Burnout management

By @ryantmcknight | Posted: August 17, 2016

As someone who is passionate about his professional and personal interests, I often find myself committing to a somewhat ridiculous workload.

Is taking on a lot of projects a problem? Not necessarily. For the most part, I love what I do, and the time just flies by. I can spend loads of hours firing on all cylinders and not feel fatigued.

Until I do.

Burnout can happen to anyone. And even before you near that point, your work and personal life are probably already suffering a bit.

In my own case, burnout arises slowly from a thousand yeses and my personal reluctance to walk away from projects. You know... quit. If I must "step back," I promise myself I'll return and finish what I started. I add it to an ever-growing list of long-term goals.

Recently, I came to an important realization – it's unwise to take a passive approach to burnout. You need to actively prepare for it. Because, well, life.

Life is the most obvious non-surprise that workaholics never see coming. You know, the exogenous factors. The external shit you can't control.

You might think you have the perfect work-life balance. You're somehow making great progress on all of your responsibilities and getting just enough sleep and social time to stay healthy and happy.

Then come along a couple weekends of unexpected travel. A serious family or personal health issue appears that sucks away even more time and energy. Your boss dumps a super tedious project on your plate because she "knows you can handle it." You hit a deer on the way home from work and your car gets totaled. You find yourself in yet another heated argument with your partner.

Boom. Burnout on the horizon.

It's a well known fact that, given enough time, life will throw big punches and mangle any work-life balance you've made an effort to establish.

It's also common knowledge that you should financially prepare for unforeseen emergencies – e.g. a lost job, a health crisis, etc.

In the latter case, a lot of us operate off of a game plan – e.g. we set aside 3-6 months worth of living expenses for a rainy day.

But what about in the former scenario? Is it possible to come up with a good threat management strategy for burnout?

Yep. At least, I've found an approach that works okay for me.

Here's my approach.

A. Take preventive action

At the core of my strategy is my mindset. Since thoughts influence actions, I try to constantly remind myself to stay alert for burnout creep. When I'm looking for it, I can take swift action when it surfaces.

If I feel the pressure rising, I often return to a passage in a book I came across several years ago. Reading these words always reminds and motivates me to prune my commitments and focus on the things and people I most care about in life.

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful. – Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Of course, words and thoughts without action lack meaningful bite, so I also take specific, tactical measures.

Routinely work to strip away non-essentials

Will spending time on this particular activity propel me closer toward my top long-term goals or benefit someone I care a lot about? Is it a business, legal, or moral obligation? Will it reduce my stress level?

If the answer to these questions is "no," the activity is non-essential. If my plate is getting full, I need to consider cutting it.

Simplify and automate repetitive tasks

Taking advantage of "set it and forget it" features is a no-brainer.

  • All of my bills are set to auto-pay.
  • Non-essential incoming email is auto-labeled and filtered.
  • Essential email is filtered using Google's multiple inboxes feature.
  • My metro card account is auto-filled each month.
  • I use Amazon's subscription service for toiletries and other essentials.
  • Rather than form my own playlists, I use Amazon Prime's music "stations."
  • New phone contacts and apps are automatically backed up over wifi.
  • Cell pics are automatically uploaded to Dropbox over wifi.
  • IFTTT alerts me via email if a particular item I want has been posted on Craigslist.
  • IFTTT alerts me if it's going to rain tomorrow.
  • Email newsletters passively bring me the tech and space news I care about.

Take regular vacations

The first couple of years at Industry Dive, I didn't take any vacation days. That was a mistake and led me down the road toward burnout. Now, I take a vacation every six months and come back refreshed.

Exercise

The release of endorphins can be a huge stress reliever. Working out every morning helps prepare my mind and body to face the heavy loads of the day.

B) Do damage control

When I sense burnout is near, I take immediate action.

Below are examples of concrete steps I've taken when I felt on the verge of burnout:

  • I approached one of my bosses and asked for the management of a large project to be divided with someone else. When I recognized I was spread thin and unable to give my core projects and team members the attention they deserved, I knew something needed to change. I also knew I was less valuable to the business buried in the weeds of these particular tasks.
  • I started creating a new project management workflow for my team. This was actually more work in the short-term, but the payoff was worth it. It's now much easier for me to manage the ongoing projects my team is working on. This improvement alone was a godsend.
  • I notified a group I volunteered with that my availability would be reduced going forward. While I love giving my time to causes I care about, non-essential obligations should be the first to go as your stress level increases.

Have any burnout prevention or damage control methods you swear by? Would love to hear about them here or on Twitter: @RyanTMcKnight.