Here’s how to build your Peak Productivity Plan (and not fall victim to burnout)
Okay, 2 weeks into the new year, how are we doing? Hit the ground running and excited for all those 2023 OKRs being finalised within your teams? Enjoying grinding back into central London on the stuttering commute and shaking out those sodden brollies discreetly in the office foyer? Yup we’re back, the holidays are over.
It’s tougher these days for us corporate bods to settle back into optimal work flow. We’re not Olympic swimmers knowing the pool is our daily place of work, nor athletes based stringently in the gym or track, we’re not gardeners with the same van, same tools, same gardens, we’re not child carers in the same nursery locking up and heading home at 6.30pm. No, we’ve got a different, varied set up entirely. Hybrid, always-on, boundary-less, KPI-full. Inconsistent work places and spaces demanding consistency of output.
Of course, it didn’t use to be this way. For centuries office workers have shown up, grafted then headed home to rejuvenate. Most of us in our 40s will remember those decades of doing the 9 to 5 without a grumble, leaving our ashtrays, phones and notepads in the office knowing once out of those corporate doors, work stopped.
Change came and we felt liberated when laptops first outsold pcs in the mid 2000s and employers tentatively started trusting employees with take-home equipment. Enter those anxious fears of post-work Soho drinks “Must not lose my bag, must not lose my bag tonight.”
Then remember the heady days of seminal hot desking. Oh the psychological experiment of grab a desk and nope sorry those family photos and that plant need to go home now. One of the most vehement opposors I recall had built her entire work self-esteem on presenteeism (7am to 7pm no less, same prominent mid-office location forever), so was incredible jolted by this, bless her.
The big tech behemoths simultaneously paved the way for entrepreneurial side hustles to burgeon (supposedly during paid work time), with the likes of Google encouraging 20% of focus to be on building ‘inspiring, growth projects’. This step was to encourage innovation and intra-preneurial thinking, inviting a fail-fast culture to rise positively.
The pandemic triggered more change again with mass adoption of video meeting technology (and zooming Zoom share values!). Remote working was validated and heralded. How quickly we all adapted and embraced daily and nightly video calls every which way – Year 9 Lockdown Quiz Night anyone?
But how quickly the bubble burst as burnout rates increased. Over productivity (11 hours a day worked on average) became the norm. Boundaries blurred between home and work life with leadership teams in the bemusing virtual intimacy of bedrooms, kids joining board meetings, lunches prepped during calls and webinars consumed from the treadmill.
So now, here we are. Working in multiple places, probably running side businesses too, employers expecting always-on responses, global networks with timezone challenges (repeat always-on expectation, “Beijing + London Status Call 7am any good Monday?), juggling school runs, housework, homework and food shops during the working day, still rich with best intentions to exercise, relax, meditate, etc, ommmmmmm.
Nope we’re not chained to a desk nor spending hours per week commuting as before, in fact conversely we’re invited to embrace autonomy of our time and space, but I’ll bet you haven’t been given a manual yet on how to manage what we’ve slid into and I’ll wager even higher that you’re feeling pretty overwhelmed and lacking in energy.
The stats say it all. 1 in 4 European workers will be off sick long term for burnout this year. Pleasingly however, employers are supporting workforces with mental health guidance, time management support and more, as well as elevating healthy staff performance strategies to shareholder agendas as a shiny, important thing. Publicis Groupe for example, my company, have gifted us with Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global content which encourages stress management in powerful, myriad ways. (Sidenote, I’m a big fan as I’m honoured to regularly have my articles published on Thrive, gracious bow, thank you.)
So, we’re victim to this new world of work, but… I don’t do ‘victim’ and you don’t need to either.
If we want to avoid cognitive burnout and dilution of output, if we want to get our deep focus back and manage our time and energy to enjoy graceful productivity with maximum impact, there are steps we can take to control this.
Here are the 3 key areas impacting our work happiness that you can absolutely optimise right now to suit your individuality.
That Olympic swimmer mentioned earlier has a neurological association with a pool as her ‘productivity zone’. It’s the place where she (quite literally) flows. She sees the pool and unleashes every skill she’s learned, every move she’s practiced, and importantly every mindset she’s ever conditioned herself to associate with swimming a race in a pool. She sees the pool and her body and mind spark innately into peak action. Her behaviour has become innate, synonymous with the symbolism of the pool. And it’s become innate because of neurological associations formed over hours and hours and years and years of repetition.
This is called ecological psychology, a freshly booming branch of neuroscience linking behaviour with environment. The premise explained is that, for instance, you see a chair and you interpret such an assembly of legs, seat and back as something to sit on. When a baby first sees a chair however, there’s no instinctive association with sitting, the chair becoming a seat is learned.
And so we can build the associations we so choose to deliver our best work in the place/s we work.
Stephen King applauds same time, same location, same desk, same music (hardcore heavy mental interestingly – yikes, personally can’t think of anything worse, then again horror is definitely not my genre) as his cue for creativity. He vociferously denounces waiting for the muse, citing in his memoir On Writing, “Don’t wait for the muse. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you are going to be every day from nine ‘til noon or seven ‘til three. If he knows, I assure you he’ll start showing up’.
Similarly, devout meditators always have a zen corner ready and waiting for immediate melty inner-realm transportation the moment they settle lotus-legged onto their trusty cushion.
Flourish Progress Principle: Think about your own work locations and what each space positively stimulates for you in terms of mood and output. Could you enhance any of the environments within your control to make them more comfortable, familiar, quiet or stimulating for instance?
Now, let’s blend environment with grounding rituals per place and type of work.
Priming ourselves to get into the work zone is essential when we’re hopping around so much from office to train/bus/tube/plane to coffee shop to guest bedroom to kitchen to hotel.
Think of the pre-show clips of world-class performers before they go on stage holding hands with their crew saying prayers or mantras to prime themselves for collective excellence. Or the pre-match sports coach guiding fit minds into the winning state.
There are different types of work of course. We probably flit across several types each day. Each category of work potentially requires a different mindset. Analytical work needs an alert focused state, creative work a loose, floaty, expansive state, collaborative work a more extrovert communicative state perhaps. Again, you will individually know what mood you need to be in to deliver your best per type of work. What’s important here is creating a trigger ritual to stimulate the state you need.
For me, grounding myself into creative work comprises a slow, conscious, ‘present’ walk around the garden with my dalmatian, 4 slow, deep belly breaths once seated, a herbal tea with fresh lemon and ginger and a vanilla candle flickering. I enter my intellectual sanctuary and research and write peacefully and productively.
To get into my pumped up exercise mood, it’s the process of scraping my hair into a ponytail, putting on my trainers and my favourite playlist on max as I psyche myself into the zone.
To adjust to the office environment, I bring high energy (and stiletto heels obvs – psychological power cue for me 😉), so like to have exercised before the working day begins. I deliberately cluster face to face meetings into office time so know I’ll need to keep energy up for hours unwaveringly (my choice) and ensure nuts, fruit and snacks keep me upbeat and consistently ‘on’, after having had a big veg juice en route in.
Amy Cuddy, author of Presence, recommends a power pose pre big stage presentation moments to release testosterone into the body to eliminate feeling ‘small, nervous and insignificant’. She advises hands on hips, feet apart, chest broad and the ‘assertive’ hormones will soar making the presentation powerful and big.
Flourish Progress Principle: Reflect on who you are in your different work environments and how you can trip into that best version of who you are every time you show up with your own grounding/motivating/zoning rituals.
Each one of us is bio-individual. I may be an early morning lark, you may be a night owl. We have natural cycles of hormone surges and depletions, and varying reactions to daylight, blue light and stimulants that are all unique to each of us. Learn your chronotype and optimise the type of work you do when, based on your most alert or lowest energy periods. Great test I recommend is here via The Sleep Doctor
I also recommend monitoring your sleep to honour what your body needs. For 14 consecutive days go to sleep at the same time and see what time you naturally wake up, make a note and that will be your average. On average it’s between 7 to 8 hours (I’m 7 hours 10 mins for the record). NB no alcohol, food, caffeine and ideally no blue light 3 hours before sleep.
Flourish Progress Principle: Really tune into your natural energy rhythms to use your non-artificially-induced (so more healthy) cortisol surges for your most demanding/invigorating work.
Okay, so let’s get practical now and build your PPP Peak Productivity Plan.
Steps to optimise yourself and how you work
- List the different types of work you do across a week – creative, admin, financial analysis, etc
- List the locations where you work eg Home, Office, Train, Starbucks, etc
- Create 3 Mindset Categories for how you work. For example, I use:- 1. Introvert Energy – Focused/Alert, 2. Low Energy/Low Mood, 3. Extrovert Energy – Expansive/Communicative
- Reflect on your chronotype and daily energy rhythms to work out your peaks and troughs across the day and week
Now create a grid like the one below and complete each field per category with mindset, preferred location and preferred time of day/week eg
|Category of work||Mindset||Preferred Location||Preferred Time of Day/Week|
|F2F comms||High energy||Office||AM/PM (3 days per week ideally)|
You are now empowered to map out your ideal work schedule each week.
Take time to review your calendar for next week and beyond and move what you can to optimise YOU. Do you need Fridays with zero meetings to recover for a high energy 8 hours on Thursday? Can you cluster admin to an hour every day post lunch? Can you block three mornings for your most challenging tasks next week in their entirety? Where does exercise and family time fit in?
Print your grid out and stick in your notebook. Share with your team and EA. Encourage your team to complete these exercises too and learn about each other’s optimal PPP rhythms.
Surfacing the above and building your practical guide to your ideal way to work gives you unprecedented empowerment. It’s up to you to now be fully accountable for both your energy and productivity. You have the power to work your world to suit you – where, how, with whom and when. Quite a gift isn’t it?
With loving wishes to you to flourish,
PS Please let me know you get on implementing this and if you feel or experience resistance anywhere. Email me any time with questions and I’ll happily respond – email@example.com