well, consistently, and for the long term, we have to regularly take time for renewing our energy stores.
You can read about time blocking in more detail in his post, How to Be A Productive Powerhouse.
Taking Care of Ourselves in Turbulent Times
The importance of tending to ourselves has never been greater than during the uncertainty and turmoil that we’re living through now. Most people I talk to lately say they have far more rapid changes in emotional state, more negative emotion and are more tired than ever before in their lives.
These signals from body, mind and spirit telling us that we need to make more time for self renewal than we had to before. Just as frequent hand washing and consistently wearing masks in public protect our physical health, recovery blocks protect our emotional and spiritual heath.
How Can We Renew Our Energy?
We can experiment to find out what works for us. We may decide to shorten our focus, admin and social blocks a bit, and build in a few brief recovery blocks along with one longer one each day. We can set realistic goals and deadlines, and communicate these to others affected by them. We can deepen our self-care practices, or try out some new ones.
Recovery block activities can change from day to day. Rather than trying to choose the the “right” recovery activity, identify what you need today to uplift your spirits and energy. Have fun with your recovery activities! Ask yourself some questions to help you choose them. What brings me joy and hope? What makes me laugh? What strengthens my body? What gets me outdoors? What quiets my mind, and helps me connect with my innermost thoughts and feelings? Choose activities that you will enjoy the most, or that you feel you most need.
Some of my favorites are free writing, bicycling, reading a novel, taking a walk, and self-Reiki.. I’ve been learning advanced Reiki techniques and am enjoying using them with myself and with clients.
Adapting to Changing Circumstances
Staying flexible in the midst of the frequent and unpredictable changes means we can rearrange time blocks as needed to prevent the build-up of stress that leads to burnout. So can seeking support from others.
My clients have been bringing up the stress and uncertainty that’s affecting their well-being and effectiveness at work. I’ve responded by offering strategies and services for centering, grounding and healing . Some of these are as brief as 3 minute of deep, relain breathing and guided visualizations; 5-10 minutes of expressive writing. Others, such 30- or 60-minute distant Reiki sessions take more time, creating the deep relaxation that allow a healing integration of body, mind, and spirit.
Accepting Our Limits with Compassion
We’ve all been adapting to a succession of rapid, unpredictable and major changes since March of 2020. Coping with this takes a lot of energy, and this energy expenditure has become part of our daily lives. We can’t assign “managing unprecedented levels of change” to a 2-hour time block! That doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do, though. We can use recovery blocks and outside of work time to:
Replace any tendency to criticize ourselves for the changes or shifts in our energy with self-compassion https://keystochange.net/three-ways-to-make-space-for-self-compassion/ for the very real struggles we’re facing.
- Sit with our emotions, and to accept, soothe and learn from any negative or challenging emotions we’re experiencing. https://keystochange.net/3-ways-to-build-resilience-in-uncertain-times/
- Shift attention to thoughts and actions that uplift us.
- Intentionally do what renews and recharges us.
- Be compassionately realistic about what we – and others – can accomplish in our current circumstances.
- Extend yourself grace for all that you are doing, and for caring so much about all the needs you see around you.
Charlie Gilkey shares his unique take on productivity, thriving and being fully human in his recent book, Start Finishing: How to Get From Idea to Done.