Defeat Stress And Burnout Using Red, Yellow, Green ‘Zones’

By Kevin Kruse, Contributor
Carey Nieuwhof's new book: At Your Best Carey Nieuwhof

In a 2019 study, 70% of 20 to 40-year-olds said they experienced the signs of burnout within the last year, which is quite saddening when you think about people in the prime of their life struggling so deeply. And this was before the pandemic. 

A former attorney and non-profit leader, Carey Nieuwhof, overcame personal burnout and developed ways to harness time, energy, and priorities to work in his favor. He shares his advice In his podcast, blogs, and a new book titled, At Your Best: How to Get Time, Energy and Priorities Working In Your Favor

I recently caught up with Nieuwhof to talk about how leaders can escape the stress spiral leading to burnout and the importance of leveraging your best energy throughout the day.   

 Kevin Kruse: How widespread is burnout in our culture today? And who is being impacted by it most?

Carey Nieuwhof: It’s a surprisingly widespread problem.  

Kevin Kruse: Why do you think so many leaders are chronically exhausted?

Carey Nieuwhof: A few factors make it much harder for us than it was for our parents or grandparents.

The pace of technological change has accelerated so much in the last 15 years. You used to go to the office, but thanks to our devices, the office now goes to you. It follows you everywhere you go because it sits in your back pocket. So the boundaries between work and life are blurred more than they’ve ever been, which leaves a lot of us answering emails at 9 at night while watching Disney+ with our kids. 

In addition, our devices give everyone we know, and lots of people we don’t know, access to us 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 

British psychologist Robin Dunbar argues most of us have the capacity to have 150 real-life relationships. Most of us have far more connections online...many have thousands or tens of thousands. We’re just not designed to handle that many relationships. 

In addition, bad news from around the world floods our feed day and night. We’re simply overwhelmed. 

Kevin Kruse:  You call the state most of us live in “The Stress Spiral.” What is that? 

Carey Nieuwhof: It’s the condition most people find themselves in: They’re overwhelmed, overcommitted and overworked. 

We all manage three assets every day: Our time, our energy and our priorities. 

When you’re in The Stress Spiral, your time becomes unfocused, you never leverage your energy and your priorities get hijacked...which creates even more anxiety. 

Kevin Kruse:  You figured out a way to escape “The Stress Spiral.”  What happened? 

Carey Nieuwhof: I went through a period of burnout a number of years ago that left me feeling gutted. The organization I was leading was growing rapidly year after year, and I just couldn’t keep up and went through a painful burnout. As I learned the hard way, if you don’t declare a finish line, your body will. 

Coming out of it, I was determined to figure out a new way to live. So, after a lot of research, coaching and some therapy, I started focusing my time, leveraging my energy and stopped letting other people hijack my priorities. 

Kevin Kruse: There are so many time management books out there, and while you practice time management strategies, you emphasize energy management. What does that mean? 

Carey Nieuwhof: All of us get 24 equal hours in a day, but as you know, not all those hours feel equal or produce equally. Brain research shows that we only really have about 3-5 hours a day where our energy is at our peak. For a lot of leaders, that’s the morning. But others reach their peak in the mid-morning, afternoon or even in the evening for night owls. Think of that as your Green Zone. 

Similarly, we all have an hour or two a day where we need more caffeine to stay awake or feel like we need a nap. For me, that’s 4-6 p.m. most days. That’s your Red Zone. 

The rest of the time, your energy isn’t at its peak or in a slump. That’s your Yellow Zone. You can get a lot done in your Yellow Zone, even if it’s not your peak energy. 

Kevin Kruse: What’s the problem with not leveraging your best energy window, your Green Zone? 

Carey Nieuwhof: Not leveraging your Green Zone is the reason most of us overwork. 

Often people spend their Green Zones unthinkingly: They go to a not-very-strategic breakfast meeting or work out (even though they’re not training for the Olympics), or use it to plow through email. 

Then, as their energy starts to lag, they turn to their most important work. Not only does that mean you won't do your best work, but often the interruptions of the rest of the day means your most important work gets left for evenings and weekends, which is why most people take their most significant work home with them. 

Kevin Kruse: How should you use each zone? 

Carey Nieuwhof: When you identify your peak 3-5 hours, start doing your most important work in those hours. For knowledge workers, think about the thing that will most move the needle. When I was practicing law, I was preparing for court the next day. For what I do these days as an author and podcaster, it’s writing great content or podcast interview research and preparation. 

If you’re in accounting, it could be doing that deep dive into long-term trends, or for a CEO, getting clear on the direction you want to take the company for the next two quarters. 

Your Green Zone is also the space where you should develop your skill set. Don’t just prep for court...read a book on how to do better cross-examination, or dive deeper into the case law. For writers, move your content through three drafts, not just one. This is how you develop your skill and talent rather than just using it. 

For your Red Zone, do your least important tasks...the things where not much is riding on them. For me, that’s catching up on email and routine work. Or exercise then. Or call it a day early. 

During your Yellow Zone, do moderately important work. For me, that’s meetings and work that isn’t quite as deep as what I’d do in my Green Zone. 

Devoting your Green Zone to your most important work not only will make you better at what you do, it lifts the mental pressure associated with knowing that your most important work remains unfinished, which is of course, what sabotages all your time off. 

Kevin Kruse: That’s a great theory, but what about all the interruptions that happen during the course of a normal day? 

Carey Nieuwhof: Interruptions are exactly how our priorities get hijacked. 

I suggest you find a place to work in your Green Zone that is as distraction-free as possible. As Cal Newport has said, “Your deep work takes deep focus.” Turn off all notifications, find a quiet spot, and get to work. If you’re stuck in an open office or cubicle, put on noise-cancelling headphones or let your colleagues know that you’re not available right now but will be later that day (in your Yellow Zone). 

You also have to determine that you won’t hijack your own time with distractions. It’s too easy to get sucked into a YouTube or TikTok wormhole that burns your best hours.

 A final discipline is mastering the art of the clear no. Most of us take on way too much, and learning how to say no is a superpower these days. You can do it nicely. 

Kevin Kruse: What happens if you’re not the CEO and can’t control your time as easily? 

Carey Nieuwhof: I hear that all the time from leaders, and it’s a great question. So here’s where to start: focus on what you can control, not on what you can’t. 

You get 168 hours in a week, and the average workweek is 40 hours. That means you’re already in control of 76% of your time, which is a lot of control. 

But break your 40 hour week down a little more, and you’ll realize not all of it is spoken for. I’ve asked thousands of people who work in office environments how much of their time consists of meetings and commitments they have no control over. At the high end, it’s about 10-12 hours a week for most people. Some say it’s as low as 5.

But for argument’s sake, let’s say someone reading this article says, “Half my time at work is spoken for—20 hours each week.” If that’s the case, you still have control over 88% of your time. That exceptional flexibility. 

Kevin Kruse: There’s been a lot of talk of a move to a four-day workweek and a more generous time-off policy. Is that part of the solution for solving stress? 

Carey Nieuwhof: I’m a huge fan of time off. This year, I took a full month off and it was great. 

But here’s the problem: Time off won’t heal you when the problem is how you spend your time on. There are so many leaders who take an amazing vacation and on the first Monday back, by 11 a.m. they feel like they got hit by a truck. 

And that’s the problem. Vacations, days off and even sabbaticals are not the solution for an unsustainable pace: A sustainable pace is the solution for an unsustainable pace. 

Kevin Kruse: What’s your hope for people? 

Carey Nieuwhof: My hope is that in this rather insanely-paced world, we all find a way to live in a way today that will help us thrive tomorrow. Our current pace and approach to time have us living in a way today that makes us struggle tomorrow. 

So many people have built lives they want to escape from. I hope that with the “At Your Best” strategy, we can find a different way to live.

Kevin Kruse is the Founder + CEO of LEADx, a platform that scales and sustains leadership habits through micro-coaching and behavioral nudges. Kevin is also a New York Times bestselling author of  Great Leaders Have No Rules, 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management, and Employee Engagement 2.0.


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