A Recipe for Burnout
There was a time, about 10 years ago, when I rented my own office in the downtown area of my city. I was running a record label and music distribution at the time. (Remember those things called CDs?)
It was mostly just me. Although I had some great people helping me from time to time, I was the guy in charge. I made my own hours, I ran the ship.
At the same time, my wife was expecting twins. And we had just moved into a very old apartment that needed considerable work to prepare for the coming winter.
Considering that we already had two other children, I felt swamped. Because my office building was next door to our apartment, I was often on call for any needs in the home. And if you saw my office, you’d see a total mess.
So, I was jumping between my work, home maintenance, and caring for my other children. (Picking them up from kindergarten, running errands, etc.)
And I learned something – you can be in two places at once, but not three places at once. I was juggling phone calls, emails, meetings. I was trying to keep a lot of plates spinning.
And that’s when the chest pains started. I would have anxiety attacks during the workday. And soon afterwards, I accrued a fatigue that kept me in bed for days. I couldn’t do anything.
In essence, the things that were troubling me were all things I needed to respond to. And so, I realize from this that I needed a system to respond to things.
How Parents are Like Detectives
The problem is, it couldn’t be a project management system. I knew there was a difference between responding and acting. When I’m working on my projects, I’m acting on my goals. For me, projects were something to be excited about. Projects involve breaking new ground, making progress.
But the things that I was responding to weren’t exciting to me – rental agreements, home repairs, tax reports. So I wasn’t inspired to create a system for them.
It took a few more years of chest pains and periodical fatigue to properly set a place for all the not-fun stuff that had to be addressed.
I called them “Cases”. Because that’s what they are. Just like any caseworker, from a social worker to a detective, you’ve got open cases, you’ve got closed cases.
I learned about the idea of cases when I started using the app Highrise for managing my contacts and business deals. Highrise has a feature called “Cases”. A simple an elegant solution that changed my life. I finally had a digital home for all the stuff I had to respond to.
Sure, you can put your cases wherever you want – I used paper folders for years. You can use cloud-based storage apps like Google Drive or Dropbox. But I found that having a dedicated place just for cases (as opposed to projects or other things) works best for me.
How to Create Cases
Now, let’s say you’re feeling overwhelmed. You’ve got to repair the car, apply for a loan, and follow-up with your child’s teacher. Each of these things require multiple steps of action.
Repair the car:
- Research potential mechanics
- Get a price quote
- Book a time to drop your car off
Apply for a loan:
- Research loans and interest rates
- Book a meeting with the bank
- Scan, file, and print all necessary documents
Follow-up with your child’s teacher
- Review your parent-teacher meeting notes
- Draft an email
- Attach any necessary documents or photos and send email
All these things that I need to respond to, they all come in addition to my work life. And those nine above tasks can feel like a lot, when you’re already working full-time.
But the first step to getting relief is to give each thing you need to respond to a name and a case. Then you can break each case down into to-dos.
Here are some proposed names for these above cases:
- Auto Care – Car Repair [mm/yy]
- Financial – Loan Application [mm/yy]
- Schooling – Parent-Teacher Meeting [mm/yy]
Once you’ve given all that stuff a name, and broken it down into tasks, what’s the immediate thing that happens? It no longer weighs on your conscious mind, and your conscious mind is free to attend to other things. Like your job, your creative work, your family, or rest and recreation.
Now, you still need to get all those tasks done, and it can be daunting. But if you develop for yourself a process of:
- Identifying cases
- Naming cases
- Giving cases a place
- Breaking cases down into to-dos
- Setting weekly reminders to check-in on important cases
Over time, you’ll find your cases to be less and less urgent. Because you are managing the things you need to respond to. You’re managing crisis. And over time, you will find yourself able to address one case at a time, one task at a time.
Here are some tips for managing your cases:
- If something you need to respond to reaches three to-dos, open a case for it.
- Do not keep your cases where your projects are – they’re different. Projects are for acting, cases are for responding. This way your projects will continue to excite you, instead of getting muddied up by mundane administrative tasks.
- Work on one case at a time, one task at a time. If you get a task done, consider stopping for the day. The sense of accomplishment you feel will help you in other things throughout the day, and inspire you to tackle the next case tomorrow.
- Set yourself reminders to check in in important cases once a week.
Do you have a way of managing cases? Let me know in the comments below.