When working from home, it’s easy for everything to appear urgent. Constantly trying to stay on top of all these can lead to burnout. How can you manage urgency so that you can take care of what needs to be done while keeping a healthy work environment? Penny Zenker talks about this with Brandon Smith, an executive coach, author, and speaker who is on a mission to eliminate workplace dysfunction forever. Tune in as he expounds what workplace dysfunction is and in what ways he is combatting it. He also share some tips on how to manage urgency and create healthy work-from-home setup.
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How To Manage Urgency To Avoid Burnout And Create A Healthy Work-From-Home Setup With Brandon Smith
I am always excited by the great people that I run into on my search for taking back time for working smarter. I’m super excited to introduce to you, Brandon Smith. He is a leading expert in leadership communication and the cure of workplace dysfunction. Known as The Workplace Therapist, Brandon is a sought-after executive coach, TEDx speaker, author and award-winning business school instructor. He’s been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, CNN, Fox News, NPR, Forbes and many more. His book, The Hot Sauce Principle: How to Live and Lead in a World Where Everything is Urgent All of the Time, helps readers to master urgency so that they can be more effective leaders and manage other’s unrealistic expectations and prevent burnout at home. There’s no better time to talk about this incredible sense of urgency that is part of our culture, and how it’s amplified with the situation of the pandemic and the environment that we’re in. Brandon, welcome to the show.
Penny, I am so glad to be on the show. Before we get started, thank you so much for protecting our most precious resource which is time. I’m glad you’re on that mission because it’s such an important one.
I am on a mission. For me, it’s an interesting question. Is that my mission to protect time? My mission is to help people live happier and more meaningful lives. Time is a vehicle. That’s the way I see it. When we can protect our own time and create space for ourselves, then we’re doing that. How about you? How did you come up with The Hot Sauce? What’s your underlying mission there?
My mission is simple. It’s to eliminate all workplace dysfunction everywhere forever. I was kidding with people. I said, “I figured it out,” then there was the pandemic. It starts all over again where people have Zoom fatigue and people having meetings at 7:30 in the morning because everyone knows you’re not commuting. They lost all the natural boundaries between work and life. It’s become a different world we’re in now.
Don’t you think our boundaries were eroding before this? I always say that the pandemic amplified our dysfunction.
It did, but there were still some natural breaks. We knew, “I’m not going to have the meeting with you at 5:00 or meeting with you at 7:30 in the morning.” That’s your commute time. That’s when you’re taking the subway or you’re driving into the office, whatever you’re doing. We had some natural breaks with the natural transition time. Now I know exactly where you are at 5:00. You know exactly where I am at 5:00. It becomes this weird stew where there’s not a lot of buffers.
Why do we accept that? I’d be like, “No, I don’t start work at 7:30.”
My training originally was as a clinical therapist. I also have an MBA. That’s where The Workplace Therapist handle comes from. If you think about therapists, one of the foundational ideas of healthy relationships is boundaries. Being able to set healthy boundaries is such an important job for us as human beings. We got off easier in the past because work had a natural boundary established. If we go back several years ago, you could only work when you were at work. You couldn’t work at home.
We didn’t have to set them. They were set for us. What I’m hearing you say is it’s harder because those natural or structured breaks in the workplace are gone. Therefore, it’s up to us and we were not so good at it. Is that what I’m hearing?
Yes, because it requires self-awareness. It requires being able to state and ask for what you need. Every person is different. Maybe you prefer to meditate in the morning before you go to work, or workout before you go to work, or work early, or maybe you have family commitments. That’s part of the boundaries you need to set to be able to manage those. Every person has to navigate and negotiate those individually. That’s a little bit harder. There’s power in that, but it’s also a harder conversation to have.
I know a lot of people feel like, “Maybe I’ll get fired if I speak up.” There’s this fear factor of speaking up for your boundaries. I’m wondering why employers aren’t being more cautious and conscious of those boundaries because everybody’s in a different place and it’s unfair.
Make your boss your number 1 customer. Click To Tweet It’s varying by managers. Some managers are conscious of that and they’re saying, “We’re not doing any meetings after 5:00.” I did a presentation for a whole group of managers and leaders within a large healthcare organization. They said, “No, we’re not doing video. We’re giving everyone a break. We’re going to be audio-only.” Some managers are being conscious and aware of that and trying to care for their people. Other managers are saying, “I’m going to keep asking until you say no.”
They’re leaving it up to you, which is the way that it’s been in many business cultures. You’ve got to speak out and stand up for yourself in what your boundaries are.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with saying, “It’s your responsibility to tell me what you need. It’s not my responsibility to guess.” There is something fair about that, but we’re all trying to figure it out. That’s the short answer. Just like the world we’re living in now, we’re all trying to figure this thing out.
What are some tips to help people be clearer and stricter about the boundaries that they’d like to set for themselves?
The first one right out of the gate is the hardest. It’s to be clear on what you need. You would be stunned or maybe not in how many people that you ask, “What do you need?” They say, “I don’t know what it is that I need.” You have to know yourself. What do you need in order to be a healthy human and to make your life work in the season of life that you’re in because seasons change. You’ve got to be gut-level honest. The second step is to sit down and script that conversation. Script how you want that to go with your manager and play that out in your head because it is a business conversation. It doesn’t have to be emotional. It doesn’t have to be that big, scary thing we think it is. We’re going to have a business conversation, “In order for me to get you what you need, this is what I need. Let’s find a path forward.”
By scripting it out, it helps you to work through the emotional part and the fear part. Is that what I’m hearing?
Yes. It helps you to start to think about what it is they need too because this is a negotiation. An important thing I talk about it in my book and it’s something I preach to all the people that I get a chance to preach to is never view your manager as a manager from now on. View them as your number one customer. That changes your relationship with them because now you’re saying, “Ms. or Mr. Customer, for me to give you what you need, which I want to because that’s my goal, here’s what I need in order to make that work.” You’re going to negotiate that. You’re not saying they can’t have what they want. You’re saying, “This is what I need in order to give you what you want.”
The third step is to find someone that you trust well. It could be a spouse, a friend, and play it out with them, run it by them. I can’t tell you how many times when people will say, “I want to have this conversation. I want to know how to do it.” They talk it out and say, “You did it. You said it exactly the right way that time. You shouldn’t be scared. That was perfect. It had the right amount of vulnerability, authenticity and genuineness.” Practice and play that out so you’ll feel comfortable. Now you’re ready to have it.
Can I challenge you a little bit so we can have a little conversation? I’m not sure that I agree that we should negotiate our boundaries. If I need this and my normal work hours used to be 8:30 to 6:00 or whatever it was, I don’t feel that I have to renegotiate or negotiate that I start before 8:30.
You’re negotiating the relationship. You’re not negotiating your boundaries.
It’s important for people to understand that. That doesn’t mean that they have to give in to certain points. There are some things that might be negotiable, but some things are boundaries that you have to set, and you have to hold people to it. We train people how to treat us.
You say to them, “In order for me to get you what you want, this is what I need.” If they say, “No, I want this from you,” you say, “That’s fine. I can do that but that means you’re not going to get this.”
It’s also okay to say, “I’m sorry but I have a family and I can’t. Perhaps I could work later or perhaps I could work through lunch.” There could be an alternative solution without compromising your boundaries. Is that fair to say? It is a huge issue for people. I never thought about it before this conversation that we had those natural boundaries that protected us, our time and our energy. They went away and we’re not good at setting them ourselves. Why do you think we’re not good at asking for what we need?
That is one of the scariest things we can ask of any other human being. If it’s what you need, then it’s deep-down core to you, and what if they say no? That’s always our fear. Let’s say there’s something you need from your significant other that makes your heart sing. It’s scary to ask for that because what if they say, “No way I’m not going to give you that.” That hurts at a deeper level. We tend to avoid those conversations because it’s so meaningful to us. We’re concerned about what will happen if we get rejected.
You said to treat your boss like your number one customer. I like that because it does shift your mindset so that you’re looking to serve or to please, which people generally are.
There’s something even more important than that. When we treat them as a customer, all of a sudden we turn on that engine that we have about managing expectations. We’re much better at that when there is more customer. We proactively send them updates on projects. We proactively set up meetings to ask questions, to clarify what success would look like. When they’re our boss, we sit back passively and wait for them to give us work, give us projects or reach out and ask for updates. We would never do that if they were our customer.
You’re saying that by making them our number one customer, we fall into more of an ownership position and then we’re proactive.
We lead them. Otherwise, we’re waiting for them to lead us. That causes a whole bunch of problems. When we lead them, it’s a lot easier to set boundaries. When they’re leading us, they’re coming at us. We’re always on our heels. That orientation helps to unlock many healthy things.
I like it. I’m going to start using it now. Although I don’t have a boss, but I’m my boss. Sometimes I have to look at myself as my best customer and treat myself proactively. Let’s talk about urgency now, and then I want to talk a little bit about your book in general and the whole concept. The whole idea of everything is urgent. I read a book some years ago. It’s a pretty old book from the early ‘80s or late ‘80s, The Stuff Americans Are Made Of. It talked about that sense of urgency is embedded in our culture. Anything that is a gift can also be a curse after a certain point when you’re not careful. It’s at a hand now. People are overwhelmed and unable to set priorities. It’s a constant discussion about managing urgency. Why has this become such an issue?
It’s accelerated probably since the last recession because so many companies are in some kind of a transformation mode or trying to catch up. Usually, that has to do a lot with technological infrastructure, but it could be lots of other things. You think about our friends in retail and how much that whole world has changed and been changing.
It’s change that has created this sense of urgency.
John Kotter is a famous change expert and change guru out of Harvard. Any book you pick up on change management, he’s either written or referenced heavily. John is one of the godfathers in this space. He’s got an eight-step model for change that he’s been preaching for years. The first step is you have to create a high enough sense of urgency. All these leaders have been taught that if I need to create change, I got to create urgency. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with urgency. In the right doses, it’s a healthy good thing. If you want to change anything in your personal life, you need urgency. We can talk more about what are the components of that, but what’s happened particularly in publicly traded companies where they’re trying to please the shareholders is they’re trying to change everything at the same time and making everything urgent all the time.
No more than 3-5 urgent initiatives. Click To Tweet All that does is create urgency in the clinical sense as anxiety. That’s an important reminder for us too. When you put urgency into a system or a person, you’re intentionally creating anxiety and discomfort. Anxiety is a high energy emotion. Sometimes we need to do that. Even with my kiddos, there have been times where they’re too comfortable. I need to make them uncomfortable on purpose. There are times when we have to do that, but when we create everything being urgent, we’re pumping and dumping anxiety into the system.
The boy who cried wolf. Don’t people then ignore it? There’s an expression that if everything is urgent, nothing is urgent. That’s the norm.
They ignore it and then ultimately, that level of anxiety in the system will translate to burnout. That’s where the story ends. It ends in the same destination every single time, burnout. It means either the employee quits, the employee gets hospitalized or who knows what else they do? They can’t keep up that pace. It’s unsustainable.
I have another theory on that like your thought. It’s not that it’s in line with yours, but I have this thing called the productivity curve. In the center is we’re healthy, we’re productive, we’re focused on the things that are most important. We have the right level of urgency. On one side, we have perfectionism where we go over the top. We over-function. We have procrastination where we under-function. If we looked at that from an emotional perspective, procrastination is apathy. I was thinking as you were saying that, it can turn into burnout or it could turn into apathy. I don’t care. It doesn’t have to burn people out, but it’ll remove them from any ownership of completing the task or working towards the goal.
I would go even further to say apathy is a sign of burnout because it’s a self-protective mechanism. If I numb myself to caring. If you think about the TV show The Office or Stanley Hudson, he will walk in every day and get a cup of coffee. He was so over the place. It’s a self-protective mechanism. I’m no longer going to personally invest. They often talk about that the opposite of love is apathy. It’s not hate. It’s apathy because I’m no longer going to emotionally invest in this person or this place. You push me far enough in burnout, that’s what I’m going to do because I’ve got to protect myself.
There’s this creation of discomfort and anxiety. Is that the organization that’s creating that? How does the employee deal with that? It’s turning into burnout. Let’s say their organization is unaware of the amount of pressure that they’re putting on them and they are not going to stop any time soon. Other than being apathetic and going to the hospital with burnout or not caring anymore, what can they do to offset this everything is urgent?
We can go back to something we talked about, turn your manager or whoever it is that’s putting this hot sauce on you into a customer. Sit down with Mr. or Ms. Customer and say, “I understand that this and this is urgent. I’d love to spend some time getting your help prioritizing these things.” It’s having that conversation to make them prioritize them in order, rather than having them be like hub-and-spoke where they’re all equally urgent and you got to do them all now and having those trade-off conversations. Also, let them know and say, “I can get you this and this, but I can’t do it by this date. If you want this and this by that date, then I need more resources or let’s talk about other options.” It’s having some prioritization and managing expectation conversations.
I was talking to a group about managing expectations and also understanding that expectations have to match the circumstances. With the pandemic, sometimes the expectations are pre-pandemic expectations that don’t work during the pandemic in certain people’s circumstances. That’s one way to also manage your manager. Make them aware of the circumstances that you might be under or what’s changed and help to manage that.
A lot of these techniques we’re talking about and others that I referenced in the book work in every single case, except for one. They don’t work if you’re dealing with an adult that is not a fully formed adult or fully rational.
Does that mean everyone?
No. As a manager, you’re willing to make trade-offs and compromise and recognize that we are in 2021, not 2018. Some people aren’t, some people think in their mind, “If I push harder and ask for everything, I get it all.” We have an irrational set of expectations of what is possible and capable. Maybe they don’t care. Maybe they’re on some kind of a spectrum like a narcissist, “It doesn’t matter what you want. I want what I want. You better give it to me or you’re not going to be employed here.”
Is it possible that some are under that as a circumstance where they had to let go of people because they have fewer resources, but they still have the same deadlines and capacity that they have to meet? Is there that, where they’d like to meet people where they’re at, but they don’t know how because of the circumstances around us? What would you say to that?
The tension is normal and natural. Those happen all the time. It still requires compromise and negotiations. It still requires a realistic rational approach. Let’s say you’re my leader and there were myself and two other co-workers. Both the other co-workers quit and you say to me, “Brandon, we still have a deadline. You’re going to have to do both of their jobs. It’s due tomorrow.” You can answer that all day long, but if I physically can’t do it, I’ll say, “I’m sorry, Penny, you can’t have that. There’s only one of me. I can’t do that. It’s not possible. I’m sorry. I don’t know who you need to tell that you’re not going to deliver, but I’m happy to help you have that message, but it’s not going to happen.” There has to be some level of groundedness in reality, which is the rational part. They’ve got to have some level of rationality.
That’s why I said everyone because many people are not rational because when we’re stressed out, then we lose that side of our brain that’s rational. We’re into a fight, flight or freeze mode where we aren’t in full access to that. How would you say managers should deal with that if they find themselves in that position?
It has to be a conversation that feels more like a partnership or a team. I once had someone describe this image to me and it’s a beautiful image. They said, “Whenever I was sitting down trying to work with an employee or deliver performance review, I didn’t do what typical managers would do, which is sitting across the desk. I would pull up a chair next to them and put the document in front of both of us so we’re looking at it together.” That needs to be the orientation for both managers and employees. Be shoulder to shoulder looking at the problem together so it’s not adversarial. If it’s adversarial, it’s I win or you lose, or you win and I lose. That’s not the world we’re in now. We’re going to have to work together to figure out a solution that’s going to work for everybody. It’s the best-case scenario given the circumstance.
I’m starting to think here a little bit about some of the things that I remember in your book. I liked the fact that you talk about it being that hot sauce, The Hot Sauce Principle. Tell us more about The Hot Sauce Principle and how we can use it to our advantage when we need it and how to back off. How do we find the right amount of hot sauce that makes it taste good and also isn’t too hot?
Building an idea of urgency, from now on, when any of your readers think of urgency, I want you to think of hot sauce. Hot sauce is a good thing. I love hot sauce. If you put hot sauce on food, it adds a little bit of focus, a little bit of flavor, a little bit of spice. That’s great, but if everything that’s coming on the kitchen is covered in hot sauce, the appetizer, the salad, the entree, the dessert, the iced tea, if you’re like me, you’re going to be curled up on a ball. That is the concept. It’s knowing what to put urgency on or what to put hot sauce on and how to use that in the right ways. Why I also like the analogy is when you’re applying it to people, like me with hot sauce. For some people, 1 or 2 drops is great. Other people need the whole big bottle. You got to douse them with it.
The circumstance can also dictate how much you need to use. The key is you want to minimize the number of priorities that you make urgent, that you put hot sauce on. I’ll share with you my favorite story that illustrates that point. Some years ago, I was working with a client and I was talking about this analogy of hot sauce. He was an anxious guy, a small business owner, but one of the most anxious small business owners I’ve ever met. He probably should never have gone into entrepreneurship. He’s that anxious. He had a 50-person technology marketing company. His people were getting burned out because he comes in every day worrying about everything. He makes everything urgent all the time.
I tell him about this analogy. On his own, he came up with this brilliant idea. He went out to the grocery store and bought three bottles of hot sauce. He stuck them on his desk, 1, 2, 3. Whenever there was a new project that was urgent, when he gave that project to one of his direct reports, he would hand them a bottle of hot sauce to indicate this is urgent. He said, “Here, this bottle means this thing is urgent. You keep this on your desk until the project is complete.” Here’s the beautiful thing about that, he only had three bottles he could give out at a given time. Three to five is the rule. No more than five things can be urgent and important at a given time. As a leader, that’s about how many initiatives you want to have going on at the same time. Where it gets more complicated is we’re in a larger organization. My leader, she’s got things that are urgent and important, and she can follow that rule, but she’s got a peer who also has things that are urgent and important, and she might come knocking on my door. One person’s hot sauce might not be another person’s hot sauce. It requires a lot of that expectation management when you sit in the middle.
We can relate and associate well with different types of metaphors like that. You can get those little mini bottles.
I buy the mini bottles from Tabasco. I buy these by the case. Back in the days when I would do these kinds of talks in person, I would give everybody a little mini bottle and say, “Stick it on your desk.”
My thing is Rubik’s Cube. I talk around the Rubik’s cube and I give out a little mini Rubik’s Cube. What else do we need to know about managing urgency? Is there anything else that you haven’t told us yet that’s an important tip that we need to know?
Urgency is like hot sauce. The right amount is a great thing, but you have to be careful about putting it all over the place. Click To Tweet I can add two more to it and then we’ll see where else you’d like to go. First, if I’m going to put urgency into the system or I’m going to make somebody feel this, I have to have established trust first because at that moment I’m making them uncomfortable. They’re going to ask themselves, “Do I even know this guy? Do I trust him enough to allow him to make me feel this way?” Don’t jump in on day one driving urgency. That isn’t going to work well. You’ve got to make sure you build that relationship. Build trust before you start to create discomfort. The only other point I’d add to this too of why urgency is so important is that discomfort triggers in people a desire to take action to make it go away. That’s why we use urgency. It creates a desire for action.
If you’ve ever woken up in the middle of the night thinking about work, that’s workplace anxiety, workplace urgency. It’s knocking on your head in the middle of the night. Most of us, the way we cope with that is we get up and we maybe do some work, shoot some emails off, or get ready to send some emails the next morning, or grab our little notepad next to our bed and write down some thoughts, take it out of our head and put it down and make a plan. Urgency stimulates action. You don’t want to overwhelm people by dousing them with urgency. You want just enough so they’re ready for an action plan, whether we’re talking about getting an employee to change their behavior, or we’re trying to drive change with a whole department or company.
Let’s shift gears a little bit. I’d like to ask a couple of questions to all my guests. How do you define productivity and why?
The way I define productivity is thinking about what are your life priorities in a given day or week, and making sure you are being intentional about putting the big rocks in first, making sure you’re being intentional about putting those in your calendar first. For me, productivity is tactical. It’s all about calendar management. It’s putting in and protecting the important things in your calendar first every week. That’s an important way I would define it. The other way I would define it is not only by things you’ve accomplished at the end of the week but how you felt along the way.
I say the same thing. I haven’t heard anyone else say that out of all the people that I’ve interviewed. I was saying a similar type of thing. That’s great. It’s like happiness. It’s a feeling that you’re productive.
If you’re exhausted and clawing at it and getting things done, that’s not a fun journey. In many ways, our workplaces are like interval training. It’s high intensity, but you need rest. High-intensity, rest. Many workplaces are like, “No, high intensity until you drop.” That’s not a good feeling. I’m glad we’re on the same page.
There’s no off-season. If you look at any sport, there’s an off-season. We are the athletes that have no off-season. If we don’t take those little opportunities like weekends and vacations and the things that we need to reset, it is a huge strain on our system.
If I look into my crystal ball, your crystal ball probably shows the same thing, I see a lot more hybrid workplaces going forward where people are working some at home and some at work. Most of those are probably going to be Fridays and Mondays at home, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday in the office for meetings. If that is how things start to play out, I highly encourage people to take quarterly long weekends as their interval break. Take a leave on Thursday, come back on Monday and you get this nice long mini vacation. Do it once a quarter. You could still do a regular vacation, but that break is well needed for people. Even if you have to work in part on one of those days, you’re remote and everybody’s remote, it doesn’t matter if you’re on the beach. Fire up your laptop for four hours or something, at least you’re in a different place.
It does make a difference to change that location. Even if you’re working a little bit, if you’re by the beach or you’re somewhere else, it doesn’t count. Changing locations even in your own house can make a big difference. That’s why some people like to work in a coffee shop or to be in different locations, it gives you different energy. Sometimes this same environment for whatever reason is not a creative space anymore. If everything was taken off, your phone and your desktop, I know you’re going to say calendar first so let’s not include the calendar and the email, what’s the first app that you would put on that helps you be more efficient and effective during your day?
I’m a cheat. I’m not going to answer the question exactly the way you intended. I can’t believe I’m being difficult. An old-school little pad of yellow paper and a pen.
I’m not going to let you answer that way. I’m a paper person too. I still like to write things on paper. What I’m getting at is I have a couple of little tools that are super helpful for me. I have this thing called TextExpander. It allows me to put #Gig. Every time I’m putting something out for my gig, it’ll bring up this whole blurb formatted so that I don’t have to write the whole thing and I don’t have to search for it. That’s a huge time-saver for me. Do you have something like that that you might recognize that you use?
I don’t have a good answer to that question. Maybe the answer is I need to go find one.
What’s your biggest time waster? We’ll start there.
My biggest time waster now is probably administrative stuff. Although I’ve tried to get rid as much of that stuff as I can. My mantra has always been, what can I say no to, what can I delegate, or what can I outsource? I had a client and he shared with me the four Ds. I thought that was good. He said, “What do I need to do? What do I need to delegate? What do I need to delay? What do I need to delete?” I liked that. I haven’t thought about the delay.
I have something called the 135 Planning rule. When you’re scheduling, you can take 1 thing that you’re working towards a long-term strategic goal, 3 things that bring you towards the midterm milestone. There you have your important things that typically would not get done at all, and then your urgent things, which are 5 things that must be done by you today.
I would need to download whatever you’re doing. Your show would be the thing I would download.
We’re at the end of our time. You were great. I love having you on the show and some of those core conversations. We talked about boundaries, which is huge. We talked about urgency, which there is some overlap, but also distinctly separate, and protecting your time was an overall arching piece of it. Thank you so much for being here.
Penny, I had a great time. Thanks for having me.
Where can people find out more about you and your book? Do you have a website we can send them to?
The easiest place is The Workplace Therapist. You can even Google it because I’m the only one. You can go to TheWorkPlaceTherapist.com or Google The Workplace Therapist and you’ll find me. On that site are podcasts, blogs, articles, all free resources for people to make their workplaces healthier. They can also order my book. My book is available on Amazon. They can order it directly from me and I’ll send them a signed copy.
Thank you so much, Brandon.
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- Brandon Smith
- The Hot Sauce Principle: How to Live and Lead in a World Where Everything is Urgent All of the Time
- The Stuff Americans Are Made Of
- iTunes – Take Back Time
- YouTube – Take Back Time
About Brandon Smith
Brandon Smith is a leading expert in leadership communication and curer of workplace dysfunction. Known as “The Workplace Therapist,” Brandon is a sought-after executive coach, TEDx speaker, author and award- winning business school instructor. He has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, CNN, Fox News.com, NPR, Forbes and many others for his expertise. His book The Hot Sauce Principle: How to Live and Lead in a World Where Everything Is Urgent All of the Time helps readers to master urgency so they can more effectively lead others, manage others’ unrealistic expectations, and prevent burnout at home.
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