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Beat Team Burnout by Getting Real About Focus Block Availability
It's not about the *time* available - it's about their available focus blocks
While I didn’t necessarily mean to start a series, this post is the second in a series on beating burnout by cultivating better team habits.1 Last week, I discussed why team decision-making habits are key to combating burnout.
The usual upshot of building better team decision-making habits is that the team will get more of their time back. This is usually a “and the people rejoice 🎉” scenario up until the team or manager piles more work on them with their newfound “free time.”
Just because you’ve created more free time for your team doesn’t mean you’ve created the right kinds of time for your team. Or that you and your teammates will automatically shift into doing the high-value strategic work that y’all have been yearning to do.
In an upcoming post in this series, I’ll discuss the strategic-urgent-recurring logjam in more depth, but part of the reason more free time does not equal more time available for strategic work is that there’s still urgent and recurring work to attend to. For many teams, the urgent work grabs and keeps their high-energy attention and recurring work is the work they go to to calm down and have some sense of control. The chaos of the urgent and the calm of the recurring eat up all available time.
Many teams are burnt out simply because they don’t have enough focus blocks to power the work they have on their plate. The stress of carrying too many projects and culturally- and self-imposed requirements that they take work extra hours to try to get them done is tapping into reserves they no longer have after three and a half years. The duration of the stress and project load accounts for why burnout is higher now than at the height of the pandemic.2
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Real Progress Requires Focus Blocks
Regardless of whether it’s that recurring project that creeps back up once a quarter, the urgent project that Must.Be.Done.Now, or a strategic project that perenially lives into the “get to it when we have time” bucket, you and your team need focus blocks to push them forward.
The concept of focus blocks and the principle of three focus blocks per week, per project, comes straight from Start Finishing. A focus block is 90 to 120 minutes of time dedicated to a single project.
The standard guideline I give is that if you want to make progress on a project every week, the project is going to need three focus blocks. Fewer than that and you’ll be stuck in warmup and update cycles and the project will drag on for months and quarters, when it really could’ve been done in a week or two.
A common flaw in team planning habits is that the team assumes that a project that might take 20 hours of team time can be done easily in a week when in reality, it might take 20 hours of team time, but that time is going to be spread out over the next four weeks because there’s no open time.
Spotlighting Focus Blocks Show Where Your Team’s Time Is Really Going
When clients and teams actually take focus blocks seriously, what they usually discover is that they don’t have as many as they thought they had. In case you want to do this yourself, you can download the Team Focus Block Audit below - it’s part of the resources for Team Habits.
I’ll point out the obvious here: if 50-80% of your team’s time is filled up with meetings, routines, admin, comms, and crisco watermelons, your team only has 20-50% of their time to make progress on projects.
If we posit the idealistic 40-hour workweek, that’s 8 to 20 hours a week available for projects. If we convert those hours into focus blocks, that’s 4 to 10 focus blocks per week.
Remember that suggestion that it’s three focus blocks per week per project from above?
4-10 focus blocks per week equal one or, at most, three projects per week that they can make progress on.
The reason I’m showing the math is that, for many teams, the math ain’t mathing. You can’t put 14 units of stuff into a 10-unit bag.
It’s not about character, generational archetypes, can-do, or work ethic. It’s a basic math problem.
Seeing this allows your team to make different choices. But I hope the first choice is that you’ll get real about your available focus blocks, together, and stop the magical thinking that’s leading to you and your teammates’ burnout.
Focus on Project Throughput, Not Project Load
Assuming you have a real conversation that opens up the space for you to make better commitments and treat each other better, you’ll likely end up in some kind of project triage scenario - it’ll be a team version of a project cagematch.
I don’t know your specific situation enough to advise much more than to say: when in doubt, choose to focus on getting one project to the finish line. The real goal is project throughput - or the amount of material or items passing through a system or process - not project load.
In a team setting, excess project load amounts to a lot of status/update conversations, shuffling, and emotional labor that makes work suck more. The excess projects can’t actually move forward, but take up team space and attention nonetheless.
It’d be easy to assume that getting a project to the finish line biases the easy work and low-hanging fruit. That’s not necessarily the case, as it’s often smarter to break a strategic project down into smaller, more meaningful milestones - that is, a smaller project - and push them forward. Fixing the damn broken printer this week might free up more focus blocks for the remainder of the month.
Lowering the project load can be as simple as agreeing, together, that there are some projects you’re just going to kick back into the parking lot or drop so you can focus on what’s right in front of you. For instance, a SaaS team might kick those quality-of-life projects back in the backlog so they can focus on the value generators - and non-SaaS teams may do that to their analogous projects.
Imagine not having to posture about and discuss projects that you and your teammates know damn well you’re not going to make progress on. Imagine feeling like this week’s work on this week’s projects that actually got done was enough.
You can get there with and for your team.
The last section was about the pain of the math; I hope this section highlights the gain of the practice.
But Can't We Just Hire People to Increase Focus Blocks?
Avoid the "we can just hire someone to increase focus blocks” trap.
Spoiler alert: Hiring doesn’t necessarily save team time or free up capacity focus blocks across the team. Someone has to hire, integrate, and train the new person. In other words, it becomes a project that cuts into the focus blocks you were already short on.
The new person won't immediately be able to do the work, so you won't feel the increase of available focus blocks for a few months.
And if your team - including the managers and leaders who coordinate and allocate resources - is already at 100% utilization of focus blocks and can't keep up, additional focus blocks from a new teammate amount to waste, unmet expectations, and, typically, debt that then sucks away at resources you could use to increase focus blocks.
My typical approach when it comes to engagements is to cut to essential value-creating work before we hire anyone.
Adding people only reinforces the magical thinking that created the capacity problem in the first place. Most teams scale up their inefficiencies and bad team habits until they reach their new breaking point. This inevitably leads to the layoff → capacity and knowledge gap → hire up → layoff cycle that’s wasteful, short-sighted, and painful for the folks staying, coming, and going.
Yes, it’s another case where subtraction is a better vector for problem-solving than addition.
If a team learns to better use the focus blocks they already have and then sees that they’re truly at capacity against value-creating work, then they can have fruitful discussions about how adding capacity would take us further. They can have smart conversations about the kinds of focus blocks they need and what they’d do. And they can have better conversations about the focus blocks it’s going to take to create that new capacity with a new teammate and get real about what that timeline looks like.
And, along the way, they’ll be creating team habits that help them beat burnout right now.
Back in the early days of writing Productive Flourishing, mini-series would fall out of me all the time, so much so that I stopped calling them mini-series. This is happening all over again with this publication. I’ll probably just embrace the mini-series mindset this time around since it suits the medium and audience better.
According to the Aflac WorkForces Report, “More than half (59%) of all American workers are experiencing at least moderate levels of burnout. This is 9 percentage points higher than what was self-reported in 2021 and 2 percentage points higher than in August 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.” This is the same stat I mentioned in the last post, but I don’t want to assume you’ll read that one first.