When you’re juggling a career, the commute, a family and friends, it’s easy to feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day. The modern technological accoutrements of email and smartphones mean we can be connected to not just friends and family but also work around the clock.
But busy is dangerous, says Richard Jolly, London Business School adjunct professor of organisational behaviour. Jolly wrote that “busy leads us down a treacherous path to burnout,” and asks “apart from our health – exhaustion, tension, mood swings – what else is at stake?”
While you may not be able to guarantee the seven to eight hours of sleep your body needs each night, Jolly outlined four simple things you can do to reduce the chances of burnout.
Take control by challenging untested assumptions
There’s always a deadline, and often they are taken for granted. Jolly says that can leave people feeling they have “less control” over their time and energy. This, he says, can be emotionally draining, as you march to the beat of someone else’s drum.
You have to take control Jolly says and he recommends being a little assertive with your client or boss and asking a very simple question. Do they really need the project completed by the deadline you were given?
“Have the courage and confidence to ask, ‘When’s the latest you need it by?'” he says. Jolly says once you are used to challenging assumptions and trying new things, you’ll feel more in control.
Make mindfulness mandatory
You may think you’re too busy for mindfulness or meditation. But Jolly says “if you feel you don’t have time, map how you spend your hours currently and you’ll soon see that you always have time to do the things you want to do”.
Even if you only find 10 minutes a day to do it you will get back “significantly more than 10 extra minutes of productive time a day” he says.
Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater – the worlds biggest hedge fund – has been practising Transcendental Meditation for decades and said in “Principles: Life and Work”, “meditation has benefitted me hugely throughout my life because it produces a calm open-mindedness that allows me to think more clearly and creatively.”
Australian fund manager Peter Cooper agrees. He told the Australian Financial Review recently that “mind health is key. I see so many stressed out people in this industry. It’s a really stressful environment, particularly when it comes to managing other people’s money”. His answer is meditation because it gives him “relaxation, stress relief and mind clearing,” he said.
Avoid time-consuming ‘busy’ work
Jolly highlights what Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, German Chief of Army High Command before the World War II, found was the most effective behavioural traits for his officers.
“He found that clever, lazy people made the best leaders,” Jolly says. That’s because von Hammerstein-Equord believed these leaders “made good difficult decisions because they wanted to make everything easier while having the mental sharpness to find innovative ways to do so.”
It’s a trait displayed by 2017 Nobel prize winner for economics Richard Thaler, according to his friend Daniel Kahneman, the founder of behavioural economics.
In “Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural economics“, Thaler recounts an interview Kahneman gave after Thaler had won the Nobel. “Oh, the best thing about Thaler, what really makes him special, is that he is lazy,” Kahneman said.
Thaler sought clarification and reports it was meant as a compliment.
“My laziness, he claims, means I only work on questions that are intriguing enough to overcome this default tendency of avoiding work, ” Thaler wrote.
“The moral of the story,” Jolly says, “is not to be a lazy leader, but not to get bogged down in ‘busy’ work. Choose to do high-value work. Your ability to be proactive instead of reactive is a test of who you really are.” Just like Richard Thaler.
Charge for your time
“It pays to prioritise. You can’t respond to everything and everyone – you can’t do it all. To help you choose your daily actions carefully, think about mentally charging for your time,” Jolly says.
He provides an example of a Silicon Valley business which took down all the wall clocks and started to calculate “the cost of the meeting in real-time depending on who was in the room, for how long, and to what end”.
The experiment meant employees “halved the average length of their meetings”.
It is, he said, “a potent reminder that your time comes at a cost – personally and professionally.”
Jolly’s summary is that you don’t need your organisation to change because avoiding burnout is in your own hands. He says, “by cherishing your time, doing high-value work, taking your mental health seriously and stretching and testing your own assumptions, you can avoid burnout”.
“The only person standing in your way is you,” he says. And if Ray Dalio, Peter Cooper, and Richard Thaler are any guide, following these four steps might be good for your mental health and improve your career prospects.