Increasing productivity through self-validation for tech professionals

How validating your own needs and valuing yourself as being worthy of self-care leads to becoming more focused and efficient at work.

If you'd like to receive more information and worksheets for following through with the techniques in this article, sign up for my free Productivity Through Self-Validation mini-course.

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That feeling of a fresh mind, maybe after a morning cup of coffee or a lunch-time walk. You sit down to do your day's work, and within 30 minutes or so, you feel laser-focused and determined to write that piece of code, design that application screen, or organize your team's weekly work. Your body and your mind play together, 'in the zone', where you feel like you are more than sum of your parts.

How often do you get this feeling? And how long does it last?

Now imagine an opposite scenario. There are ten different things on your mind. You feel irritated. You get constant email notifications. Your deadlines are approaching and there is still so much to do. Your attention is scrambling to keep up, your heart is racing and your mind sits somewhere between panic and exhaustion.

How did this happen?

The good news is that there are specific things that you can do to get "into the zone" every day and stay in it regularly and for long enough to see a difference in both your well-being and in productivity. Below are some behaviours that you may be regularly doing right now and that generate stress and distractions. For each behaviour, an alternative is offered that helps you validate yourself, while having a positive impact on your work as a side-effect.

Reacting quickly to silence anxiety (1/5)

When you are presented with a new stressor, your mind is unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, creating anxiety. For example, you may immediately commit to implementing a new feature or fixing a bug, because a client or your manager complained about a piece of functionality that you have written.

Even though your anxiety is temporarily suppressed and the other person is happy, you have just agreed to have more on your plate without fully judging the consequences first.

Take a moment instead

As an alternative, take a deep breath first. Then check your boundaries - who are you in this situation? Where do your needs end and those of others begin? Take the time that you need to fully assess your needs and needs of others, process your emotions, and respond in a way that is fair to everyone.

In my Productivity Through Self-Validation mini-course, I provide a Stressor Reaction Planner worksheet that will help you to get into the habit of doing just that.

Planning the future with no margin for error (2/5)

If you work in tech, you have no doubt been asked the question: "How long is this going to take?" or "Can you get this done by tomorrow?". It is no secret that the Planning fallacy [1] keeps us from underestimating the time needed to complete a task and forces us to commit to unrealistic deadlines. Not having enough time to complete a task creates a tremendous amount of stress and associated mental and physical health symptoms such as irritability, anxiety, muscle pain, sweating, nausea, headaches, insomnia and others [2, 3, 4].

Plan for the unexpected instead

The first step is accepting that you do not know the future and that it is ok. Second, always plan for the worst-case scenario. For example, if 5 tasks may take between 1 and 1.5 days each, expect to take 7.5 days to complete them.

Finally, do not expect that you (or your team mates) will be able to dedicate 100% of available time to the task.

Sprinting all the time (3/5)

In addition to being subject to the Planning fallacy described above, management as well as team members themselves expect to deliver all that has been planned and therefore work overtime, do not take proper lunch breaks, and in general dedicate their entire mind and body to work. Over a longer period of time, this causes burnout and productivity plummets.

Take breaks that count instead

The human body and the human mind cannot sprint forever, and it is ok. A rested you can do a much better job, more than making up for the breaks you take.

When taking a break, it is important to make sure that it counts - ideally, try to do something else than thinking, preferably a physical activity like having a walk or stretching. I provide a worksheet that will help you plan and evaluate your break schedules in my Productivity Through Self-Validation mini-course.

Break planning works best when combined with your Personal Focus Model, described below.

Frequently jumping between activities (4/5)

It takes mental energy to switch between tasks. If you do it too often, you may find yourself unfocused and irritated. As a result, you are unable to do any task very well.

Commit instead

Be willing to dedicate portions of your day to specific tasks, such as replying to emails, doing research, technical work, meetings, etc.

As a first step, observe how your mind works to find your ideal length of time for doing a certain type of task. I call this your Personal Focus Model (PFM) and provide worksheet that helps you discover your PFM in my free mini-course.

Once you have figured out what distinctive tasks you need to do and for how long, get into the habit of planning your day every morning or planning your next week every Friday.

Being always available to others (5/5)

An open office, or a home office that you share with your partner, can be full of distractions that go beyond your own tasks. Just like jumping frequently between tasks of your own, giving your attention away to other people in an uncontrolled way teaches your mind to always be on alert for the outside world instead of being dedicated to what you are currently doing.

Create your own physical and mental space instead

The most important and the easiest thing that you can do is switching off phone and email notifications when you are focusing on an activity.

In an open office environment, it is good to establish indicators that signal to others when somebody is working and should not be disturbed. In a home office situation, you can also agree on signals such as having the door to your working space closed when you are busy. Gently ask your partner or housemate to respect your working space and time by observing these signals.

Commit to your own well-being first

It is a myth that we need to keep crunching and delivering long hours in high-speed, high-demand, high-risk industries such as tech. It is also a myth that one needs to choose between working hard and taking care of themselves.

By acknowledging and accepting our personal needs and our limits, and by validating ourselves as someone who is worthy of self-care, we create a mental space for ourselves where we can thrive in a sustainable way. And, as a bonus, we are also assuring that we turn up for work in the best way we possibly can.
As a counsellor whose first career was in software development, I help tech professionals deal with challenging workplaces and burnout. Learn more if you need support.

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