(An attempt of) setting priorities in a team to avoid burnout

For a couple of months now I have been skating dangerously close to where workload becomes unhealthy, but I recently had a really good experience planning out work (i.e. generating TONS of great ideas of what we definitely want to do) and negotiating priorities (i.e. cutting ideas back to what is realistic(ish)) for both myself and in a team, and this is how we did it: By articulating

“I value [this really important thing] EVEN OVER [this other really important thing]”

I am working in this really great team of people from across Lund University on creating a community where we support teachers, and teachers support each other, in teaching about sustainability. We come together from very different roles that come with very different responsibilities towards different stakeholders, and we deal with that usually by putting in more effort than our respective roles demand or pay for, to generate something as a team. This is super meaningful because we all want to create change for the better, but that work can very easily become unsustainable since it means making time somewhere else, and that then typically means evenings or weekends. So we really needed to figure out how to cut down all our ideas to something that stays manageable. We had decided that we needed a little 3-day “retreat” (retreating to different buildings than our offices, but within Lund University) to not just always putting out fires, but to discuss goals and priorities, and to figure out a plan for 2024. We’ve been orienting ourselves at the model of Communities of Practice, and someone recommended the Kahts-Kramer et al. (2023) “Forming a Community of Practice 101”, which was fun to read, and from which I drew some inspiration in their code of conduct exercises, where they mention as one discussion prompt something along the lines of “how will we promote work-life balance”.

One tool that is always useful is, of course, the Eisenhower matrix where, depending on importance vs urgency, you prioritize, schedule, delegate, or drop tasks. But what if everything is important and you have more things to do that are urgent or scheduled than you have time available? To facilitate that discussion, I found “even over” sentences (see for example in this medium blog post).

First, I tried them on my own and I found it really helpful to think about my work in this way, for example:

  • I value blogging of new insights/ideas I get from reading the literature or other inspiration even over having an evening off (I often blog in my free time from home because it’s just meaningful to me to think through things and create that external memory of it on my blog that I can then access later when I need it)
  • I value publishing blog posts in pretty much real time even over proof-reading (I think that’s mostly because I know that if I don’t do it right away, it will never happen because of too much other stuff on my to-do list)
  • I value publishing things on my blog even over publishing similar content on Canvas (the learning management tool we use for our courses), since it lets me much more easily edit later or link to if I need it again later, and makes it available to more than just a select few people enrolled in a course
  • I value thinking about what people are going to do in our courses even over making my slides look pretty

Articulating this does not really change what I spend my time on, but it takes away a bit of the bad conscience around not proofreading or prettifying slides — it is not that I do not value it, it is just that I value something else more.

I also found that I value my mental health even over showing up at work early, so I have started to communicate my cold dips with a friend two mornings a week as “mental health dips” that I prioritize over being available for whatever someone else wants from me — at least in this group of people that I feel safe with, and with some other trusted colleagues. Which I can highly recommend — both the cold dips and communicating that self-care takes priority over a lot of work stuff!

But so far, in this post it’s just me reflecting on my priorities. When we used the even over sentences as a team, we found that for some colleagues, professionalism (e.g. having clear signs to the room where a workshop will take place) is very important. Or that some value careful proofreading even over putting out a larger volume of posts.

Having these conversations is super helpful because they bring out into the open what really matters to us individually, and we can negotiate how to distribute resources as a group. Understanding how much something matters to someone helps reframe any building resentment (“what, they are spending time on this NOW?”, “how did they think it was appropriate to publish this?”, …) and we can be supportive (either by letting them do their thing without judging, or by going a step further in the direction of what matters to someone else than we would have based on our own priorities). For example, I launched our “teaching for sustainability” blog which all of my colleagues from this group contributed to already because they knew it mattered to me, but we postponed a youtube channel for recorded seminars to a later time, when we might value it even over other things on the list. And until then, it is something that would be super nice to have, but it is really not a priority.

These discussions are good for trust, for feeling community, and ultimately for the quality of the shared project by actually collaborating on fewer things and doing them well, and postponing/pruning all the other great ideas. And all of this definitely helps with workload and feeling of overwhelm, and work satisfaction!

What do you value even over something else important?

Featured image: Season’s greetings (well, that’s when I started writing this blog post…) from a work meeting in Voss. I value my work with GFI and especially Kjersti even over focusing all my energy on my main job, and I value not flying (and thus spending 2 days on trains and busses) even over the convenience of just 2 hours in the air…

Kahts-Kramer, Samantha & Schreck, Cornelia & Bisschoff, Christo & Oosthuizen, Cobus & Coetzee, Dané & Du Plessis, Alretha. (2023). Scholarship of teaching and learning: Forming a Community of Practice 101. DOI:10.6084/m9.figshare.24631326.v1

2 thoughts on “(An attempt of) setting priorities in a team to avoid burnout

  1. Pingback: Thinking about my positionality as a teacher and researcher in academic development - Adventures in Oceanography and Teaching

  2. Pingback: How do I cultivate a sense of joy, passion, and purpose in my teaching, and how do I share it with my students? – Teaching for Sustainability

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