• April 2010

Are you feeling productive? If not, check out Alice Waagen's anti-burnout guide

By Dr. Alice Waagen
President and Founder
Workforce Learning, www.workforcelearning.com

So, are you feeling productive? If not, you aren’t alone. More and more of my clients are reporting that they are overworked, stressed, and they fear that soon their productivity will suffer.

But consider this: Just last November, in a Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Productivity Soared in Third Quarter,” reporters John Hilsenrath and Luca Di Leo wrote:

The Labor Department said the output per hour of nonfarm workers rose at an annual rate of 9.5% in the quarter, more than four times the average productivity growth rate of the past quarter-century. When taken together with the second quarter’s 6.9% rise, it was the strongest productivity growth rate over a six-month period since 1961. Click here to read the entire article.

Amazing, right? Statistically speaking, the US workforce is actually more productive than it has been in years — despite the rash of layoffs and workforce reductions we saw in 2009.

Granted, my background is in management, not economics or psychology, but when it comes to productivity and burnout in the workforce of 2010, I can tell you what I’m seeing: Everyone is working harder to stay employed and in business. And if this extra work and effort enables us to build a healthier economy, I am all for it.

Here’s my question: What price are we paying? At what point do the long hours, anxiety and stress result in burnout? You can only assess this for yourself, but I think every person at work needs to evaluate his or her levels of stress and burnout and set a course to find a healthier balance.

The problem = not enough time.

One way to deal with the “too much work” monster is to assess what you can change and what you can’t. So if you feel that you have too much to do and not enough time to do it, step back and realize that there is a finite amount of time in each work week. It is the only truly fixed commodity in the business world.

What we can do is get loans or lines of credit to ease cash flow crunches, adjust deliverables to reduce work volume, and remove projects based on shifts in priorities. But we can’t add hours to the day or days to the week.

When I start feeling overwhelmed by the dwindling hours in a day and feel at risk of burning out, nothing gives me more solace than the adage: “Work smarter, not harder.” So the next time you are faced with a mountain of assignments and deadlines, apply these strategies.

How To Work Smarter, Not Harder

1. Relentlessly challenge your priorities. If you have multiple #1 priorities, ask yourself what are the true “value-added” criteria? What would you like to achieve with this work? Will it generate additional work by creating even more assignments? Will it serve as a good reference for prospective clients? Will it generate a substantial amount of goodwill with your clients that will result in paying work in the future? Or is this a one-shot contract? These value-added criteria always allow me to determine the priorities that need my attention.

2. Practice “what-if” failure scenarios to analyze the impact of errors or mistakes. This is a way to generate what I call “negative” criteria. When I contemplate reducing the length of an analysis or research phase and evaluate the impact, I discover that the degree of analysis that was “required” was self-imposed and would have minimal impact if reduced. Sometimes the feeling of being overburdened comes from our own need to be perfectionists — not from the client or even the demands of the project.

3. Avoid postponing deadlines. Postponing a due date may feel like it is buying you time, but more often than not it simply pushes the work into an already overloaded future. Again, time is a fixed commodity. Pushing a deadline to tomorrow simply ensures that you will be facing that same time crunch at a future date.

4. Rid your schedule of artificial deadlines. We seem to be working in a culture where everyone wants their deliverable “yesterday.” I recommend you push back and take control of your deadlines. Ask your boss or client what decision or action will be made once you complete the deliverable. If the decision or action that the work produces cannot be made at the stated deadline, then the deadline can effectively be adjusted closer to the decision point. This creates realistic timelines for deliverables, and helps everyone on the project keep their eye on the right ball.

Take charge of your life. I believe that the main driver for anxiety and stress is the feeling of being out of control. There is no work, no job, and no profession worth your ruined health. Faced with deadlines and deliverables, take a moment to honestly assess strategies for prioritizing the work you are doing to make sure that you are in control of what you do — and how you do it.


About Alice Waagen

Alice Waagen, Ph.D., is president and founder of WORKFORCE LEARNING LLC, a leadership development company she founded in 1997. In the past three years alone, more than 125 leaders from 24 different organizations have graduated from Alice’s unique leadership-development workshop series.

Previously, Alice served as senior director of corporate training for Amtrak in Washington, D.C., and director of education, training and development for Freddie Mac in McLean, Va. In both of those positions, Alice created and implemented workplace development programs that served clients from the shop floor to the executive suite.

For more information, contact Alice at alice@workforcelearning.com

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