A few years ago I worked at a company where, through my own doing, I managed to hit a point where I burned out.
No vacations, long hours, stressful tasks and a crippling inability to approach my manager to ask for what I needed caused it. But at the time, I thought it was because I was just bad at my job.
Today, as a manager, my job is to ensure I don’t burn out but also to spot the signs of burn out in those who report into me. That task is made difficult by the fact that my team is dispersed across the globe, but I think I can help influence a burnout antidote.
I’m sure other people in other jobs have different opinions, but in my universe (software company managing knowledge workers) I think burnout can be boiled down to four key ingredients. What follows is my rundown commentary on those four ingredients.
Time is important, so setting boundaries around where that time is spend is important. Every day the earth rotates on it’s axis, giving us humans 24 hours of time to spend. It’s up to us to spend it in a wise manner that makes us productive members of our capitalist society, but also to enjoy the spoils of being alive in the first place.
Time is usually split between work, sleep, family and personal development time. For me, because I work at a good company, time is often split between work & me time nicely. I come to work at 6am some days, but I go to the on-site gym — that’s me time, but given the setting it’s also work time because while running my 5k I get to consider professional topics.
If you don’t reach a balance on your time spent in the day, you’ll hit a weird unbalanced life situation which can very quickly escalate to burnout.
Doing things well
An easy way to burnout is to confuse productivity with doing more. I could easily spend 14 hours a day in the office, but that doesn’t mean I spent 14 productive hours in the office. Sure, we all want to hit the holy 4-hour workweek grail that Tim Ferriss promised us. But it’s not likely to be realised by many of us mere mortals.
Doing the important things properly is more valuable than doing some things a lot. Sitting there for 3 hours a day browsing your email does not mean you’re being productive. Nor does sitting in 1 hour long meetings where nothing is achieved.
One easy way to ensure you’re focusing on important things is to ensure that you’re saying no to people. If people ask you to achieve unimportant things that take up some of your valuable 24 hour daily time allowance, then you should consider saying no. It’s fine. People won’t take it personally.
Lean into family
Family is important. Last year I got married, which infinitely extended my family but also brought someone closer to me. But there’s another version of family; your close colleagues, friends & cohorts.
Lean into them, because they’re going to be a great judge of when you’ve hit an imbalance in your life. They’ll spot signs of stress, anger or pressure long before you do. My wife can spot a deep seated imbalance in my mental or physical health weeks before I could ever hope to.
Taking time out of work is so important, and I feel like as a younger man I didn’t know this. I thought taking time off was a sign of weakness & would stifle my career. Good god, I was wrong.
I’m still pretty bad at taking time off work, and I often wait until the tell-tale signs of stress are about to hit me like a freight train, but the solution is simple: go away. Taking time out to do something else could be as complex as completing some home improvement project or as simple as sitting on a beach in Tenerife. Either way, some regularly scheduled vacation time is important. Most countries even have times to do this with long weekends & public holidays. Use them.
Moreover, when there’s weekends or evenings in play, take that time to not be in work. I’m awful at getting my head out of the game in the evening. I’ve tried to avoid opening my laptop at home, and my personal laptop no longer has my work Google profile installed.
Hopefully that makes sense, but if you want to chat to me more about stress, reducing it or if you are seeing signs of burnout in someone close to you, feel free to ask me questions by email or twitter