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Burnout, and How to Avoid It

Here’s a scenario for you.  Read it, and then close your eyes for a few seconds and remember what this feels like:

It’s extremely late and you have a deadline early tomorrow morning.  You’re in this position because of a last-minute ask by your client, and you want to go above and beyond to do well for them – so you’re getting it done.

But this time is different than the 3 other times you’ve pushed through in the last 2 weeks.  You feel a sore throat coming on, you’re not thinking quite straight, and you’re really irritable.

In fact the only thing you really want to do is either sleep or lay down, watch Netflix, and turn off your phone and email.

But you can’t – because then something catastrophic will happen.  Money will stop flowing, clients will stop calling, somebody will think you’re weak or bad at your job.

You’re stuck.

Except you don’t have to be…

Time to give you some tools.

What is burnout?

Real quick I want to define exactly what I mean burnout to be.  I want you to know exactly what I’m describing and how what I’m suggesting can help.

I view burnout in one of two ways:

  1. Mental burnout
  2. Physical burnout

Generally one leads directly to the other.

Mental burnout looks like the moment your brain hits a metaphorical brick wall.  For me, generally one moment I’m thinking clearly and executing at my full capacity – and the next I suddenly can’t bear to face a problem anymore because it seems too mammoth to tackle.

Generally that means I’ve overworked myself, and I need to either take a short break or call it a day completely.

Physical burnout is a little bit easier to define across the board.  For us with desk jobs, it is generally lead from pushing mental burnout too far.  You’re sitting in a chair a lot, so it creeps up on you that you’ve lacked enough sleep and rest – one day if you’re not careful you wake up really sick.  Your body forces you to take a break for a day, two days – or even longer – because you won’t make that decision yourself.

Otherwise, you’ve simply done a lot of physically demanding work repeatedly – and again, you need to rest but you won’t.

Where does burnout come from?

Normally when I get burned out it’s from one of three different scenarios:

  1. I’ve taken on too much at one time
  2. I haven’t set proper, reachable deadlines
  3. I refuse to fess up to my mistakes from scenario 1 or scenario 2

So how do I avoid these things?  Let’s break that down.

Ways to avoid burnout

  • Know exactly what you can take on, and don’t apologize for it
    The first thing that you need to instill in yourself is the understanding that everyone is built differently.

    That literally means that you might not be able to work as much or as hard as someone else.

    What’s funny is, creatively, we’re ok with this.  If someone has a different process, you let them have that space and may be interested to learn about it.  But when it comes to just how much you can take on, most people want to be able to lift the most weight.

    But you’re you.  When you work with a client, they want to work with you creatively and otherwise.  A great thing you can do for them is to know yourself well enough to know your own boundaries.  You’re useless to them if you can churn out a bunch of crunch work, but die halfway through that crunch.

    Realistically if they need something you can’t do – you might not be the person for that job, or they need to flex for you.

  • Pick a time, work to a timer, and turn off all notifications, email, and chat
    You’ve heard “take regular breaks” before.  But you don’t do it, not regularly.  You might be good for a few days – but eventually that job comes along that’s on fire and you can’t stop.

    Make your tech work for you, not against you.  Decide on stretch of time you can work before  break and then set a timer.

    My time is 25 minutes.  At the end of 25 minutes, I have to stop where I am and take a 5 minute breather.  After two or three 25 minute sessions, I take an extended break.

    I don’t work until I feel like I need to take a break, that’s a mistake.  At that point I’m already tired.  I stop before I get tired, allow myself to refresh when I may not want to, and then get back to it.  It’s crazy how efficient my brain gets at tackling problems when I just step away from them for a minute and give it some time.

    For me, I use an app called Forest that locks me out of my phone.  I also turn off phone notifications (except from my wife) and minimize email.

    For you, this might look different.  Perhaps you have a TV show running in the background and you take breaks between episodes.  Or setup a timed music playlist and take breaks when the playlist stops.

    Regardless of how you do it, this is probably the most important thing you can do – as it is a boundary to nip any burnout before it starts.

  • Work with your client to set realistic deadlines
    Most clients are going to want something from you as soon as you can possibly get it to them.  Some people are nice and give you buffer time, but realistically if you deliver early – nobody’s going to go “oh, why didn’t you fill some Netflix time and get me the files when we agreed?  You didn’t need to rush!”

    So do yourself a favor.  If you ever think anything other than “yes, I know I can complete that” when your client proposes a deadline – be honest.  Here’s a line you can use:

    “Honestly, that’s a little ambitious of a timeline for me to hit.”

    From there, you can either propose an alternate solution yourself – this could be a new deadline, or finding dates to further in the project schedule to barter – or ask  for your client’s input, such as:

    “Do you have any wiggle room in the schedule we can work with?”

    Worst case scenario is all answers point to no help for you, and then you have to decide to take the project anyway or drop it.  Remember, it needs to have a superb upside to you to keep what will now be a difficult project.

  • When you know you might not be able to make a deadline, tell your client immediately
    Most people, when there’s a chance they might break schedule, try and assess if they can push through and make the agreed upon deadline anyway.

    I get it, you would rather save face and have the client not know the herculean effort this work took.

    But then you’re actually lying.

    At that point, your client assumes you got everything done and it was normal to do.  You might tell them “I had to push pretty hard to get this done, but here it is!” – that doesn’t say you were up at 3 am a few nights in a row to crank out the work on time.

    Instead, you should reach out to your client and ask about that wiggle room again.  It’s a difficult conversation to have, but realize this – you just learned something about your ability to schedule and take on work.  Now you know what kind of promises you can’t keep for your client.

    If you have a good client, they will work with you.  When they work with you, you’ll get space to breathe again, and then you won’t make that mistake again.  Then your client will trust you more.

  • Get actual rest and sleep
    I love to work.  Working is my hobby.  Yes, my wife thinks I’m nuts.

    But occasionally, I need to turn off completely.  So I turn off the computer, turn off my phone, and do something that requires minimal effort.

    Sometimes I read, sometimes I watch stupid TV, sometimes I just lay down, be quiet, and hopefully fall asleep.

    But the real lesson is, if I don’t rest well – I can’t work well either.

    I also know that I need to regularly sleep 8 hours a night.  I rarely drink caffeine and don’t eat a ton of sugar anymore.  I know very well how what I put in my body affects me.  This means I need to get legit sleep instead of drinking 5 Hour Energy’s and Red Bull.  I find that I’m much better off for it.

I hope these suggestions are helpful for you.  Remember, be useful to the clients you care for by caring for yourself too.

As always, I’d love to discuss it further.  Send me a message!  @adamtcroft

Copyright 2016-2017, Adam T. Croft, all rights reserved.