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Blocking burnout by holding space
I worked as a bartender for two years, and I remember being struck by the fact that despite the bar’s dozens of liquors, mixers, ice bins, and garnishes, every single drink that got made had to spend time on my bar mat.
The bar mat is a long skinny rectangle of rubber that holds each drink as it’s being made. In the same way a surgeon does all their work on an operating table, a bartender does all of their work on a bar mat.
The length of a typical bar mat reflects the fact that only a handful of drinks can be worked on at any one given time. No matter how opulent or sprawling the bar is, the pace of drinks it can produce is fundamentally constrained by the number of bar mats it has.
After twenty years of nerding out about productivity, I’ve come to view my calendar as the bar mat of my intentions. Every single task that gets done commands my full attention while I’m working on it, and I can only handle a few at a time. Unlike a bartender processing orders as they come in, I have a good degree of control over how and when tasks hit my bar mat. How well I make use of my limited time and attention is strongly influenced by how effectively I can batch my tasks.
My productivity system is based on David Allen's landmark book Getting Things Done, and is rife with dozens of small projects, each composed of a set of tasks. When I’m on top of things, each project's tasks are arranged in a logical order with a “next action” listed at the top.
The best case scenario for me is to fill my bar mat of available time with a collection of next tasks, allowing me to make forward progress over multiple projects within a short time.
Even in this idyllic scenario however, I’d often struggle with only ever filling my bar mat with tasks related to projects that had to be done to the detriment of projects I wanted to do. After a long stretch of heads down time, I’d often realize that I had completed work for everyone else’s projects while making zero progress on my own personal projects and goals.
In order to break this negative pattern, I need to reserve a spot on my bar mat for me. Making regular deposits into my life accounts should be done on a daily basis, and not just relegated to weekends when I’m out of steam. It would be like a bartender making a wheatgrass shot after every 20 or so drinks.
In practice, this could look like carving out 15 minutes during the day to do some stretching to further my running goals, or protecting 30 minutes after a meeting to dictate some thoughts into Ottr ahead of an essay I’m planning to write.
Sure, I may not be as productive as absolutely possible to my external stakeholders, but making and downing wheatgrass shots while cranking out batch after batch of tasks amounts to preventative maintenance for my health and mental well being.
New Year’s resolutions aren’t really my thing, but if I had to have one for 2023, it would be to make space for doing tasks that nourish my soul while doing work that has to be done. If at the end of the day I look back at the list of completed tasks, and see that there were a few wheatgrass shots taken, then I’d reckon that it was a good day.