Give people solid reasons for changing their over-working ways and they will do so.
People Problems Need People-Centric Solutions.
The BBC published this article discussing why banning email outside of work hours might do more harm than good. The arguments focused on why highly anxious or highly ambitious people might need to access work email outside of work hours.
The bigger question is why are employees anxious if they can’t check email after work? Why does an ambitious go-getter need to log long hours in order to get promoted? There is a difference between occasionally working longer hours in order to finish a project, and chronic hyper-connectedness. Failure to disconnect from work is a symptom. If we really want people to disconnect and recharge, we need to address the root cause of the behavior.
To better illustrate this, let’s pretend that you are at a friend’s house for dinner. You’re both in the kitchen–you are cutting up vegetables and your friend is tenderizing meat with a mallet. Suddenly your friend takes the mallet and repeatedly pounds his hand with it.
There are a lot of things you would do in that moment. You might shout ‘stop!’ You might wrestle away the mallet.
Under no circumstances would you think you solved the problem by taking away the device your friend used to harm himself. Until someone uncovers why your friend did what he did, you can’t be sure he’ll never do it again.
Burnout was a significant predictor of the following physical consequences: hypercholesterolemia, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, hospitalization due to cardiovascular disorder, musculoskeletal pain, changes in pain experiences, prolonged fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, respiratory problems, severe injuries and mortality below the age of 45 years.
These consequences are just as harmful–if not more so–than hitting your hand with a hammer. And getting at the root causes of burnout in your company will require a thorough diagnosis.
How to Get at the Root Causes of Burnout
Employees experience burnout for a variety of reasons, just as people get sick for a variety of reasons. Going back to our earlier example, a doctor would treat your friend by asking a series of questions and making observations. A leader interested in delivering an effective solution for burnout can do the same.
It’s tempting to assume we know what’s causing the burnout and skip this step. Perhaps we have a lot of experience leading people. Perhaps we’re burned out because we receive too many emails and assume that solving our problem will solve everyone else’s, too.
As a leader, your experience at work is different from that of your employees. Your pain points may be different as well. Don’t assume you know what the problem is.
However, there are some things you CAN assume.
Assume Your Employees Know the Consequences of Overworking
People understand that working too much is unhealthy. There is an abundance of information on the consequences of burnout. Many major news feeds covered the story when the World Health Organization ruled that burnout is a medical diagnosis.
If most people know that overworking is unhealthy, then the next question we need to ask is why are they doing it anyway? It’s tempting to assume that they’re working off of faulty information. This leads to our next assumption.
Assume Your Employees Have a Solid Reason for What They Do
Most of our decisions are self-protective on some level. We wear nice clothes to protect our dignity and social status. We count to ten in our head to stop ourselves from saying something that will ruin a relationship. And we work too much because we think doing so protects us in some way. Or we are being overtly rewarded for doing so.
This is why simply implementing an email ban won’t work in the long run. If your people are convinced that they need to work long hours to keep their jobs or get promoted, they will continue to do so.
For many years, Kaplan had a “summer hours” policy. During the summer months, you could elect to work a little longer Monday through Thursday, and take off early on Friday. I took advantage of this policy for many summers, until I was given a new manager. This manager claimed that the summer hours policy was only for employees who worked in an actual office, not for remote workers. Therefore, her expectation was that our team would not participate.
I knew that manager was wrong. I tried to point out that the other remote teams were taking advantage of summer hours, and we should too. Unfortunately this manager wouldn’t listen. When faced with the choice of defying my new boss or working longer than necessary, you can guess which decision I made.
Your employees have a solid reason for overworking. They will share this information with you under certain circumstances.
Create Protected Spaces for Honest Feedback
Telling your employer that you’re overworked feels risky for many people. As a leader, you can minimize the risk of honesty. It isn’t enough to say ‘please be honest,’ or ‘we value your honesty.’ You may foster an open and inclusive company, but your employees may be carrying baggage from previous employers. Or you may have a problem manager that you don’t know about yet.
Even if neither of these things are true, you must stay conscious of the power dynamic between you and your employees. You have the power to fire them. Your employees will always keep that in mind when deciding what to tell you.
One of the easiest ways to minimize risk for your employees is to use an anonymous survey. If you lead a large company then it may be easiest to retain a third party to handle creating a survey for you. If your company is small or there are budget concerns, you can build your own survey. Consider using a format that allows you to collect nuanced answers. I personally like ‘rate how much you agree with the following statements’ sorts of questions. This is what they look like:
Rate how strongly you agree or disagree with the following statements 1 = disagree, 2 = neither agree or disagree, and 3 = agree
In my company, you have to work long hours to get promoted.
I have a reasonable workload.
My immediate manager cares about my work/life balance.
You can get more complicated and use a wider scale to ask if people “strongly” agree or disagree. Before you do so, ask yourself if the benefit is worth the added time it takes to create a more complicated survey. If this is your first time surveying your employees, understand that you may not get your questions right the first time. You might even consider adding a question at the end that asks ‘what other questions should we ask?’ to speed up your learning curve. As a bonus, you can learn a lot from the questions people suggest you add to the survey.
Everyone Has Time to Survey Their People
Back in my Faculty Manager days, I sent my direct reports an anonymous, annual survey in December. This was completely separate from the big engagement survey my company conducts every year. The big survey asks a lot of questions about many subjects–the point of my survey was to figure out how I could improve as a manager.
Your employees know what you have to work on. Mine were no different. Once I processed the information, I always did two things: 1) I shared the results with my people and 2) told them what I would work on in the following year. They could judge for themselves if I did what I said I was going to do.
I had anywhere between 50-100 direct reports spread across the state of California. Even with my hectic schedule–and no added administrative support– I found the time to create, deliver, and respond to the results in my employee survey. You can, too.
Employee surveys are humbling experiences. Sometimes you’re humbled by the trust your employees place in you as a leader. Other times you’re humbled by the things you have to work on. Often it’s a mix of both. But if you’re serious about identifying the cause of burnout at your company, don’t skip this step.
Share the Results and Talk About Next Steps
When you’re fixing culture problems, it’s really important to bring people along in every step of the process. Share the group results. Your employees are dying to know if everyone else feels the way they do. They’re anxious to see how you react to what the group has said. Choose your words carefully. You want to make it clear that you understand the problem, and are committed to fixing it. This is a huge opportunity to built your employees’ trust and respect for you and your company. Don’t blow it.
Then let your actions back up your words. Give the good assignments to the people who go home on time. Promote the people who fight for reasonable work loads. Bonus the teams that use all of their vacation time. And retrain (or rehome) the managers who perpetuate poor work/life balance.
Give people a solid reason to change their habits, and they will do so.
Burnout culture is a people problem that requires a people-centric solution. You CAN get at the root cause of the problem. Approach the process with humility and honesty–and put your actions where your mouth is. You’ll not only change your work culture, but also create a team that trusts you and will follow wherever you lead.
I have a problem with sick days. My problem is that I don’t always take them. I caught my kids’ flu (thanks kids) Sunday evening, and still went to work on Monday.
Why Is it So Hard to Take Sick Days in the Remote Workforce?
I blame my children. (It’s what all good mothers do.) When the kids were very small I saved my sick days for when they got sick. And I’ve never broken out of the habit. Working remotely means I don’t have to.
I once worked in an office where one guy—we’ll call him Typhoid Mary—would come to work even when sick. Inevitably the entire office would catch his plague. It didn’t take very long before the office adopted a “stay home if you’re sick” work culture.
But when you work from home, you can’t infect anyone. The social pressure to stay home is gone. Now (at least for me) it’s hard to tell when to take a sick day. I don’t have to drive anywhere. I don’t even have to sit upright. If I’m well enough to binge watch Netflix, why aren’t I well enough to work?
I’m not the only one who does this. According to SoftChoice, a North American IT solutions and managed services provider, 57% of the 1,700 people they surveyed admitted to working on sick days. 80% of those folks spent sick days working through email.
There are many reasons people do this. Perhaps they don’t want to return to work and find an overflowing inbox. Maybe they’re worried that everyone will assume they’re slacking. Whatever the reason, I believe there are things we can all do to help people rest when they’re sick.
Bring Back the Social Pressure
I went to work on Monday while I was sick, and my team told me to go back to bed. Forcibly. (In a very professional, HR appropriate kind of way.) We should do this more for one another. I’ve seen other colleagues working while sick and I haven’t suggested they go back to bed. I’m going to start doing this from now on. We’re all adults. We need to make our own decisions, but sometimes we need that extra kick in the pants to make the right one. I certainly did.
Some folks may not feel comfortable telling people to go back to bed. As an alternative you might tell someone that took a sick day that you’re glad they took time to rest. Let’s reward each other for taking a balanced approach to work.
Reevaluate Work Loads
If your direct reports work while sick, you may want to perform a work load audit. Can an actual human being finish enough tasks to do a good job in an assigned role? How do you know? Do your direct reports have the tools needed to complete work efficiently? How do you know? Managers aren’t always responsible for the amount of work a company places on its employees, but we can always take on the role of advocate for our people.
Employees have to share the burden when it comes to evaluating task loads. Remote employees work out of sight for most of the day. It won’t always be obvious that we’re drowning under too much to do. If your boss is reasonable, give that person a chance to lighten your load. Speak up–and come prepared with examples.
Provide a Safety Net
If a colleague is sick, offer to take care of their time-sensitive tasks. I had two things weighing on my mind, and when I was still sick on Tuesday my team took over those tasks so I could rest with a clear conscience. It’s pretty great working on a team that has each other’s back. Don’t wait for your boss to build this sort of culture. A trusting work place begins with you.
It can sometimes feel hard to justify sick days when you already work from home. Like so many other things in the remote workforce, we each have the ability to craft the work life we want to see. Offer to help people take needed time off either through social pressure or taking tasks of their plate. Let them do the same for you. If we all work on this, we will create a more humane work culture. We’ll work for companies where people take the time they need to recover, and return rested and ready to go.
Yesterday I nearly forgot to pick up my kids from school. My only excuse is that it was their first full day back. I had finished work for my day job and was deciding between writing or practicing my guitar when I remembered that I had somewhere to be.
Technically, I could have waited a little longer before driving to the kids’ school, but I knew that if I left home early enough I could write in the pick up line while I waited. The plan would have worked perfectly, too, if it hadn’t been for those dang kids. My son was on the playground and he saw me drive in. At that point he and his friend spent a good two minutes trying to get my attention before the supervision aide told them to “let your mom chillax in the car!”
While I appreciate the sentiment, that innocent comment reminded me of all the assumptions school staff make about parents generally and remote workers in particular. We may look like we’re all scrolling through social media in the car, but the truth is a little more nuanced. If you work at a school and want to get more participation from the remote working parents, then here are some things you should know.
Summers Are Stressful
We remote workers usually have more flexible jobs than our office-based spouses. This usually means we’re the ones who’ve spent the summer attempting to work while the kids are home. It’s tempting to say that teachers work surrounded by children all the time and seem to do okay. However, children are the work in this case, so the comparison isn’t a good one. Picture holding a sensitive parent/teacher conference in the middle of a classroom while surrounded by all the other children in the class. Now picture doing so for 8 hours a day for 40 days. Summers aren’t restful.
School staff will have a better chance of getting remote workers involved in school activities if they assume we’re exhausted and behind at work. We do want to meet our children’s teachers and school staff. We don’t want to come to multiple events scheduled closely together. Instead of holding a meet the teacher event one week and a back to school BBQ the next, combined those two events into one meet the teacher BBQ. Please and thank you.
Our Remote Jobs Are Real Jobs
I no longer tell my children’s teachers that I work from home. I used to, but I had one particular teacher who took this as a euphemism for ‘unemployed and available for last minute requests’. Now I tell them that I work full time and leave it at that.
This is a lost partnership opportunity both for me and for any school who has parents that work remotely. We remote workers can flex our schedules around to a greater or lesser extent. Give us enough notice, ask respectfully, and many of us will move things around to help you out. We know that schools are under funded and rely on parent participation to get work done. Some of us chose remote work in order to get more involved with our children’s lives. But that doesn’t mean we can drop everything to attend a field trip with 48 hours notice.
Be Strategic with Your Requests
Personally, I either need to work late into the night or use a vacation day to make room in my schedule for you. Other remote workers might have to work on the weekend or take a pay hit. There is always a cost. The shorter the notice, the higher the cost. We’re much more likely to volunteer if we can trust that you will minimize that pain for us.
You’ll Get A Faster Response From Us If You Go Digital
Not everyone has access to the internet at home. I am not suggesting that digital communication replace paper communication. Rather, give us the option to choose electronic communication over paper. Someone creates 90% of those forms on a computer anyway. Send them to us via email or upload them to the school website.
100% of my children have lost paper permission slips. I think their back packs eat them. It would be really great if six year olds could responsibly manage their own paperwork and day planners. But even some university students can’t do that consistently and they have a much better grasp on reality. My kids don’t always know what day it is. Once, when my son was six, I interrupted him in the middle of tying a jump rope around his neck. The other half was already tied to the stair railing. He thought this was a great way to jump off of the top of the stairs without killing himself. Teaching my kid to give me notices is a lower priority than keeping him from dying. There are only so many hours in the day.
Digital Payments Are a Thing
Last year my children’s school gave us the option to pay for school expenses online. It’s wonderful. Now I get an email when I need to pay something, and I go in and do so. This cuts down on the number of phone calls I get from the school asking if I will allow my daughter to go on the field trip I didn’t even know about. Canadians are indeed a polite people, but they can weaponize that politeness like you wouldn’t believe. I only wish the website came with the ability to sign permission slips, too. A woman can dream.
Digital Communication is Also a Thing
And speaking of dreams, many of us would love to sign up for things like parent/teacher conferences electronically. Please don’t make us sign a paper taped to the classroom door. Trying to find a parking space at the school during pick up or drop off time is like going to fight club. I have seen people pull up onto the sidewalk right in front of small children, or speed the wrong way down the two lane road, just to grab the last spot in the loading zone. Don’t make me leave the car protecting me from those people.
I would love to tell my children’s teachers that I have a flexible work schedule. Remote work provides greater opportunity for parental involvement at school. Maybe some day things will change. However, that can only happen if there is respectful, efficient communication between school staff and parents. That sort of healthy relationship starts with a few tweaks to existing assumptions about remote workers. School staff should plan school events strategically. They should provide a variety of options to communicate, pay for items, and sign up for events. If they do so, they may find that more parents—not just remote workers—become more involved in school activities, to the benefit of the children.
You Got the Job–here’s how to tweak your schedule so you can enjoy your day to day.
On August 2nd I started a new job. I wasn’t expecting to change roles, but my company’s needs changed, and I had to change to meet that need. This is the nature of remote work. One day you may work as an analyst, and the next in people management. The savvy remote worker develops skills to bounce back when life (or your company) disrupts your status quo.
We can’t always control our own destiny. No one asks to have their position eliminated. But we can all develop habits that help us deal with the unexpected. A few weeks ago I talked about how to network when you don’t know anyone. This week we’ll discuss how to take control of your day to day when you start a new role.
Start with a Positive Attitude
We’ve all had bad bosses. Many of us have worked in places with a toxic culture. Or perhaps you’re in the opposite situation. Don’t let these past experiences sour your new role.
That’s easier said than done, especially if (for example) your new boss works in ways that are similar to a previous bad boss. Know your triggers. I had a terrible boss we’ll call Stan. Stan was an extrovert who needed to talk to work things out. He would repeat what other people said in meetings immediately after they said them in order to process the information. Stan was also passive-aggressive, controlling, and enjoyed calling people names.
Intellectually, I know these things have nothing to do with each other, but when I’m in a meeting with someone who is a detail-oriented auditory processor, I think of Stan. And I have to remind myself that repeating what other people say isn’t evidence of evil. It’s evidence of an auditory processor.
Trust, But Verify
If you find yourself triggered by your new boss or team, take a step back and diagnose the situation. I’ve found it helpful to ask myself a set of questions:
Let’s pretend there’s a reasonable explanation for this. What could it be?
Do I have concrete evidence that this person or team is mean?
Could this be explained away by lack of caffeine or sleep?
What did the person say when I approached them about the situation?
Is there a pattern of bad behavior or is this a one off?
Give people a chance to do right by you. For all you know, someone on your team finds YOU triggering. We don’t think of ourselves as the bad guy in our own life. Remember, though, that your new team mates don’t know you. And remote workers don’t have many unplanned opportunities to see each other interact with other people. Lead with trust. We all have to make a conscious effort to demonstrate that we’re sane people. That takes time. Your reasonable response to stressful situations will show people how great you are.
Don’t Let Yesterday’s Great Ruin Today’s Good
Or perhaps you’re in the opposite situation. Perhaps your former team was great and you’re grieving their loss. This was my situation on August 1. I’d said my goodbyes to the people who were leaving, and to the people who moved to different teams. That loss was in the front of my mind during my new team’s kickoff events on August 2.
What helped, of all things, was thinking of my son. Two years ago his best friend moved away. The boys went from seeing each other every day at school to seeing each other every couple of months. My son absolutely refused to make any new friends for a year. He thought that if he was miserable long enough, he could force his friend to move back to his old home.
You and I are adults and we understand that this isn’t how the world works. But if we’re not careful, we can act as if it does. You can like your new team and your old team at the same time. Not everybody has the good fortune to work with a great team. Enjoy your memories while you work to build different ones with a new set of people.
Assume You Have Some Agency
When most people start a new job they worry about proving themselves. This is largely a healthy reaction when you’re trying to establish a good reputation.
There’s a difference, though, between trying to be a team player and putting up with unnecessary inconveniences. The remote workforce gives us an unparalleled opportunity to craft flexible schedules. Freed from the limits of geography-based offices, we can get work done in a way that lets us live fuller lives.
Don’t be too quick to give that up with your new team. You might have a strong desire to go with the flow and accept every meeting people put on your calendar and treat them as immovable. The fact is, you don’t know how sacred those meeting times are unless you ask. So ask. Assume that your boss and your team mates are reasonable people who are willing to move things around when they can.
Lead with Trust
Again, this is easier said than done. It’s my policy to lead with trust and assume the best, but it was still scary to ask my new boss if we could talk about the reoccurring meetings he was setting up with the new team. We’re following an agile model and holding daily stand up meetings. And wouldn’t you know it, those meetings were all scheduled for the time slot formerly known as my lunch break.
Now, I don’t like eating while on camera. I don’t care if anyone else does so as long as I don’t have to hear chewing. But that wasn’t the real issue. I run on my lunch break. Running outside is how I keep from feeling cut off from the rest of the world when I work from home. It’s important to me.
It’s Always No Unless You Ask
I’ll admit that I took a few days to dither about whether I would really ask the whole team to move the daily stand up just so I could go running at lunch. Once the dithering process was over, I brought it up with my boss.
As this was a potentially tricky conversation, I decided to save it for our one on one. I wanted to see his reaction when I asked to move a work thing for my running. I already knew how he liked to communicate because I asked him in our first meeting. So I sent him a quick Slack message the day before our meeting letting him know I wanted to talk about potentially moving our stand up meetings.
I explained that I block off an hour and a half in the middle of the day to finish my morning work, plan my afternoon, and then run for 30 minutes. I wasn’t sure if he chose our daily meeting slot because it was the only time that worked for most of the team, but I would like to explore shifting the time either up or down if possible.
Give your new team a chance to show who they are
There are times in your life when you gear up to persuade people to your way of thinking, only to find out they don’t need to be persuaded. My boss picked that time because he thought it would work for everyone. He was happy to move our meeting since the time wasn’t working for me. When he brought up the issue with the rest of the team, it turns out they preferred to have the meeting earlier in the day anyway.
I found out two good things that day. First, that my boss values daytime breaks. Second, that my team is full of nice people. I would have figured these things out eventually, but I’m grateful I didn’t spend a lot of time bereft of my lunchtime run because I was too afraid to ask. Give your new team a chance to show who they are. You may also be pleasantly surprised at the result. And remember to be the sort of person who is willing to be flexible for the sake of other people’s schedules. We’re all in this remote working boat together.
Starting a new role comes with a lot of mixed feelings. Will you do a good job? Will you get on with your boss and your team? If you lead with trust, assume the best, and approach your new situation with a flexible mindset, you can craft a job that you enjoy going to day in and day out.
Working while on vacation isn’t ideal, but there are things you can do to get your work done and then get out and enjoy your vacation.
My only niece got married last Saturday. Good aunt that I am, packed up the kids on Wednesday and flew down to attend.
You might expect me to say that I’m glad that I can both vacation and work without missing a beat, thanks to the power of the remote workforce. The truth is that I try very hard to NOT work while I’m on vacation. Just because you CAN work from anywhere doesn’t mean you should. I generally keep work out of my vacations.
Sadly that wasn’t possible this time. My fellow analysts can’t cover all of the work I do. My boss generally oversees the bit that needs special handling while I’m out. Unfortunately he was scheduled to be in Banff (that’s in Canada) that week. Since he wasn’t sure about his WiFi situation and I was going to be staying in Silicon Valley, it made sense for me to cover my own tasks.
Working while on vacation isn’t ideal, but there are things you can do to get your work done and then get out and enjoy your vacation.
Communicate Your Work Hours
Distributed companies with healthy cultures celebrate remote worker flexibility. Still, people need to know when they can talk to you. Remote workers can’t see when colleagues get to work. We rely on other indicators–work hours listed in an email signature, the status button on instant messaging platforms, and good old fashioned memory. People won’t always remember the time zone you live in; they are more likely to remember the time of day when they usually get a response from you.
One of my colleagues regularly sends me instant messages at 11:50am. I’ve accidentally rewarded her for doing so by responding very quickly at that time. I go running at noon, and at 11:50 I’m anxious to clear things off my plate quickly so I can enjoy my run. I don’t know if she understands why I respond so quickly, but she obviously remembers that I do. Your colleagues hold similar information about you.
You need a strategy for handling work tasks while you’re on vacation. First, weed out any work that can wait until you get back. Your out of office message will do the heavy lifting here. I lead with some version of ‘I won’t be checking email or phone messages while I’m away’ so people won’t expect to hear from me until I return.
Second, use your email’s out of office message to empower people to get work done without you. My message lists specific people or groups to talk to for specific sorts of questions. I even share which key words to use in their subject line to get faster service.
Make Sure You’re Available to the Right People
If you have to do some work while on vacation, email the specific people involved with a different communication plan. I live on the West Coast but work East Coast hours. While I agreed to work on my vacation, I drew the line at starting work at 6:30am. In this particular case I committed to checking my email and finishing my work tasks by 9am Pacific.
Your email should be short but informative. Include your amended work hours, and the specific tasks you’ll be working on. Mention that all other work will either have to wait until your return, or go to your sub. My email went out 2 days before I left, and then again the night before I left. Does this sound excessive? It’s better to assume that your colleagues are too busy to keep track of your vacation time.
Break the News to Your Family or Friends
Even when you set great boundaries, it takes constant effort to get loved ones to respect them. There’s always that person who thinks your focus hours don’t apply to them. And if you work while on vacation, you can expect that your vacation mates will point out that you’re violating your own boundaries.
Are you tempted to sneak in some work when no one’s watching? Nobody wants an argument. But keeping your work schedule a secret generally makes matters worse. This is especially true if you regularly let work take over your life. If you told your loved ones that you would focus on them during vacation, and then try to work in secret, you can damage relationships.
Talking about you work schedule up front helps maintain your credibility. It also gives people a chance to weigh in. Your friends or family don’t want you to work on vacation. However, if you ask for (and use!) their preferences to plan your work hours, that can go a long way to help them deal with your reality.
I’m part of a large family. And I haven’t seen most of them for more than a year. When I come into town I usually spend every moment visiting and catching up. Since I couldn’t do that this time, I promised I would work only 2 hours each day, and that I would get it done by 9am.
Respect Those Hours
If you tell people you are going to be at work during a set time, make sure you’re there. And then make sure you sign off when you say you will. If you’ve been setting boundaries around your work and home life before your vacation, this should feel familiar to you.
Resist the ‘Just One More Email’ Excuse
Do you feel guilty ignoring work emails? Remember my colleague who sends me instant messages at 11:50. If you answer everyone’s emails while you’re on vacation, you’re rewarding that behavior. You can even justify it by saying that taking care of the problem now means an easier transition back into work later. Don’t do it.
You won’t develop a robust vacation coverage policy if you’re too available. Nobody likes waiting for answers. Nor do we like shifting our routines so we can catch our colleagues before they go on vacation. But you know what? We don’t always like waking up early in the morning to get to work on time, either. We do it because we have to.
Many of our greatest accomplishments as a species were solutions to problems. How can I eat that rabbit when it moves faster than me? Let’s invent the snare! How do I keep from starving during the winter? Let’s figure out how to preserve food!
Do you want a work culture that respects ‘off’ time? Then act as if off time is sacred. If we assume we can’t reach people on vacation, we will invent workarounds for this problem.
I remember when my niece was born. I remember when she used to call me Auntie Orange because I let her steal them out of my fruit bowl. It doesn’t seem possible that she’s a now a married adult. Thanks to the power of my boundaries, I was able to enjoy her moment and build memories that I can look back on for years to come.
I know it’s time to take a break when my inner toddler starts whining. Some people call this part of your mind the ‘lizard brain.’ But lizards don’t get petulant if they’re run too hard. They bite. Or break their tails and run away. Toddlers, on the other hand…I’m pretty sure toddlers invented petulance.
Anyway it’s been an exhausting two weeks. I love the flexibility that remote work gives me, but recently I’ve been getting up early and sacrificing all of my breathing space so I can do things for others.
There’s a lot of advice on what to do when you find yourself running on empty. People like Dr. Brene Brown encourage us to question ‘take the edge off’ culture, and work on correcting the root causes of our exhaustion instead of drinking margaritas (I’m paraphrasing here). Others quote the line from the airplane safety manual, and advise you to put your own oxygen mask on first.
This is great advice. It isn’t always applicable. Sometimes we live in dynamics that are draining but not broken. Raising kids can be like that. You can be up half the night with a feverish child, and still have to get up the next morning and feed the other kids and go to work.
In these types of situations, it absolutely pays to have some go-to tools to take the edge off. I call these cookies. They’re small, bite sized moments of pleasure that you can give to your inner toddler as a reward for wading through the hard bits. They key is to find cookies that are both delicious and good for you.
Things to Think About When Choosing Your Cookies
If You Like It, It’s a Cookie
It’s helpful to think of your back brain as a toddler because, like toddlers, it doesn’t want to wait for gratification. It also isn’t big on rationality. You can’t appease a cranky toddler with a piece of broccoli. It’s also not a good idea to give toddlers too much junk food, or they turn into toddlerzilla. The solution is to distract one with shiny things they can’t refuse.
I once went to an event with my 14 month old daughter. We were sitting behind a family with a boy who was about two, and the child was done with sitting still. He was crying and yelling, until I offered him (with his parents’ permission) a Ritz cracker. He literally went from saying “No! Nonononono” to “oh!”
Grownups aren’t much different when we’re tired and burned out. Make sure the cookies you choose are genuinely pleasurable to you.
Keep a Variety on Hand
Our inner toddlers are fickle beasts. What sounds fun and shiny one day may not be so exciting the next. Different situations also deplete us in different ways. If you’ve been stuck at your desk all day, you might need a cookie that gets you moving. If you’ve been out all day in the sun, it might be time for a reading or watching tv in bed session.
My go-to cookies are knitting and running. Every so often I’ll also lay in bed and read a book. This cookie is extra special, because I don’t often do it. I knit so much because I can do it while my children interrupt me approximately 400 times a minute. I haven’t mastered the art of reading while children are talking. If this isn’t possible please don’t tell me. A woman can dream.
Don’t Lie to Your Inner Toddler
This last point is just as important as choosing good cookies. If you say that you will read a trashy romance novel after you finish the task that’s burning you out, you better do it. If you don’t, the cookies stop working because your inner toddler knows you lie.
For this last bout of burnout, I had to deploy a variety of cookies. On Sunday I slept in, went for a run, knit, and went to see ‘Taming of the Shrew’ at a local theater. I also wrote the first chapter of an urban fantasy/alternative history novel that’s been kicking around in my brain rather obnoxiously asking to get out. None of this solved the crazy business I have to wade through–but it’s recharged my batteries so I can keep going until it’s done.
If you’re currently going through a hard patch–or you see one coming down the road–I hope this gives you some tools to help yourself cope. Just remember that when life feeds you lemons, throw them away and give your inner toddler a cookie.
I’m flying out early Thursday morning to speak at the University of North Carolina about remote work. The two talks use some material from my book, mixed with my personal experience as a remote manager and employee. I’m honored to speak about how to survive and thrive as a remote manager and employee. I’m also looking forward to networking with colleagues I met during my MBA program. I’ll be jet lagged but it’s going to be totally worth it. Chapel Hill is a lovely place.
Not Everyone Wants to be a Digital Nomad
Even though I can work from anywhere with wifi, I usually work inside my home. I like my home office. As someone said on Twitter the other day, when people say they want to travel and work, they usually mean a few trips a year. I am definitely in that category. The last time I had to travel for work was 2014. Flying out of country twice in the space of two weeks is a refreshing change of pace–but I’m glad it isn’t my lifestyle.
The Kids Don’t Like my Work Trips
My son informed me that I ‘have too many trips,’ and the comment made me feel both guilty and grateful. Guilty because I am really looking forward to mixing and mingling without having to worry about cooking dinner or getting people off to school. Grateful because my son has no idea how much more of me he sees because I work from home. I like that my children can take my presence for granted.
I also like that while I can work while traveling, I don’t have to. I could complete my analyst duties while waiting in the airport, or late at night after the UNC event, but I won’t. It’s unplug time. In between my talks and the seminars I’ll attend, I plan to catch up on my New York Times subscription, knit, and perhaps write the start of the next book that is churning in my back brain. All these things are possible because I work for a company with a great vacation policy.
Or maybe I won’t do any of that. Maybe I’ll be too busy connecting in person with the people and the place I haven’t seen since 2014. I’m going to keep the next few days wide open for serendipity. I’m sure there will be plenty to tell you when I get back.
I’ve been looking forward to this week of vacation since mid-February. It’s the busy season at work, and between that and additional work responsibilities, I’ve spent the last few months rushing from task to task in an effort to keep things from crashing to the ground.
I can go into hyper-drive and get an amazing amount of work done in a short amount of time–I am both a mother and a project manager, which is the same as saying I am magic–but I can only do it for so long before I run out of gas. I passed that point at the end of February. Since then, I’ve used chocolate and caffeine to prop me up until I could take a break.
This week is my break. And yet, even knowing that I need a break, I’ve been tempted to fill the free time with all of the things I’ve neglected while work has been busy. And I don’t mean cleaning. That’s pretty easy to ignore.
It’s the fun stuff that’s calling to me. The kids and I should explore Vancouver! I should go back to learning the ukulele! I should write all the things! I should make time to exercise every day, and maybe cook better, more elaborate meals. I want to film a really fun idea I have for a social media video for my book, and go on a reading binge, and start my kids on 5k run training, and sew a shirt for me and a skirt for my daughter, and…you get the picture.
I am a goal-driven person, and I like getting stuff done, but even I knew that cramming all of this stuff into my week would send me on a one way trip to insanity-land. And my kids (who are on spring break) would be miserable.
Manufacturing misery seemed like a poor way to spend my vacation, so I settled on a loose plan of exercising for 15 minutes in the morning, and writing for 30 minutes or so before my kids got up. I would then take my children to one kid-friendly activity out of the house. The rest of the time would be free for whatever floated our boat.
On Monday we walked on the beach. On Tuesday we played at the pool for hours. On Wednesday we had cinnamon rolls, and found new books to read at the bookstore. Today we’re going to Science World, and Friday we might try our hand at making soap. I’ve knit a lot, read some, and neglected the morning exercise in favor of reading in bed. In short, I’ve spent the better part of my week well rested and unstressed.
It’s glorious. I hope to hang on to this feeling when I go back to work next week. Who knows? Maybe I’ll have enough energy at the end of the work day to pick up the ol’ uke again.