Episode 98 – Productivity vs. Burnout

Episode #98
Original Air Date: 02.03.2020

38 Minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: Sarah Hoban

Are you suffering from burnout and low productivity? How can you avoid that? Do you wish you could take time to disconnect from your daily routines and projects? We’re talking with Sarah Hoban about identifying those workplace stressors that lead to potential burnout, and how boosting your productivity can be an antidote to burnout. Sarah talks about the symptoms of burnout and recognizing these symptoms in yourself and your team members.

As she recounts her recovery from burnout and the steps she has taken to prevent future burnout, Sarah offers excellent advice, such as how to delegate effectively, how understanding the ‘why’ is a remedy to burnout, and how to make time to spark creativity.

A presenter at the PMI Global Conference 2019, Sarah is a PMP Certified Project Manager and Strategy Consultant with 11 years of experience at Booz Allen Hamilton, directing complex multimillion-dollar projects and leading diverse global teams. She also hosts the weekly blog and podcast titled “The Stealthy Project Manager”.

Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

"...productivity isn’t a zero-sum game. ... And it’s not about being perfect in your productivity, ... It’s really about taking gradual steps to improve every day. It’s not like you are productive or you’re not, and if you’re not, you’re a failure. It’s how can I make one small change to be a little bit better than I was yesterday?"

- Sarah Hoban

“...imagine creativity as managing energy, maybe, more than managing time, and making sure that you’re targeting the time where you’re feeling the best for the things that are the most difficult.”

- Sarah Hoban

“...there are long-term consequences, both to the current project and to future projects when team members are under stress and the creativity starts to take a back seat. There’s no oxygen for creativity anymore.”

- Bill Yates

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The Podcast for Project Managers by Project Managers. Are you suffering from burnout and low productivity? Sarah Hoban talks about identifying workplace stressors that lead to burnout, and how boosting your productivity can be an antidote to burnout. Hear how to recognize the symptoms of burnout and how to delegate effectively.

Table of Contents

01:47 … Meet Sarah
02:45 … Burnout
04:20 … Symptoms of Burnout
06:02 … Recognizing Burnout in your Team
08:09 … Unchecked Burnout
09:58 … Identifying Workplace Stressors
11:03 … Recovering from Burnout
13:00 … Knowing the Why
16:09 … Productivity as an Antidote
17:40 … Delegating Effectively
21:05 … Daily and Weekly Reviews
24:56 … Annual Review
26:02 … Time to Disconnect
28:08 … Staying Creative
30:07 … Preventing Burnout in Team Members
31:37 … Overcoming the 80/20 Delegation Rule
34:46 … Best Advice
35:54 … Get in Touch with Sarah
36:58 … Closing

SARAH HOBAN: …productivity isn’t a zero-sum game.  You’re not productive or you’re not.  And it’s not about being perfect in your productivity, if that makes sense.  It’s really about taking gradual steps to improve every day.  It’s not like you are productive or you’re not, and if you’re not, you’re a failure.  It’s how can I make one small change to be a little bit better than I was yesterday? 

NICK WALKER:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  It’s a chance for us to get inside the minds of some of the people who make project management happen, those who are doing the job, and sometimes training others to do it, and do it well.

I’m your host, Nick Walker, here to tell you that some of the guests we feature on this podcast are with us because of the feedback you have given.  So we hope you’ll keep the comments coming on your podcast listening app, or Velociteach.com, or on social media.

Alongside me, as always, is Bill Yates.  And Bill, this time we’re going to talk about a subject that, frankly, might be a little scary for some, and one that some of us probably just wish didn’t exist at all.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  It’s a reality check.  We’re going to talk about burnout.

NICK WALKER:  Excellent.

BILL YATES:  I heard Sarah speak at PMI Global Conference 2019.  And I found her speech and presentation very refreshing, very relatable.  She began by talking about burnout, and then went into, okay, how do I avoid that, and how do I become more productive?  But it was stuff that we need to hear as project managers.  So I look forward to this conversation.

NICK WALKER:  Yeah.  The fact is, most of us are in a continuous effort to get more done with the time that we have.  And that can cause stress.  And while stress may actually encourage creativity and improve productivity, excessive stress in the workplace can have the opposite effect and cause burnout.

Meet Sarah

Our guest, Sarah Hoban, is with us to speak about that.  She’s a PMP Certified Project Manager and Strategy Consultant with 11 years of experience at Booz Allen Hamilton, directing complex multimillion-dollar projects and leading diverse global teams.  Her career is focused on incorporating project management techniques to improve organizational business processes.  She has a master’s in International Relations and International Economics from Johns Hopkins University and a graduate certificate from Georgetown University.  She hosts the weekly blog and podcast titled “The Stealthy Project Manager.”  She’s Skyping with us from Washington, D.C. today.  Sarah, welcome to Manage This.

Let’s talk about what might be an ugly word for some.  It’s a subject that you’re all too familiar with:  burnout.  Tell me why you’re all too familiar with it.


SARAH HOBAN:  Yeah.  It was actually something that I experienced, I think like many project managers have probably experienced at some point.  There was a period of time where I was working on a project, and I think there were a couple of factors at play there that contributed to me feeling like I was burnt out.  One, there was a miscommunication of expectations about role – I’m sure that resonates with a lot of project managers – where I was told, you know, I’d be working on this project four hours a week for financial management.  And it turned out that they really wanted a 100 percent project manager role.  So definitely a little bit different than what I was expecting.  So I think that was one thing.

The other was it was a type of project that the company I worked for at the time was not really used to performing.  So I had prior experience from a previous engagement that I had worked on that I could bring to the table.  But I didn’t have a lot of folks within my firm who had the expertise to help me through some of the challenges of the project.  Not to say that I didn’t have help, but it was just we were all figuring it out together.  So it was hectic at times.

And then I think the third thing was being somewhat new to the type of assignment that I was involved in.  So I’d managed a lot of projects before, but I had never managed a project of this size and with this amount of people before.  So there was definitely a learning curve for me, too.  And as a result kind of the confluence of those three factors contributed to me probably taking on a lot more than I really should have.  I didn’t trust my team as much as I should have.  I was doing more of the work, the responsibility for delivery.  And so it resulted in me working a lot of nights and weekends.  And at a point I realized, you know, this is not sustainable.  I don’t like the person that I am here, and I want to make a change.

Symptoms of Burnout

NICK WALKER:  Yeah.  What did that look like on you?  What were the symptoms?

SARAH HOBAN:  Yeah, I think a lot of times – I’m glad you asked that question.  I think a lot of times project managers will be burnt out.  They won’t necessarily realize it, or it won’t be as dramatic so they think it’s fine.  And I think for a lot of things burnout is synonymous with failure, and nobody likes to fail.  And we don’t want to admit that we may be in trouble or needing help.  So for me it was I was working long hours, nights and weekends.

I was working without my team, which for me is never a good sign as a project manager, working alone.  And I was distracted a lot of the time.  So I found myself not able to carry on a conversation.  I was always reaching for my phone, and I couldn’t really focus on what was in front of me.  And I was very caught up in the day-to-day hustle and bustle of things.  And so as a result I wasn’t really thinking creatively about how to problem solve.  It felt like treading water, if that makes sense, just to try to stay afloat and keep on top of what was directly in front of me.

BILL YATES:  This is so relatable, Sarah.  Thank you for opening up and sharing this.  It gives me a pit in my stomach because I can relate to times with projects where I’ve been in a similar situation, where I’m not delegating.  Something that was supposed to be half a day a week becomes nights and weekends, and it’s all consuming, and there’s a loss of control. 

When I’ve been in those situations, I’ve felt like I’ve been out of control of the project and out of control of me.  You know, like you said, you didn’t like who you were becoming. So you weren’t able to really relate to people, you were distracted.  You couldn’t have conversations where you could maintain eye contact.  I’ve been in those situations before, and I feel like, okay, this is changing me.  So that’s a great way to categorize, I guess, burnout is I don’t like who I am.  I’m not being my true self.


Recognizing Burnout in your Team

BILL YATES:  So how, from this standpoint as a leader of a team, how do you then recognize that in team members, as you’re leading the team?

SARAH HOBAN:  Yeah.  That’s a good question.  I think that what you just said about not liking who you are or seeing different kinds of behavior for me is the first sign.  So I actually have an example that I can give from last week only.  I had a team member who’s very on top of things.  He’s extremely detail-oriented, very organized; rarely have to ask him to do something more than once.  And I noticed he was really not keeping up with emails, just kind of falling behind, didn’t really seem himself.  So I kind of asked this individual, I said, you know, “Is everything okay?  You seem different.”  Right?  So to me that’s the first sign.  And the response was, you know, “No, I’m good, you know, everything’s fine.”

And then it was actually funny because it turned out later that week that this person came to me and said, “You know what, I did have something going on last week.  I was trying to get through it, and I didn’t want anybody to know.  But you know me well.”  And he’s like, “I appreciate that you called me out on it because then I can kind of like take a step back and say, oh, wow, I need to kind of figure this out.”  It was a small thing.  But I think having that perspective of really paying attention to what’s around you and not feeling burnt out yourself so you can see those signs in your team members is very important.

BILL YATES:  That’s a great example.  I could see reacting the same way, Sarah.  If I were approached by my manager/leader, my first reaction would probably, “No, no, no, I’m good, I’m good.”


BILL YATES:  I’d blurt that out, and then I would reflect on it and think, okay, how did she see that in me?  Or is she right?  How much truth is there behind that?  I think as leaders of teams we shouldn’t be surprised if the first reaction is, “No, no, no, everything’s good.”  But then maybe following up on that if the person’s not proactive and comes back to you and says, “Yeah, you’re right, I need to delegate.  I’ve got too much on my plate.  Can you help me?”  Or “Here’s what’s going on at home,” you know, or something else, some other factor.  So not being surprised by that, by that first reaction because I know human nature, that’s the way I would react, too.  That’d be a first response.  And then fortunately that person was reflective and thought of that.

Unchecked Burnout

NICK WALKER:  What happens, though, if burnout is left unchecked?  I mean, if the denial goes on, and folks are just stuffing it, what are the dangers of that?

SARAH HOBAN:  Yeah, I think there are many.  I mean, some of them are more overt, obviously.  I think there’s health consequences that can happen; right?  Mental, physical health consequences.  But I think there are more innocuous things, too.  I think part of it is, you know, your projects don’t really have that creative juice in them anymore.  You’re just in maintenance mode.  So you’re executing, and you may be performing well, and your project is showing outward signs of health.

But, you know, if you dig a little deeper, your team maybe is not growing, or the roles for people on the team are not expanding, or you’re not delivering the optimal solution because you’re not really carving out the time to think creatively.  You’re just going through the motions.  So I think over time it can compromise the quality of the project.  And I think there are also more human consequences that can be more severe.  In my case I was not taking care of myself the way I should.  I wasn’t sleeping enough.  I wasn’t eating right.

BILL YATES:  I tend to get grumpy.  Nick, you’ve probably seen that.  When I’m stressed, you know?

NICK WALKER:  You?  Oh, come on.

BILL YATES:  You know people start to see the bad side of me when I am over-stressed, and, you know, I appreciate the nuance there, also you’ll see a decrease in creativity.  And so I know we’ll get into that deeper in a few minutes, but that’s one of those things where it’s like it has a long-term detriment to the team.  It’s like there are long-term consequences, both to the current project and to future projects when team members are under stress and the creativity starts to take a back seat.  There’s no oxygen for creativity anymore.  So we’ll talk more about that.  But let me get real practical for a minute.  Help us as project managers identify those workplace stressors that lead to potential burnout.

Identifying Workplace Stressors

SARAH HOBAN:  Yeah, I think it’s being reflective about your workload I think is the place to start.  So understanding, okay, I maybe have a lot going on this week, but is it a short-term pain?  Okay, there’s a deadline that you need to get through, and you know that it’s going to be ending in two to three weeks.  And so maybe you need to work additional hours or max yourself out more than you want.  If it’s temporary, that’s doable.

But if it’s a recurring, I don’t see an end in sight to this, then it’s taking a more proactive look at your plate and saying, okay, what are the things that I have here?  What things can I offload to other people that would benefit from it?  What things can I just let go totally?  And how do I start to make sure that the things I’m saying yes to fit into my overall plan and strategy.  I’m not blindly saying yes.  I’m saying yes because I am thinking about how each of those things I’m saying yes to contributes to making me a better manager or employee or whatever it is that you’re striving for in terms of your goal.

NICK WALKER:  You’re obviously speaking from the voice of experience.


Recovering from Burnout

NICK WALKER:  So I’d like to know a little bit more about your story.  How did you recover from the burnout?  How did you turn that around?

SARAH HOBAN:  Yeah, so I got to a point in the project where I could afford to take a little time off.  I don’t know that I could afford it.  I think I just told myself I had to.  So I took a little bit of a break, and I started thinking, well, I don’t see my workload slowing down because at the same time, while I was stretched out and struggling a little bit, I was like, this is fun.  Like the work is fun.  And if I want to do more projects that are challenging, I’m going to have to figure this out.

So I thought, okay, well, I have to make sure that I’m using the time that I do have wisely.  So how can I do that?  And I started getting into all this research on productivity and how to be more efficient.  And I think that’s what led me to start incorporating part of what I just talked about into my routine, which is a weekly review where I assess, okay, where am I spending my time for the week ahead, what are my priorities for what I’m going to accomplish, and making sure that I set aside the time for those things, which sometimes requires saying no to other things.

So I think it’s integrating the different parts of your life together.  I don’t like the word “balance” because I think it gives a false illusion of perfection.  I don’t think we ever actually balance.  But I do like the idea of integration where there are different things that you’re trying to fit in, and they’re going to have different levels of precedence at different times.

BILL YATES:  It’s funny, as you were talking, Sarah, I was picture in my head Matt Damon playing the role of Jason Bourne.  And one of the things I love about those series is there were times when he was just on this feet, you know, and he had to run, and he had to sprint from point A to point B to save the Earth kind of thing, you know, it was some kind of emergency that was going on.  And, you know, I’d see that, and he’d have this, of course he’d have this determined look on his face, and he’s hardly even breaking a sweat as he sprints, you know, five-minute miles for two miles or whatever.  There are times when we have to do that.  But knowing, okay, how far do I have to go?  Is it from A to B?  And what’s at stake here?  Is it worth it?

Knowing the “Why”

I think one of the differences for you that I appreciate is you knew the why behind the push.  And that’s been something to help me when I’ve reached times of burnout or on the brink of it is just knowing, okay, this is for a set time.  And when I’m able to get from A to B, if it’s a two-week push or two-day push, then I know I’m going to have a chance for recovery.  Matt Damon didn’t sprint for two hours in the movie, you know, it was for a set amount of time.

So that, just that sense of long-term goals, but also even if there are short-term bursts that we have to do, if I know the why, if I know the purpose behind it and the bigger vision is worth it, then that could make it worth the while for me.  I was able to push it out.  When you’re working with your team, how do you help them remember the why?  You know, why are we doing this?  Why are we having to press, or work a weekend, or work tonight on this?  What’s at stake here?

SARAH HOBAN:  Yeah, I think that’s a really good question.  You know, I think that there are a couple different reasons.  I think one is you have to understand what motivates your team.  Right?  So different people are motivated by different things.  Some people are really mission oriented.  So on the project that I was mentioning before, it was a development project.  So for me and for a lot of people on that team, there was a very strong connection with the mission, to understand, okay, we’re doing this because we are helping people of a country to improve their standard of living.  So it was a very direct, you know, this is worth it kind of thing for a lot of us.

I think in other cases, in consulting, you know, in a client service business, your client is number one.  So understanding that you have a culture that kind of rallies behind serving that client I think also helps.  And then I think the other piece that’s worked really well for me is to let everybody know, like, I’m in the trenches, too, as the project manager.  It’s not I’m just like checking in, and you guys are off by yourselves, so everybody’s here together.  And we’re all going to do what we need to do together, and so all of us have other projects, other things we have going on.  But we’re a team, and we will win as a team, and we will lose as a team.

And so I think creating that environment where you have a trust, where somebody can come to you and say, hey, I am struggling, I am burning out, and knowing that that person’s going to have your back I think helps with having those conversations of “I need you to stay late, you know; this is unfortunately what we have to do.”  I think that usually helps, also knowing that there are people that can kind of pick up the slack at other times.  So, for example, I’m an early riser.  So if something needs to get done in the morning, like I’ll come in and do it in the morning.  And there’s other folks on my team who would prefer to stay later.  So I think it’s kind of having each other’s backs in that way, too.

BILL YATES:  Got you.  When I heard you speak, Sarah, you talked about a book that had an impact on you, “Getting Things Done.”  I think it’s by David Allen?  Is that correct?


BILL YATES:  And is that where you got the idea for kind of the weekly goals?

SARAH HOBAN:  Yes, so  I started doing the weekly review based on reading his book.  Part of his notion is, in addition to capturing all of the things that you have on your plate and identifying and clarifying, is what he calls it, identifying what the next action is for each of those things, part of that process is to reflect and engage on your list and to understand, okay, where are you spending your time?  And so for me that’s how does that track against bigger goals that I’ve set for myself, annual goals in my case.

Productivity as an Antidote

NICK WALKER:  Sarah, you mentioned earlier just the subject of productivity and how sometimes that can be really an antidote to burnout.  Let’s talk a little bit more about that, why is that so important?  Why does that matter?

SARAH HOBAN:  Yeah, I think that productivity is helping you to maximize your time that you do have wisely because you’re not going to have time to do everything you want to do.  So it’s part of making choices, and to me I see productivity as kind of twofold.  One is being more efficient with the time you have, but also making sure you’re focusing on the right things, whatever those right things are for you.  I think productivity can be – I like that you used the word “additive,” in a way, because I think sometimes for people who are like myself, where you’re very Type A, very goal oriented, it can be a blessing and a curse.

So a lot of what I try to talk about, and hopefully did talk about at the conference, as well, was the fact that productivity isn’t a zero-sum game.  You’re not productive or you’re not, and so it’s not about being perfect in your productivity, if that makes sense. So it’s really about taking gradual steps to improve every day, it’s not like you are productive or you’re not, and if you’re not, you’re a failure.  It’s how can I make one small change to be a little bit better than I was yesterday?  Keeping that mindset is really important, and I think that’s how my burnout story fed into the productivity because for me it was about being better.  It wasn’t about I was doing poorly before, and now I’m doing great, it’s a journey.

BILL YATES:  So it’s kaizen, you’re looking for ways to improve continuously, you never quite arrive, you’re always in search of.  I like that.


Delegating Effectively

BILL YATES:  Good approach, so talking through some of the concepts with delegation, you know, you mentioned one of the signs of burnout is we’re not delegating appropriately.  We’ve got so much on our plate, we’re overwhelmed.  But we don’t know what to delegate, talk to us about some tips for delegating effectively.

SARAH HOBAN:  Part of that is what David Allen talks about in his book, “Getting Things Done,” which is you have a capture system where you have everything laid out, the universal word is that you need or what to do.  So I think that’s the first step, understanding what you even have on your plate.  I talk to a lot of project managers who can’t even catalog everything that they have going on.  So if you can’t catalog what you’re doing or where you’re spending your time, then it’s going to be hard to offload that.  So I think that’s the first step.

I think then having that in an area where it’s visible to other folks on your team has been enormously helpful to me. I use a Kanban board to manage a lot of the projects that I run, and so all of the staff on those projects have access to that board, which includes my tasks.  And it’s great visibility for them because then they can see what other things that I have on my plate.  And a lot of times it’ll spark conversation where they will say, “Hey, I don’t know what this task is, but I would like to learn how to do it.”  And sometimes it’s a wakeup call for me, like, oh, yeah, obviously, I could have had this person doing this for months.  So having that visibility, I think, is a good reminder to help me kind of push out to my team some work.

BILL YATES:  Quick question on that, Sarah, so with your Kanban board you’re actually putting names or resources in some of those items as they move left to right?

SARAH HOBAN:  Yes, absolutely, so we have a planning meeting every week for the team, and that’s where we decide who’s working on what for that week. And then it helps us visually see who’s got what on their plate, and, you know, who has too much, who has too little.

BILL YATES:  Great, so that’s a nice tip, I’ve seen a lot of different versions of Kanban boards.  So we like using Trello around here, just a great app or approach for using that software for that.  But adding resources to that, that’s a great idea, that could really help some people along, to your point, it provides visibility.  Team members can then see kind of who’s getting overloaded, who’s got some free space perhaps to take on other items.  Okay.  So I interrupted you, that was the second, visibility was the second.  So capture and then make it visible.  Where do you go from there?

SARAH HOBAN:  Yeah, and then I start to think about anything that I can do that is – not feels too easy, that’s probably too strong a way to say it.  But it’s rote, like I mastered it, I know how to do it. So a good example of me, of something that I have a hard time giving up, is actually financial management.  Which is funny because it’s my least favorite thing to do as a project manager. I hate doing the budgets, so I probably shouldn’t admit that.  Go figure.  I also think it’s the area I’m least good at.  Not that I’m bad at it, but it’s just not my forte, thank goodness we have tools at home.

But I started realizing, oh, I’m keeping that work to myself because I feel like I’m not as strong in it, so I have a fear, basically, of having someone else take it over because, if I’m only QA’ing it, then I might miss something.  There might be a mistake, so it reminds me to trust my team more.  But I looked at how much time I was spending on it, and I was like, I’m spending a chunk of my week doing this across five projects.  So I definitely don’t need to be doing this, and I definitely know how to do it by heart, and there are a lot of other people who would benefit from it.

And so I actually started, you know, a meeting with a few of my project managers across different projects to teach them all at the same time so that I would be a little bit more efficient in my use of my limited time to delegate.  So that was another good win for me, and we had our first month where they were in charge, and it was great. And I saved myself, like, five hours a week, and I was like, so this is awesome, I should have done this months ago.  Being brutally honest with yourself.


Daily and Weekly Reviews

NICK WALKER:  I’m curious about the importance of reviews, so how does that play into productivity?

SARAH HOBAN:  I think that’s hugely important, and that was actually the part that I was probably the latest in adopting, but has been the most helpful for me.  I started doing daily reviews.  So I block my last hour of my calendar every day, not because I spend an hour on it, but just to try to protect that time so I’m not always running out the door at the end of the day to the next thing.  But at least I have a little bit of time meeting-free to reflect.  And I use that time to do, you know, reflecting on accomplishments for the day, and then also plan the next day. So I’ll identify what are the three things that I want to do tomorrow.

BILL YATES:  Sarah, this could be a game changer for folks that are listening.  So you block out the last hour – is it the last hour of your day?


BILL YATES:  And you said you’re a morning person.  So you’re knocking things out.  You’re working your list in the morning especially. And then as the day progresses you’re kind of tracking your list. Then the last hour you’ve got blocked out, I want to ask you this. Can team members look at your calendar and go, okay, I can’t set a meeting with Sarah from let’s say 4:00 to 5:00 because it’s blocked out on her calendar. Do you go that deep with it?  Or is it kind of in your head you’re going, hey, so at 4:00 o’clock I need to take a timeout and review this.  So how do you pull this off?

SARAH HOBAN:  It’s blocked, it’s definitely blocked so they can’t get to me, and it’s a private appointment, as well.  So they know.  So most of my calendar is totally visible so everybody can see everything.  But I don’t want them to think, oh, this isn’t important, I can just schedule over it.


SARAH HOBAN:  So I can make it private for this particular appointment.


SARAH HOBAN:  But, yeah, and that’s been hugely important because I used to run out the door, and then I would be underprepared for the next day.  So having that time really set aside helps.  I don’t always use the full hour, like I said, but at least it’s reserved.

BILL YATES:  And then compare that with the weekly review that you do.

SARAH HOBAN:  Yeah, so that’s a little bit more in depth, for me, I don’t really do, I guess, a weekly review that’s just unique to work.  I do sort of a combined personal and work one, I guess, and so for me that’s – it’s about 30 minutes. And I’ll sit down, and I’ll look at my accomplishments from the previous week.  Then I’ll identify, if I didn’t meet a goal that I’d set, why I didn’t meet it, which is helpful. So I think that helps me catch patterns of behavior that I probably would have left unchecked for longer.

SARAH HOBAN:  And then it’s also looking ahead, what are the three things I want to do this week.  And that rule of three is a common productivity concept, the idea being that fewer than three is too few, too easy, and more than three is frankly too ambitious. You may get more done, that’s great, but the three is probably a good solid number.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  So Neal Whitten is a collaborator with us, a prolific author in project management space, and he, man, this is one of his foundational concepts is there are three things that you should be working on.  And he really challenges you, too, if you’re working on things that are not related to those top three, then you need to call yourself out.  Are these not the top three?  Okay, why are you working on item number seven?  Is it because it’s more fun for you, or it comes easily?  You know, so back to your point about the financial analysis.


BILL YATES:  You know, why are you doing this?  So that’s great, Sarah, as I was preparing for our conversation today, I was remembering a past episode we had on Manage This. It was with Joel Neeb.  It was Episode 18, for anyone who wants to go back and listen, but he gave us tips on productivity and how to not be overwhelmed with data. And he also talked about, as a fighter pilot and a trainer, F-15 fighter pilot, graduate from United States Air Force Academy, Joel said the transition for him, as he was learning how to fly, you have 350 instruments there in front of you and over your head in this very complex aircraft you’re trying to navigate.  And there’s so much information you’ve got to focus on.

Again, he comes back to what are the three to five most important metrics?  You know, and he talked about the instrumentation inside the cockpit, and so it’s such a good reminder.  So when you talk about here are the three big things I need to accomplish this week and why, yeah, that’s completely in line.  That resonates with me.

Annual Review

You also say you do an annual review with yourself.  So what is this?  What does this look like?

SARAH HOBAN:  So this is probably one of my favorite times of year, actually, just to sit down and kind of do this and kind of map out where I want to go.  I try to identify areas of my life where I want to focus on, and there’s another productivity author who talks about that, that I really like. His name is Chris Bailey, he wrote this book called, well, it started as a blog, I suppose, “A Life of Productivity.”  And so he did a series of experiments over the course of a year on productivity where he tested them out to see which was most effective.

So, for example, he tried to work 90 hours a week, and then he tried to work 20 hours a week, and tried to see which one was more effective, and just kind of wild things like that.  And it’s really fun, if you want to check out his blog where he chronicles his experiences, but he has this concept where he talks about productivity hotspots that I really love.  And so this is, you know, different areas where you want to focus in terms of your goals.

So I try to pick three to four areas where I want to focus – three are health, finances, family, you know, whatever that is – and then create goals within each of those areas.  And for me the annual review is figuring out, okay, so by the end of this year, where do I want to be, and kind of starting from there to set those goals.

Time to Disconnect

NICK WALKER:  So this may be related to that annual review, or it may be something completely different.  But what about the value of just taking time to disconnect from your daily routines and projects?  I mean, so is there a value in actually just kind of saying, I’m putting all of this aside and out of my mind for just a time?

SARAH HOBAN:  Yes, so  I think there’s huge value in it, I do this periodically.  I try to take some time off where I really totally disconnect from work, where I don’t check email, don’t check voicemail.  So I don’t have email on my phone, either, which I think astounds some people.  But so far everybody’s still alive that I know, so I think we’re okay.  But, yeah, I think that’s so, so important.  I’m actually taking a couple of days off right now, in fact, and I do this periodically.  Every so often I do it around my birthday, which just happened.

BILL YATES:  Happy Birthday.

SARAH HOBAN:  Just to have a little bit of reflection time, and then I also do it around Labor Day, which for me is a September new beginnings kind of – sort of like a New Year’s type ritual, I guess.  And so I’ll just take three or four days off from work, and I really spend them on my projects and what it is that I want to do.  I think that that has been, obviously, not everybody has the luxury of doing that in that focused of a way. But I do think it’s very, very important, and it helps with that creativity, and it helps with that focus. 

I read this book called “The Accidental Creative,”  and so an idea that I took from that book that I think is really brilliant is to have an hour a week where you spend time on ideas, generating new ideas. Doesn’t have to be a full hour, but having that time where you’re taking a break from your tasks, and you’re really using it – to me, I use it to worry. So I think as project managers our job is to worry professionally, right?


SARAH HOBAN:  Instead of worrying for the sake of worrying, I try to be constructive about it, okay, this stakeholder is difficult to work with.  Instead of just accepting it, which you might start to do if you’re just running from thing to thing to thing, you don’t think about this is a bigger issue that could be fixed. Also having that time to worry constructively and problem solve, how do you deal with a stakeholder is really important.  So I think it’s being very protective of the time that you have and just understanding, you know, this is more, probably more important than a lot of other things that I have on my list that can in fact wait.

Staying Creative

BILL YATES:  You mentioned “The Accidental Creative,” so is that by Todd Henry?  Is that right?

SARAH HOBAN:  Correct.

BILL YATES:  Okay.  And I’ve added that to my list to read after talking with you earlier.  And another author that you mentioned in the talk that I heard before was Daniel Pink.  the book was called – what was the name of the book that you referenced?

SARAH HOBAN:  It’s called “When.”

BILL YATES:  “When,” yeah, catchy.  So I’m a fan of Daniel Pink.  I find his ideas – I don’t always agree with him a hundred percent, but always compelled to think it through.  And so he’s written some books that have really influenced me, some of the first exposure I had to emotional intelligence, thinking through EQ or some of his earlier books, right-brain/left-brain type stuff. It’s kind of like when you come back from a vacation you feel really great and chill when you first return from one of these creativity and sabbaticals, if you will.  And then things start to come back on.

So how do you fight against that urge to just jump back in and get overwhelmed?  How do you find that ability to stay creative? So do you go back to some of these practices you talked about before, back to your daily and weekly reviews? Does that also help keep you in tune with yourself in that regard?

SARAH HOBAN:  Yeah.  I think that’s part of it, so I’m glad that you brought up “When,” too.  I wanted to talk about this, as well, which is the chronotypes idea, so a philosophy behind that book is that there are different times of day when you’re more productive. So if you’re not familiar with the word “chronotypes,” you’re probably familiar at least with the concept that, you know, some people are morning people.  Some people are night owls, and so I think as project managers we have probably a fair degree of flexibility over our schedules, relative to other people. At least in my experience, I wind up scheduling a lot of stuff.  So that is helpful because then I can kind of schedule around when I prefer to work.

So what I think, for me, it’s carving out time in the morning when I’m most productive and keeping that sacred helps me to deal with the things that come my way.

So, I think about it more, imagine creativity as managing energy, maybe, more than managing time, and making sure that you’re targeting the time where you’re feeling the best for the things that are the most difficult. 

Preventing Burnout in Team Members

NICK WALKER:  You know, Sarah, earlier we talked about recognizing burnout in the people that you’re working with, so tell us a little bit about how you can prevent that from your team members.  What steps can you take to maybe ward that off among your team members?

SARAH HOBAN:  Yeah, so I think that it’s really about transparency, right?  Earlier in my career I used to feel bad about giving more work to my team. I don’t know if that would resonate with the audience, but I would think, oh, I’m stressed, I’m busy,  I don’t want to put more on their plate.  They have a ton going on, but I think what I started to realize was that I was making that choice for them.  So I wasn’t giving them the option to say yes or no. 

So now I just kind of put it there and see how it goes, and having that coaching throughout the process of I know I’m giving you more than you can probably handle right now. I understand that, but I’m going to see how you do, and I’m here to help you, and there are other people on this team that are here to help you learn how to delegate and to be better.

So I think if everybody understands that we’re all learning, and I sometimes will try to share the areas in which I’m vulnerable and I’m struggling, where I’ll say, hey, I’m working through this right now.  In case you’ve noticed that it’s a little bit rocky, this is because I’m learning how to do it here.  So if we cultivate an atmosphere where everybody’s learning and it’s okay to make mistakes, people are more willing to come to you when they are struggling instead of this culture where we don’t talk about mental health, we don’t talk about emotional intelligence.  We spend so much of our lives at work, I feel like we should be able to be ourselves at work.  And so for me that’s being a hundred percent transparent with how we’re feeling and not being afraid to talk about feelings there.

Overcoming the 80/20 Delegation Rule

BILL YATES:  Sarah, one of the things that comes to mind when I think about how do I make sure that I don’t burn myself out, and then I don’t want to burn out team members.  But the reality is, the whole 80/20 rule, if you have 10 team members, if you’re like me, you probably have two that you really count on. 

So if you have something that you’ve got to delegate that’s important, you’ve got to get it done, I tend to go to that person, or one of those two people.  I’ve got 20 percent of my team that are doing 80 percent of the work all of a sudden, and that’s no good.  So what advice do you have for project managers who are struggling with that?  They keep wanting to delegate the important stuff to the same sub team, and then they need to step beyond that.  What advice do you have?

SARAH HOBAN:  Yeah, I think that’s very difficult, and so I wouldn’t say that’s something I’ve mastered by any means. So I think there’s a couple things.  One is being transparent with those people that are your, I guess, chosen people, or your preferred folks that you go to, about why you’re going to them and what role you see them playing is good because I think that makes them more willing to, not accept the work, but I guess be able to handle the work as it comes in so that they know, okay, this is the reason that Sarah or Bill keeps going to me for this.  I get it.  It’s not that they’re picking on me.  They see the potential in me.


SARAH HOBAN:  You know there’s a plan behind it, and so I think the other part of it is I try to rotate some of the responsibilities across my team members.  So for example we have a monthly admin team meeting, I have a different person on the team be responsible for planning and organizing it, doing it the agenda and everything.  And so the team has to rotate it, I don’t rotate it out.  They amongst themselves figure out whose turn it is next and how they’re going to handle it, and then they train the next person how to do it.

So I try to find opportunities where the team can communicate with each other without me, and I think that takes some of the pressure off me feeling like I’m assigning stuff or going to the same people.  So I think that’s part of it.  And I think the other part of it is sometimes you just have to give someone else a chance, even if you know that it’s probably not going to go great.

So you probably have to pick something that, if it fails, it’s okay.  And I’ve done that before, where I’m like, I’m pretty sure that this is not going to go how I anticipate.  But let’s try it out.  And then I’ll have a conversation with that person about, hey, this is kind of what I thought was going to happen.  Why did it happen this way?  So let’s figure out how we can change that narrative.

So I don’t think there’s an easy answer.  But I think it comes from a combination of cross-training, kind of removing yourself from the equation, and then being willing to accept failure and understanding what assignments are okay to have fail.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  Good advice, Sarah.  And another thing I would throw in there, too, is maybe if I have team members that I keep delegating to, then I need to have a conversation with them of, hey, I keep doing this because you’re so great at follow-through or your consistent output. Can you coach or mentor others on our team to also help them get to where you are?  You know, you’ve cracked the code on this.  Share this with other team members, and then ideally they’ll start delegating those pieces to them, as well.  So good for team growth, yeah.

SARAH HOBAN:  Yeah.  Sometimes it feels like less of a leap if it’s coming from a peer than if it’s coming from me in terms of training or coaching for that person. So it’s a little bit less intimidating.

Sarah’s Best Advice Received

NICK WALKER:  Sarah, you’ve devoted so much of your time to advising others, you’ve got a great blog and podcast yourself.  But I’m curious, what is the best piece of advice that you have been given about project management?

SARAH HOBAN:  Yeah, I think that thing that I try to remind myself all the time is, and the best piece of advice I heard, and I’ve heard this from a few people, is they can’t find anybody better than you. And so I know that sounds like a little self-involved and probably not the – I guess I don’t mean it in that perspective.  But I think as project managers we’re really hard on ourselves, right? So our job is to make everybody around us be comfortable and able to do their best work.  That is stakeholders, that is team members, that is clients we may work with, that may be our sponsors, our leadership.  Right?  We’re the central linchpin.

And on days when we’re not operating at one hundred percent, where we feel like we made a mistake, or we did make a mistake, I think it’s reminding ourselves that, so, we’re doing a damn good job, and it’s okay that we weren’t perfect. We’re probably the best person they could find for that role, so I like to think about that to myself at times when I think, wow, I’m really struggling here. I’m definitely learning this the hard way.  I think, yeah, okay, so I’ve got this, I can do it.

Get in Touch with Sarah

NICK WALKER:  Well, I think, Sarah, that you’re the best person that we could have found to talk about this subject today, so thank you so much for taking the time with us. It’s been some valuable information, we appreciate it so much.  How can we get in touch with you?  So how can our listeners get in touch with you to find out more about your blog and podcast and just get more of these treasures that you have to share?

SARAH HOBAN:  Oh, thank you so much, yeah, it was great to be here, and you can find out more about me on my blog, which is SarahMHoban.com.  That includes links to my podcast and then to my LinkedIn and Twitter accounts, as well, so you can follow me for more.

NICK WALKER:  One more thing, we’ve got a special gift for you.  This is the Manage This coffee mug, so we’re going to send this to you, just as a reminder of your time with us, with our thanks and compliments.

SARAH HOBAN:  Oh, great, thank you.  I appreciate that.

BILL YATES:  We’ve found that when you put a lot of caffeination in here, the productivity goes way up.

SARAH HOBAN:  Caffeine does help.

NICK WALKER:  Well, thanks again, Sarah.

SARAH HOBAN:  Thank you.


NICK WALKER:  We want to remind our listeners about the extra benefit we provide with our Manage This podcasts.  So we’re talking about the free PDUs, the Professional Development Units you need for your project management recertifications, you just earned some for listening to this podcast.  To claim them, go to Velociteach.com and click where it says Manage This Podcast at the top of the page.  You’ll see a tab that says Claim PDUs, so click right there, and you’ll be guided through the steps.

That’s it for this episode of Manage This, so be sure to tune back in on February 18th for our next podcast.  Until then, you can always tweet us at @manage_this to tell us how we’re doing, or to get more information about your project management certifications.  But for now, just keep calm and Manage This.

11 responses to “Episode 98 – Productivity vs. Burnout”

  1. Megan says:

    This was very applicable to me and my team. I shared the link to start the discussion on when we hit the law of diminishing returns or point of no return.

    I’m going to get the book referenced “Getting Things Done”.

    PS: That “Manage This” mug is magic!

  2. Keith Williamson says:

    This episode hit just when I needed it. Been struggling with burnout for about a month and now I have the language to describe what I’m experiencing and some tools to make a change. Thanks!

    Also – there are so many book recommendations I need to listen again when I can write them down (i.e. not while driving!).


  3. Sarah Hoban says:

    Keith – I’m so glad you enjoyed the podcast! Let me know if you want to talk…I’m starting a new 1:1 productivity consulting endeavor and would welcome your participation if you’re interested. More details on my blog – http://www.sarahmhoban.com.

  4. Sarah Hoban says:

    Megan – so glad to hear that this podcast was helpful! Getting Things Done truly changed my life–I hope it helps you and your team as much as it helped me. If you’d like to talk, let me know. I’m starting a new productivity consulting endeavor and would welcome your participation. Check out details on my blog – http://www.sarahmhoban.com.

  5. Dilara says:

    Great podcast, a lot of useful information and good references. Just purchased two books mentioned in the podcast, looking forward for reading them. Thanks a lot for this informative and interesting podcast.
    Best Regards,

  6. Karen Delaney says:

    So relatable. I am going to try some of the great tips in practice today – blocking my calendar and setting weekly goals rather than just annual goals. Thank you for these tips.

    • Wendy Grounds says:

      Thanks for listening Karen. Sarah truly speaks from experience, she gives some great advice on avoiding burnout in this episode. I’m glad to hear you’ve taken some of her nuggets. 🙂

  7. Great episode. My 2 favourite elements:

    1: “I see productivity as kind of twofold. One is being more efficient with the time you have, but also making sure you’re focusing on the right things, whatever those right things are for you.”

    2:”I block my last hour of my calendar every day, not because I spend an hour on it, but just to try to protect that time so I’m not always running out the door at the end of the day to the next thing. But at least I have a little bit of time meeting-free to reflect. And I use that time to do, you know, reflecting on accomplishments for the day, and then also plan the next day. So I’ll identify what are the three things that I want to do tomorrow.”

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