Burnout - GTD As Vaccine And Antidote - Next Action Associates

“We help our clients get more of the right things done, with less stress.”

There are more poetic, and more nuanced versions, but the above is the most succinct summary of our work I’ve been able to find. Twelve years ago, when we set up the business, most of our clients were buying the ‘get more done’ aspect of our offer. These days, pretty much everyone is more interested in the ‘less stress’ piece.

If we dig into the detail of that, much of the stress that people experience is the discomfort of having incomplete tasks and broken commitments (to others and themselves), things that come with saying ‘yes’ to waaaay too much stuff. Another part of the stress comes from trying to do things – important things – while their brain continuously reminds them of other things that they should be doing – or should have already done. As a result, they are continuously distracted from what is in front of them, and permanently uncertain about what they have chosen to prioritize now.

This way of working is uncomfortable but not unhealthy if it is a brief and occasional occurrence. When it goes on for a long time – or becomes a permanent state of affairs – it becomes extremely wearing. If it goes on for long enough it can lead to burnout.

Many of those who are drawn to GTD® are ‘ambitious’ by nature. Implicitly or explicitly, they have a big vision for what they want to get up to in the world. With the time they save by working more effectively, they might simply stop working and go have a beer, but that is not their first reflex. Given extra time, they take on new projects.

They also like control. Not control-freakery, but surfing an edge where control is a visible, if distant, shoreline. After all, how do you really know where the edge is unless you push it a bit? This combination of stress and challenge in service of worthwhile goals is part of the recipe that leads to a state of ‘flow’. It’s a heady cocktail of hormones and endogenous drugs, and it feels great to work and live there much of the time. The challenge comes when something, or some cluster of things, pushes them beyond the edge into something much less positive.

The graphic (produced by our partners GTD Nordics) offers a useful visual of the phenomenon.

Up to a certain point, stress is good. Feels good. Stretches us to deliver our best. Unfortunately, the point at which flow turns into something more toxic is often imperceptible as it happens, and only obvious retrospectively.

As non-medical people I don’t think we get to say we have a cure for burnout. But our experience of working with hundreds of thousands of clients over the years tells us that we are an awfully good fit in a wider therapeutic constellation of treatment options.

Many of our coaching clients already come to us to help stave off burnout, so we have considerable experience with this. If people who are not too far over to the right-hand side of the hump illustrated in the graphic get to us soon enough, the principles of GTD can often be just the thing to change their trajectory and return them to an experience of positive stress. Any of our coaches and trainers will have had many experiences with clients like the one that appeared here last month.

We can also be very useful after someone has had some time off to recover from the acute phase of burnout, as they are ramping up to pick up their responsibilities again. Before the pressure builds too much, we can help them build structures and systems that help them keep an overview of their commitments, and also provide them with support for declining or negotiating on new requests for their time. Learning a systematic approach to handling workflow – and getting daily ‘wins’ in their work are critical as they come out of a protected environment and are heading back into the stress of a high-powered job. While off the job, they’ll often have learned useful ways to manage their stress: with meditation, positive self-talk, yoga, and sleep hygiene. But many of these things require extra time and are done outside their work. Our approach is to show them how to use the simple principles of workflow to help them reduce their stress while they work, so they can be less reactive, and be more on the front foot with their commitments.

How we help is by enabling our clients to free up their minds by externalizing all their commitments – work and personal – then offering them a structure for thinking those things through in a way that helps their brain to relax about them. We use the results of their thinking to populate a personalized dashboard of their lives. That dashboard offers them a variety of benefits:

  • A sense of perspective, from seeing their work and personal commitments in one place
  • Confidence in their choices about what to do next
  • An ability to relax into what they are doing, from knowing what they are NOT doing (and seeing that it is okay not to do it right now)
  • Support for saying ‘no’ more often
  • The ability to quickly shut down and rest regularly

But looking at burnout as an individual phenomenon is only part of the solution. Organizations that experience burnout cases on any consistent basis really need to have a hard look at their approach to leadership and management before offering ping pong tables and wellness programmes. I can’t tell you how often I hear my clients saying proudly, “we have a ‘yes culture’ in our organization”, as if that is something positive. It can be, but I tend not to mention that if they have sought out our services it might be because the ‘yes’ culture is actually leading to a ‘no delivery’ – or low-likelihood of delivery – culture in their organization. Cue the broken commitments and stress mentioned above.

When one of our clients joined the management team of an international financial institution, there was a standing item on the team agenda: burnout cases. That the management team was spending time on it in each of their meetings was the least of the costs – human and financial – for the organization. Each of those cases came with significant financial costs for the organization in terms of paying for people to be off sick, costs of hiring when some didn’t make it back, and the uncertainty for a team that prevailed in between. But each of them also represented months – and sometimes years – of depression and exhaustion for the individual concerned, and added stress and concern for their family and friends. Fortunately, the above-mentioned client had already experienced the benefits of GTD for himself and was willing to bet his credibility on introducing GTD to enough employees – particularly in leadership roles – to make a shift in the working culture. By the time he left the organization, the burnout conversation was a rare phenomenon, and it had disappeared entirely as a standing agenda item for the management team meetings.

For organizations, the stakes are not trivial: in the UK, nearly half of sick days in 2019 were caused by stress, anxiety, and depression, nearly as much as physical injuries. More than half of those sick days were related to workload. Before the pandemic. Concerns about mental health have only grown since, and organizations not seen to have a proactive approach to keeping their employees healthy will be penalized by top talents who have choices about where they point their energies.

For individuals who are beginning to feel a tiredness that sleep can’t reach, cynicism that joy no longer leavens, and the loss of a positive sense of the future, here are some quick wins:

  • Get things out of your head – most things come into completely different perspective when they are no longer rattling around the inside of your skull
  • Get moving – almost any next action is better than none, and once you are moving momentum is your friend
  • Get perspective – considered in the context of horizon four and five, your purpose and long-term vision, many things that seem big and scary return to their proper size
  • Say ‘no’ more, much more – turn things down, renegotiate your commitments, or simply incubate them for when you are back on your game

Those things on their own won’t entirely fix the problem, but they’re a start. At the very least they win you much-needed breathing space to navigate through to better days.

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