The world has reopened with a vengeance. Instead of toggling between Zoom, Google Meet, and Teams, we now run among aforementioned platforms and galas, commutes, parent-teacher meetings, conferences, and the block party. If you can’t make something, don’t worry—of course there’s a virtual option. Earbuds must be plentiful in the return to some semblance of normality; excuses are not.
This hybrid juggle appears to be taking a toll. New research from Microsoft finds nearly half of employees and more than half of managers say they’re burned out. A Gallup poll finds that the problem extends far beyond burned-out employees not bringing their best to work — they’re also 63% more likely to call out sick, and more than twice as likely to look elsewhere for a job.
What’s the solution? We need to revamp our approach to three areas of working life in this New World Order: schedules, in-person events, and establishing priorities.
Your calendar isn’t what it used to be.
I have written before about some schedule hacks that can help prevent burnout and overwhelm, including clustering meetings mid-week. That means keeping Monday mornings free to set priorities and Friday afternoons free to wind down.
The last two years democratized meetings in a multitude of ways, as screens leveled “turf” (no your office vs mine, nobody at the head of the table) and opened access (think daily check-ins and more intentional meetings). But you don’t want to feel “prisoner to your calendar,” as Khe Hy often points out in his RadReads blog that covers the intersection of work and productivity, among other topics.
In a Twitter thread earlier this year, Hy confessed distaste for one aspect of calendar management that took off in the pandemic. “Scheduling links never worked for me,” he wrote. “The mix of being self-employed, an active co-parent and wave chaser made my schedule too unpredictable.”
There are other issues with this type of scheduling system. Power dynamics abound when you send someone a link asking them to find time on your calendar. One, you are treating your schedule as sacred and theirs as not, essentially telling them to “get in line.” Two, these requests get weighted the same way with access to the same spots, whether a potential contract is worth $1 million or $500.
In his Twitter thread, Hy called out a product called SavvyCal as a schedule manager that allows for instant booking of meetings between two parties (he’s not paid for the endorsement). Features allows users to prioritize more important meetings, allowing them to override lesser ones.
We are all at a stage, regardless of the software we use, where meetings need such foresight and thought before they occur. The rote and almost-robotic impulse to fill our calendars with talking might even allow us for that other necessity of our jobs: thinking.
Stay present in person.
Scheduling in a hybrid world requires a new awareness of settings, yours and others’, and building in buffer time when needed. If you are attending a conference, for example, running off to make a Zoom right after the panel doesn’t really help create the connections or serendipitous meetings that make in-person gatherings so valuable.
My own practices: I now try to cushion two hours on either side of such gatherings. If I have time to make a quick phone call, I try to prioritize checking in with a colleague or direct report instead of a more formal meeting that requires me to prep or shift modes. I also am trying hard to stop scheduling formal calls in the car, or at the very least be off video and commit to listening versus participating.
Philadelphia-based Tezarah Wilkins, who hosts “Who Taught You How to Drive?!”, a podcast about the culture of cars and driving, doesn’t take meetings while on the road. “I feel like my focus is being split in too many ways. I want to be settled and able to share screens and communicate at a high level in a meeting, and frankly it makes me extremely anxious to even know that people are in their cars driving while we’re on a Zoom,” she says.
“Things have changed quite a bit since the start of the pandemic, but I wish people could leave the urge to multitask to that extent in the past.” Indeed, there’s no place like a car ride to daydream, muse on meetings past, and ponder what’s coming up. We are at a stage where such downtime warrants a schedule override.
We need radical prioritization… of ourselves, too.
The blurry lines between work and home that have characterized the last few years don’t seem to be easing up, even as both seem to be asking more of us. If you’re the parent of school-aged children, you’re likely familiar with the learning loss and mental-health effects the pandemic has wrought. On the work front, we remain in an era of uncertainty over the coming recession, rising prices, and a tight labor market.
A CEO and startup founder I recently met told me he’s all about making his priorities transparent: himself, his family, and only then, his company. Similarly, RadReads’ Hy advocates what he calls “radical prioritization,” a system that acknowledges all outcomes are not equal and thus all inputs should not be either.
How does that work when everything is urgent and important? On his blog, Hy recommended focusing on impact when trying to decide what to do first or what else to take on. An example he offered is between two competing tasks: creating a Twitter thread or a YouTube video. “The Tweetstorm will take 30 minutes and will generate 10 new sign-ups,” he wrote. “The YouTube video will take 10 hours and generate 150 sign-ups.” He then calculated, based on the return on effort, that the Tweetstorm should go first. (To be sure, there are additional layers of a calculation based on probability of success.)
Another important part of prioritization, Hy wrote, is knowing the how and why behind every task. “Do you know what you want and why you want it?” he asked. Answering that will help you separate the things that bring you closer to your goals from the things that don’t.
The existential question is critical to this moment as we transition from the pandemic to whatever lies before us. It is the rare person who wants to return to the hamster wheel of pre-pandemic life. As Gallup reported in a recent poll on employee wellbeing, “Wellbeing is often conflated with ‘health,’ but wellbeing isn’t just about the absence of illness or injury, or even the presence of physical fortitude. Wellbeing is about a life well lived; it is about being fulfilled in the aspects of life that matter most.”
That fulfillment rests on knowing where to direct our energy. The antidote to the overwhelm and burnout we know all too well is figuring out what matters most, and why.