7 steps to improving your work performance and wellbeing
You’ve likely read numerous books and articles telling you that taking time-off is good for your performance and wellbeing. But why are you still struggling to take breaks, go to bed in good time and really take some time-off on weekends (not the kind of time off when you’re plugged into your phone or doing “lighter work”)? The reasons that may come to mind likely include the following – "I’ve just got so much work on”, “I simply can’t afford to take time off", "I don’t get time during the week to do proper work because I’m constantly on phone calls", and so on. These used to be precisely my thoughts.
I’ve learnt however, the hard way, that this type of ongoing behaviour leads to burnout. The extra time you may be gaining now is likely going to be double or triple lost when your body and brain have exhausted their resources. We need to re-adjust our expectations about how much work we and our team members can do given everything happening around us. In doing so, we stand a chance to come out of this crisis more balanced and resilient as opposed to burnt out. The net effect – better performance and wellbeing.
Once you’ve made that conscious realisation and said to yourself "Yes, no more. I can’t keep stretching myself like an elastic band. It will eventually break and fixing it will take a lot more time.", you are now faced with the challenge of changing your behaviour. By now you may have realised that behaviour change is hard. After the age of 30, it is estimated that 95% of your behaviour comes from your subconscious mind. That means you don’t control it, it just happens. So changing your behaviour to form clear boundaries between time-on and time-off, requires re-programming your subconscious.
How do you go about doing it? Firstly choose a routine you’d like to work on – it may be a pre-work morning routine, a work routine that includes regular breaks, or an evening routine. Then begin by following the 7-step framework below, which I have architected based on tens of books and programmes on behaviour change, my own experience and that of my clients.
Step 1: Get a real sense for why this routine matters to you
Not why you’d like to do it, but why you need to do it. What may happen if you don’t do it? To stand a chance at taking time-off, you need to identify a motivation that is stronger than your desire to be working at that time. Not only on a rational level, but on a deeply emotional level.
Step 2: Be reminded of that deeply emotional motivation
By creating a visual reminder of your motivation, you’re more likely to over-ride your subconscious instincts of slipping back into time-on mode. Experiment and find a visual reminder that works for you – a word-art print, a bracelet, a large poster, a message on your phone alarm or even post-it notes.
Step 3: Become aware of how things are at the moment
Start tracking your time to get more visibility. But don’t waste your energy on feeling guilty if you discover your time is not well spent. Turn that guilt into excitement for the opportunity to repurpose that time and make a change.
Step 4: Decide on the things you want to change
Identify up to 3 things about your current routine that you’d like to change. When you think about those things, ask yourself – what, how, when, where, with whom would you do them? Be as detailed as possible. For example “As soon as I wake up, I would like to do 30 minutes of yoga in my living room using an online programme.”
Step 5: Design systems to support the execution of those changes
As James Clear explains in his book Atomic Habits – "You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems." Strong systems often include the following:
- Stacking new actions onto essential activities e.g. "After I brush my teeth, I put on my yoga gear."
- Priming the environment to remind you of the action and to make it easy e.g. "My yoga gear is hanging on the towel rail to remind me and make it easy for me to put it on."
- Minimising the action by identifying the decisive moment (e.g. putting on your yoga gear), automating where possible with tech (e.g. having a suggested yoga class), and starting small (e.g. a 10-minute class if you want to get to a 30-minute one)
- Designing immediate rewards to make it immediately satisfactory e.g. "I will have my morning coffee after doing my yoga practice."
- Having social support e.g. your partner, your flatmate, your family or work colleagues either doing it together, encouraging you or holding you accountable.
Step 6: Plan for contingencies and risky situations
Ideally plan for at least five possible risky situations using "if-then" statements – "If [EVENT] occurs, I will [ACTION]". For example "If I get pinged by a colleague first thing in the morning, I will politely tell them that I’ll get back to them within an hour."
Step 7: Track and refine your systems
Track your behaviour against its expected benefits e.g. feeling more balanced throughout the day, to create a feedback loop. Also track your successes and the obstacles you’re facing. Review them once or twice a week and reflect on what additional systems you can put in place.
Why are all the above steps necessary? They help you "hack" your subconscious thought and behaviour patterns by creating a system which facilitates a repeated redirection of those thought and behaviour patterns. The more you repeat it, the more your brain cells "re-wire" to form new subconscious behaviours. With such strong systems in place, you’ll start forming those work and life routines which create clear boundaries between time-on and time-off, optimising for your performance at work as well as your wellbeing.
Last word of caution – don’t give up if you can’t implement it all on your own. Find an accountability partner – a friend, a colleague or a coach. As the African proverb says “If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.”