How to Manage Your Time Better as a Designer or Developer

Web designers, developers, and engineers have it hard these days, trust us — we know. However, there are some vital tips you need to keep in mind to prevent yourself from reaching burnout.

Hard work equals success.

It’s an age-old phrase that continues to be drummed into professionals across the globe, regardless of geographic location, culture or class.

And, for the most part, it’s true.

Let’s face it. Regardless of location, culture, or class, the hard-working attitude is a way of life-sustaining our needs and desires, growing our career prospects, and often consuming 50% or more of our entire livelihood.

Mental Health Concerns Related to Stress

Most of us would agree that stress, particularly over the long term, would have negative effects on our health.

But what most of us don’t realize, is just how real and serious the impacts of work-related stress can be.

Importantly, stress caused by demanding work can often be a trigger for mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. The stress may trigger an existing mental health problem that was previously under control, or for those already suffering from a mental health problem, it may exacerbate or worsen the condition.

What does this mean?

We know that stress can be the cause or trigger of mental health problems, so it’s important to identify and take the necessary steps to reduce work-related stress.

Quite importantly, separating work and personal life can help to ease stress and the feeling of being overwhelmed, because we won’t have to feel these emotions all day, every day.

Mental Health Impacts of Non-Stop Working

We often equate mental health problems with stressful work, but it’s also important to remember that the amount and duration of work can also have huge impacts on health. Long, irregular hours can cause mental health problems, physical damage, and problems with relationships, which is something we don’t think about nearly as often.

A study in the UK concluded that around 11% of employees were working over 48 hours a week and that men were significantly more likely to work long hours than women. The study also shows that people aged 30 to 49 were the most likely to work long hours.

It seems that things aren’t really getting better, either. The proportion of UK employees who work long hours has increased compared with the previous decade, with the increase primarily due to overtime. The study found that paid overtime was more commonly found in manual occupations, whereas unpaid overtime was more closely linked to professional and managerial jobs.

Longer hours were linked with a deterioration in task performance, particularly when coupled with disruption of sleep, due to an increase in human errors made, social abilities and behavior, and the pace at which work can be completed.

In addition, the results of the study provided grounds for concern about the adverse effects that longer hours had on the frequency of health and safety incidents that occurred in the workplace.

What does this mean?

It’s clear that working relentlessly and for long hours (over 48 hours per week) can have a noticeably negative impact on your health, and for this reason, we recommend limiting the number of hours worked, particularly over a long-term period.

Watch Out for Burnout

One of the biggest problems associated with working relentlessly is burnout.

Yes, stress is bad.
Yes, feelings of crankiness are bad.
Yes, spending more hours working and less time with family is bad.

But ultimately, burnout is quite possibly the worst result of over-working yourself. Why? Because it stops you getting more work done, and furthermore, can impact your work schedule long term, as well as wreak havoc in amongst family and personal life.

Therefore, taking measures to avoid or reduce the risk of burnout is one of the best things you can do for your work schedule and wellbeing.

Burnout is usually the result of relentless working and prolonged, excessive stress.

If this post has reached you too late, you may already be on the road to burnout, so the best thing you can do at this stage is developing coping strategies and improve your working technique in order to avoid or reduce the risk of burnout from now on.

Some common warning signs that burnout may be approaching are:

  • You are no longer enjoy work on a daily basis, and often feel discouraged or as though things are out of your control
  • It takes much longer to get small or mundane work tasks completed
  • Little things that usually don’t bother you seem to have a huge impact on your emotions
  • You no longer have the energy or desire to care about either work or personal life (remember that these two are closely linked)
  • You feel exhausted or ‘burnt out’ almost all the time

The Diminishing American Vacation

More than half of Americans go more than a year without taking as little as a one week-long vacation, according to a recent survey carried out by Allianz Global Assistance, which is apparently the worst it’s been in 40 years.

Recent research claims reasons such as a fear of being replaced, an insurmountable workload upon return, and the fear that colleagues don’t have the knowledge or ability to tend to their responsibilities while they are gone are to blame.

To make things worse, of those who are vacating, more than 60% continue to work whilst away, further studies show.

It seems as though the average working American today has difficulty disengaging from work. And this doesn’t just affect us, but our families suffer too.

Studies have shown that, amongst other things, the risk of depression, heart disease, anxiety, and breakdowns dramatically increase with such periods of prolonged, excessive work in the long-term.

Here are some tips to help you get away more:

1. Book in advance. Well in advance.

If you book your holiday and flights in advance (say, 6 months to a year), you’ll be forced to vacate when the time comes, rather than continuing to put it off as you have done. Scheduling time away is a necessity to maintain good health and will benefit your partner and family, if bringing them along too.

2. Go away with family or friends.

If you have motivation troubles with going away, consider inviting family or friends to vacate with you. The added excitement of their company may further enthuse you to book a week or two away.

3. Browse holiday brochures or websites for inspiration.

The thought of getting away from your desk may leave you nervous or discouraged. Browsing through some high-quality brochures or image-rich websites may encourage you to take some time away, or inspire you with possible destinations.

Growing Stress in the Workplace

It’s no secret that stress in the workplace is on the rise. Occupational stress is a risk to most businesses, and compensation payments for work-related stress are on the rise, according to CIPD.

With increasing responsibility and a strain on professional relationships comes prolonged stress and anxiety, which studies now show can be the cause of mental and physical health problems. In fact, stress is now shown as a major cause of long-term sick leave from work.

Some studies have even shown that nearly half of all employers are now seeing a noticeable increase in stress levels of their employees. That’s a lot.

Just a few causes of occupational stress include:

  • Increased workload
  • Longer hours and overtime
  • Hostility in the work environment
  • Poor employee relationships
  • Poor relationships with management

A lot of this is really down to the employer, and as such, these signs are actually indicative of poor working conditions.

Excessive stress, particularly when endured over a prolonged period of time, can have a major impact on both your mental and physical health.

Don’t Take Work Stress Home

We’d all love to be able to arrive home at 6pm and switch work off until the next morning at 8:50am.

But unfortunately, for us humans, it’s not as easy as that.

There is a danger in taking stress home and allowing it to spill over into our private lives. In doing this, we are allowing ourselves to endure high levels of stress for a prolonged period of time, far longer than the hours spent working. Even worse, is checking email beyond paid hours, let alone continuing to work once at home.

It’s imperative that you allow yourself to take the downtime that your body needs to regenerate and heal itself, for both mental and physical wellbeing.

1. Schedule weekly massages

Scheduling weekly (or fortnightly) massages is a great way to force yourself into some relaxation. After several sessions, your body will pick up on the new routine, giving it an allotted time to relax. Use this time to let go of stress and worries, focusing on the physical sensations and relaxation. You can ask your massage therapist to use a scented oil, which will help to relax you even further.

2. Exercise regularly

Many office workers forgo the weekly exercise recommendation of around 150 minutes of moderate exercise (or 75 minutes of intense exercise).

Regular exercise can not only help to reduce the amount of stress you carry around but can also act as a mood lifter and antidepressant. Exercise is also known to improve anxiety.

If you don’t currently engage in regular activity, you may find light swimming, jogging, or stretching exercises such as yoga a great initial addition to your weekly routine. Walking a friend’s or family member’s dog for an hour, several days a week is also a great way to start incorporating more activity into your life.

3. Don’t work at home

Resisting the urge to work at home is probably easier said than done. But, if you aren’t being paid for the additional hours, they aren’t your responsibility. If you regularly receive messages or phone calls out of hours, try switching your phone off. Also, responding to emails and Skype messages outside of work hours is a big no-no. Shut down email and instant messaging tools once you’ve left work, to avoid that endless work addiction.

How to Spot a Workaholic

Generally, we associate the term workaholic with someone who tends to work long hours (or practically all the time), or somebody who enjoys working far more than the average person. However, the term can also suggest that the person may actually feel compelled to work like this.
The problem with workaholism is that the style in which the work is done — endlessly, and possibly compulsively, — shares many similarities to the early warning signs of burnout and exhaustion. Frequently related to workaholism is perfectionism, even though perfectionism isn’t necessarily indicative of high achievement.

When there are plenty of enjoyable activities and experiences to be enjoyed outside of work, it begs the question:

‘Why would somebody want to work all the time?’

Letting our hair down by spending time with friends, family, or on our own, is generally a welcomed activity outside of work, so resistance to disengage from work can be an early warning sign of a work addiction.

The Benefits of Taking a Break

When we have deadlines to meet or productivity expectations, it’s easy to fall into a trap of wanting to work continuously, often sacrificing breaks in the process. This relentless style of working is more harmful than you probably think, and in many cases, it may actually prove more beneficial or productive to temporarily remove yourself from the work environment from time to time in order to sustain a high level of productivity. If you're particularly concerned about productivity, you may wish to take a look at our post on the top 8 behaviors which may actually be diminishing your productivity whilst working.

In fact, even taking just a few moments to be mindful can be hugely beneficial, with many studies over the past years confirming that the act of mindfulness itself can lead to enhanced work performance, reduced stress, lessened potential for burnout, and even an increase in sense of well-being.

These are all qualities we’d expect to be beneficial to our work, which is precisely why working relentlessly is so counterproductive!

Do decreased performance, increased stress, and a lesser sense of wellbeing sound conducive to a productive working environment?

No! Quite the opposite, in fact!

Research carried out in 2002 (by Kabat-Zinn and Santorelli) showed that the act of mindfulness resulted in feelings of increased energy and sense of well-being, in addition to increasing awareness and the range of our responses.

A study by Langer in 1989 demonstrated that being mindful more often lead to an increased life expectancy, greater creativity, and a reduced risk of burnout.

In 2009, research by Hunter and McCormick concluded that more mindfulness resulted in improved interpersonal relationships at work.

Work Smarter, Not Harder

There’re only 24 hours in a day. And for 8 of those, you’re supposed to be sleeping.

So realistically, ‘longer hours’ isn’t the healthy answer to being more productive.

Working smarter, and not necessarily harder, is the real secret to increased productivity and better work results.

As we’ve explored earlier in this post, there are numerous caveats to working long hours, exposing the mind and body to unhealthy and prolonged periods of stress. By increasing your productivity, however, you can accomplish more in a shorter space of time, which prevents the need to abuse your body by subjecting it to unnecessary workload and hours.

Productivity Tactic #1 - Clear your mind and address any problems

Does a stressed, troubled mind sound productive to you?

No, it doesn’t; and that’s because it’s not. In order to function at our optimum, our mind must be:

  • free and ready to accept incoming information,
  • in a state of calmness and balance,
  • and able to analyze and strategize.

If you are already approaching burnout (as we’ve explained above), you’ll find the most benefit in first taking steps to reduce your current stress levels.

If you currently have no positive outlets, which is possibly one of the factors that may have lead to burnout in the first place, you should develop these too. Scheduling weekly massages, reading for 30 minutes before bed (switch this out for browsing Facebook or checking email), and engaging in exercise and physical activity more frequently are all ways that you can nurse your mind back to health.

Productivity Tactic #2 - Breaks are an important part of your schedule

As we explained in another post, breaks are actually a much more important part of your work day than you probably though previously.

In Staying Sane While Under Stress at Work, we explain that microbreaks, which are breaks of just 30 seconds to 5 minutes, can actually increase mental acuity by 13% or more. In addition, a break of just 15 seconds every 10 minutes can reduce fatigue caused by staring at a computer screen by up to 50%.

As you can tell, microbreaks can act as a real productivity-booster, especially when combined with our other tips.

Productivity Tactic #3 - Improve work tools to boost performance

Imagine going home every evening to a garden shed.

Wait a sec — hear me out.

While the garden shed may indeed keep you dry and provide space for a bed, it’s simply no match for your current apartment or house that you can call home. Your current dwelling provides warmth, security, space to fully relax, and living there overall is likely to be better for your health than living in a garden shed.

The same principle can be applied to the tools we use to work, and how motivated we are to complete tasks when using these tools. A computer or phone that just works does not provide the same motivation, incentive, and enjoyment that a new, specialized computer will provide. And as such, you may find your productivity dwindling with tools that just get you by. If possible, you may find it worthwhile investing in tools that will boost your enjoyment of completing a task, as this is likely to also have a direct impact on your productivity.

If tools are provided by your boss, consider having a word with him or her, perhaps after consulting fellow employees for their opinions.

Productivity Tactic #4 - Use batch processing to complete tasks quicker

If you aren’t familiar with the term, batch processing usually refers to a computer executing a number of tasks over-and-over again. We can apply this same technique to our own work schedule to be more productive and get more done in less time.

Take email for instance. Right now, you possibly have your email setup in a Mail app, and either check this every hour or, as new emails come in, you preview each one via a desktop or phone notification. There are two problems with this.

  1. It detracts from the attention of completing actual work, and;
  2. it builds stress over the course of the day, getting worse with each email.

Unless your job description consists 50% or more of responding to emails, it’s likely that this little staple in your work routine is compromising your productivity, and acting as an ignitor for stress on a daily basis. Stress caused by email often goes undiagnosed because it’s such a fly-on-the-wall of the typical work routine. Nobody really pays attention to the potential stress and drain on productivity and rate of task completion that email can play in our jobs.

Try shutting down your email client for several hours during your work day, particularly when you need to get something done. You may be surprised at how productive you find yourself, and the amount of stress that can be relieved just by trying this little trick.

Conclusion and Takeaways

Hopefully, this post has shed some further light on the direct impacts of stress and long hours of mental health.

In general, work-related stress and working longer hours should be approached with caution, due to the potential caveats and health problems that can arise. Taking regular breaks, frequent exercise, and eating well are all simple ways to boost mental health during periods of stress and when working long hours.

While the average vacation time taken by the average American seems to be decreasing, it’s important to remember that taking time away from work can have many benefits, including increased productivity and happiness.

How do you cope with work stress and long hours?