On Borrowing From Yourself

On Borrowing From Yourself

This is a repackaging of a twitter thread I posted starting with this tweet here:

So if you've already read all of that, this isn't going to say anything new, but I thought it might be easier to digest and more long lived and anyway I haven't written a blog post in far too long. It starts much the same way:

Some context, Failover Conf & cognitive load

This week I "attended" the aptly named Failover Conf from Gremlin. "Attended" is in quotes because the conference was virtual given the current context of the COVID-19 global pandemic. (That last part is there for all of you reading this from the future who won't be so IN that context all the time like we are now.) There were a number of good talks here, but one particular moment from one particular talk stuck with me and kept echoing in conversations I was having in various communities around the web. It came from J. Paul Reed's talk on Resillience and in a half throwaway moment.

The context is talking about Cognitive Load and more specifically, how do we deal with being overloaded, what do we do when there is just too much to do or think about given our capacity. Generally observed we do one of four things:

  • Shed load
  • Sacrifice thoroughness
  • Shift work in time
  • Recruit more resources

The first two options are considered tactical choices, they're ones we can easily make that generally only affect us personally and generally don't require consulting anyone else in the organization before making them. The last two are considered more strategic, they have some organizational impact, missing deadlines or moving people to work on a new task meaning their existing task is left undone.

The commentary was "we're probably all doing some form of [thoroughness tradeoff] right now" due to the consistent cognitive load of COVID-19. The assumption here is, assuming you can't just let things NOT get done, we're probably all being a little less careful in order to meet our deadlines.

Home-self & work-self & self sabotage

While all of the above is true, I think there are some additional choices we're making that I hadn't initially considered. And I think those choices are unhealthy in the long term. They're sort of "afterburner" options. You can't do it all the time or you run out of fuel, but you could do it once in a while to boost performance as needed in the short term.

Generally speaking, I think the 4 choices above, and their consideration for Tactical or Strategic choices, make an assumption that work gets done in the work context, a finite framing that affects only the people at that place and in that context. But, with all this social distancing and a dramatic increase in working from home, we've suddenly slammed our work lives into our home lives giving additional tactical choices.

Instead of dropping work tasks, I can choose to drop home tasks. I could, say, just not shower this morning and get a little extra time. Or I can now shift work in time on my own schedule, by getting a task done well beyond my normal "end of day". I can work 12 hours today instead of the normal 8 (or even maybe right now we should be doing more like 6 or 7 given the circumstances), or I eat lunch at my computer, maybe I can get that job done on time.

We're calling in extra resources, but from our selves. We're asking our home-self to do additional work, but not necessarily considering the tasks that home-self was already doing that are now not getting completed because we're asking for them to help us get work done with our work-self. I can work 16 hour days to get as much done as I used to, but I'm definitely going to be miserable and fall apart within a week or two.

Adjusting to make healthy choices

Given this consideration, what can we do? I think that's going to depend greatly on what roles you play in your work-org.

Individual Contributors

Ask for the time off that you need and work with your manager to reset expectations on how much you can get done in a given day. It is OK to feel unproductive. Your new success metric is what I have heard of and like to call a "Non-Zero Day". Just get one thing done and you've had a successful day. I've often found that when I compress my ever-growing, overwhelming set of expectations into just one task, I can get started easier. And once I get that done, I might surprise myself and find that I have a lot more time left and maybe I can actually do 2 things today.

But you know what? It's OK to have a day where you cannot get work done. It's OK to have an All-Home-Self day. That Home-Self is doing important work for you, too, and sometimes they need to borrow your work time so they can get Just One Thing done.


Hear your employees and do some self reflection, too. We are all being overburdened just with the news. And then we still have to sign into the Work Slack and meet deadlines for deliverables. People will throw themselves unhealthily into work to try and feel like they're just as productive as they've always been, to try to feel a like they're normal again. Make it explicitly clear: This. Is. Not. Normal.

Let your reports hear you say, "It is OK not to be OK. It is OK to have a day where you Just. Can't.

Reset deadlines and expectations and assume by default that any given person can only give you about 50% of their normal capacity at best and go from there. Make sure you look out for and prevent people from burying themselves with work.

Employers & Leadership

Be abundantly clear about your mental health care packages and encourage their use for all employees. Remember, you don't have to wait until you're falling apart to see a therapist, a lot of the time it is excellent and necessary preventative maintenace. As Leadership teams, honestly, maybe even talk about going to therapy yourself or how you just had to talk to someone the other day to deal with it all. Set the example with your own vulnerability.

If your organization doesn't already provide some sort of extra mental health coverage, cinsider offering to pay for employees to use one of the easy-to-sign-up, realatively-in-expensive online options like BetterHelp or TalkSpace or see if your healthcare provider covers something like this. Please know that even if your health insurance covers mental health services, it is incredibly difficult to find an in-network service that is available and taking appointments right now, offering quick and alternative options is a huge benefit to your employees.

Many of you at least have some sort of Employee Assistance Program that can offer some amount of these services or help direct your employees to those services. Have a Workshop/Lunch & Learn/Whatever on how to make use of it. Really, step-by-step, too. Where do I go to get help? What group numbers or account numbers am I going to have to know? What exactly is offered and if its limited, can they help me find additional assistance? Record that meeting and pin it and all the information in text format, too, in your standard announcement portal or in Slack. Make it font and center and easy to find.

Resist the urge to make mandatory fun meetings. It's OK to have optional video chat happy hours where people get to talk over Zoom or Skype or whatever just for fun, but resist the urge to try and cheer everyone up all the time. Things are hard, and sometimes we need to be sad and angry and scared. Sometimes we even need to be sad and angry and scared together and that's OK. Remember Inside Out? It can't all be about Joy.

The role of Home-Self

All of this is to say, be careful about how you or your reports or your employees or all of the above are borrowing resources from hour Home-Self. Even though they feel a lot like your Work-Self right now, they have a distinct and different job to accomplish.

Home-Self is helping you cope with a global pandemic. Home-self is helping you deal with the fear for your health, your loved ones, the loneliness you have of only being able to view your friends and family through glass and from six feet away. Home-Self is helping you deal with the anger you feel at your normal being taken away. Home-Self is trying to learn all-new coping mechanisms because the old ones just aren't working any more. Home-Self is helping you get through this, maybe battered and bruised and in recovery, but mostly in one piece. Do not sacrifice that resource.

If you absolutely must borrow some time from Home-Self for Right Now to reach a looming deadline, something that affects more than just you, it's OK to do that, but it's like the afterburner. You have to turn it off again. And make sure you t ake the time back later to refuel.

I'm probably going to be working late tonight or this weekend to get some tasks done that I need to have completed by Monday, but I'm probably also going to ask for an extra day or two off to make up for it. I can't sustain it otherwise.

I love you.

Be safe out there.

We're all in this together.