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6 Steps to Avoid Burnout (#6 is something NO ONE talks about)

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Avoiding Burnout

“Burnout” is what happens when we work too hard or too long at something and don’t take care of ourselves. It can happen after a week, a month, or sometimes even years of chipping away at something.
Why does burnout usually happen? Because of:

  1. Doing the same thing day-in-day-out.
  2. Getting overwhelmed.
  3. Not taking breaks.
  4. Not taking downtime.
  5. Not giving resources like willpower enough time to recharge.

Avoiding burnout should be pretty simple then – we simply flip the causes around to get:

  1. Not doing the same thing day in day out.
  2. Not getting overwhelmed.
  3. Taking breaks.
  4. Getting enough downtime.
  5. Letting your resources recharge.

There’s also a 6th factor that is rarely discussed – we call in the Quality Factor.

Let’s look at all of these in detail.

1. Same Thing Day-In-Day-Out

Same Thing

Most people alive today work repetitive jobs – we do the same tasks again and again and again… until it gets boring. Now sometimes boring tasks are important and just need to be done, but sometimes, the mind can only take so much and it starts to drift.

So how do we handle this?

We can either:

  • Really learn to love what we do.
  • Switch up tasks at work.
  • Switch up tasks outside of work.
  • Hack the switching up of tasks – using things like environmental shifts or good music.

Switching things up is a whole topic in and of itself, which is why it gets its own article.

There are a lot of different opinions around the idea that we can learn to love what we do. This is the classic “passion vs no passion vs will learn to become passionate” debate – a debate for which I’ve personally argued and defended every angle at some point in my life.

My current take is this:

It is possible to start off being passionate about something. It is also possible to learn to become passionate about something. It is also possible to do something that you’re not passionate about and still make it work – probably just not in the long run.

In the end, it would be nice if everything lined up (doing something you love and being well-compensated for it, having other work conditions be great etc), but it isn’t essential as you can always switch up tasks if you really need to.

2. Getting Overwhelmed

Getting Overwhelmed

Getting overwhelmed with things to do is an unfortunate and really common fact in today’s world. It happens to all of us – from busy professionals working crazy hours, to business owners with far too much to do.

Everything in this guide will help address the problem of “overwhelm” to some degree. As does everything on this blog – studying productivity helps you increase your focus, increase your performance and shows you the systems that you can put in place to help with both work and business.

If you really want to get this handled, use the free resources on this blog and take a look at the Productivity Blueprint – it may be just what you need right now.

3. Taking Breaks

Taking Breaks

Taking breaks is both counterintuitive and obvious at the same time.

If we don’t pace ourselves as we work – we burn out.

Taking breaks can be done rigidly with timeboxes (pomodoros), or once you understand our natural rhythms a bit better, it can be done by intuitive feel – for example, you may recognize every hour or so that you naturally need a 5 minute break, or halfway through the day you may realize that it’s time for lunch.

The trick with taking breaks is to get away from your work environment as best you can – go outside, get some air, and drink some water.

Now there is a common argument that taking breaks disrupts your focus – the opposite is actually true. Taking a break strangely enhances your focus, even though you are putting thoughts “on hold” as you step away for a few minutes. If you’re really concerned – just jot down your train of thought before you step away.

Note: For more on this, check out Rapid Focus Switching in the Productivity Blueprint.

4. Getting Downtime

Getting Downtime

Downtime is an extended version of taking breaks.

But what exactly is downtime?

Simply put, downtime is anything that you consider FUN and that doesn’t remind you of work.

And it can be anything – even things that are considered unproductive, like watching television, hanging out at the pub or wandering a shopping mall. There is a bit more to it, but we’ll discuss that in the section on the Quality Factor below.

Everybody has different downtime needs. For some, 2 days off a 5-day work week is enough. For others, it has to be part of every day. Here are some examples.

On a daily basis, you may work hard, get home, and take some downtime in the form of dinner, watching some TV, or reading and relaxing before bed.
On a weekly basis, you may clock out at 5pm on Friday and then enjoy your entire weekend. Or you may get some things in on Saturday but “take it easier”, and then fully enjoy Sunday off with family and friends.

Personal note: I usually try to get in some reading every evening (Meditations is my current obsession), get some small stuff in on Saturday morning and then enjoy Saturday evening/Sunday as much as possible.

Downtime also extends out to longer periods, like getting away for a weekend every quarter. When you do these trips – leave the computer at home. You can take your phone and tablet (to read), but you may end up leaving those in the hotel room as you disconnect, enjoy the time and reset everything.

5. Resources and Recharging

Recharging Resources

Willpower, focus, concentration, self-discipline, self-control… these are all resources that we all have, that require recharging on a regular basis.

The way to think about this like petrol/gas in a car – as you drive, you burn them down and they need to be refueled every now and then.

We’ve talked about taking breaks and downtime – and all these things slow/optimize the rate of resource usage. In fact, “productivity” as a subject area is simply the study of “optimal resource allocation” for these internal resources.

So what helps us refill these resources?

Most of them need to be handled daily, which that sleep and food and water are all critically important.

Yes, there are some things that you can do to recharge various resources faster, and there is also the option to increase your capacity/running efficiency so that your store of resources lasts longer.

But nothing is ever going to substitute getting enough sleep (7-9 hours) or getting enough downtime.

6. The Quality Factor

Quality Factor

The last step to avoiding burnout is to institute the Quality Factor.

You see, no all ways of avoiding burnout are created equal – though they all help to some degree.

Think of it as organic food. You can eat “normal” food and for the most part it’s perfectly fine. But if you can, eating organic or quality food is better.

If we carry this analogy over to activities and time management, we can accelerate our resource recovery and enhance our ability to switch up different things by using higher quality activities.

For example, say you want to take some downtime.

Sure, you can just chill and relax.

Or, you can go and get a massage.

Or, you can go a get an aromatherapy massage with your favorite scent.
Or, you can go get an aromatherapy massage with your favorite scent with some good music or a meditation track playing in the background.

Essentially you are still doing the same thing – but you are increasing the quality of your downtime by adding more preferential elements to it.

The great thing is, everyone has different preferences!

Here are some “quality factor” recharge activities that we recommend:

  • Go out for lunch or dinner. And invite along a number of people whose company you really enjoy.
  • Go visit a cat cafe.
  • Go take a walk in the park – and leave the headphones at home.
  • As above, go get a quality massage.

Next Actions

In a nutshell, that’s how you avoid burning out. It seems like a lot, but it is actually very straightforward.

You start with smaller units of time (breaks, switching up tasks) and then go onto larger units of time (vacations, downtime, quality downtime).

Despite the business of today’s world, it is most definitely possible to work hard, get a lot done AND enjoy your time out without melting down and burning out. So do it.

If you’d like to share any of your favorite ways to recharge, or any “quality factor” enhancements – please do so in the comments below!

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Posted by Andy  | June 17, 2014 at 1:55AM | Reply

Great post! Funny enough, I am also reading “Meditations” at the moment as it was recommended by Ryan Holiday. Would love to read a post about your take on Stoicism some time!

Posted by Vincent Nguyen  | June 29, 2014 at 5:37AM

I’d add William B. Irvine’s Art of the Stoic Joy to your reading list as well! The book changed my perspective on a lot of things and quite possibly my life. :)

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