An Experiment in Editing – 3: The Best Way To Avoid Burnout, Without Slowing Down

The following is the third in a series of posts inspired by Jason Fried’s post on Signal V. Noise about a writing class he would like to teach. In the hypothetical class, he aimed to show that editing and compressing is truly valuable. That’s why the posts get shorter, not just varying in length, he aims to go from the fully explored idea to just the main point of the text. I am going to attempt to do this with several of my posts, as an experiment to see if it helps with my writing skills.

One Line Version

A change is a good as a rest – My driving instructor actually told me that.

One-Paragraph Version

The instinctive way to avoid burnout is to slow down, to not work so hard or to take a break. This doesn’t have to be the case. To keep going, you need to do something that makes you think in a different way to the way you think at work. This is similar to working different muscle groups for your brain, if your arms are tired, your legs will still work fine. If you had some in-depth debates at work, take some quiet time and read a book.

Three-Paragraph Version

If you start feeling stressed and worn out, you know instinctively that you need to take a rest. You can’t keep going forever, your body requires downtime to be more effective in the up-times. So if you have worked too hard for too long you can take a break and go on holiday, then come back feeling refreshed. Maybe you could work less hard to begin with, but if you want to advance your career as quickly as possible and you know your peers aren’t going to slow down, then you could end up getting left behind. That said, I don’t recommend working late, just working hard within your normal working hours.

This is where doing a contrasting cognitive activity helps. What is a contrasting cognitive activity? It’s an activity where you are still using your brain, but you are using it in a different way to the way you do at work, similar to how when you work out at the gym you use different muscle groups on different days. The contrast between the two ways of thinking has been shown to prevent burnout for much more time than doing the same kind of activity for the same amount of time.

This doesn’t mean you have to do something fun at home to offset doing something useful at work, although I do recommend this as well. It’s more about using your brain to accomplish a different kind of task. If you feel you must do something productive for your contrasting activity, you can do so. If you have a very sociable job with lots of talking to clients, you could read a book at home, it can be educational if you still want to learn. If you write code all day, you could write a journal or blog posts at home. Your brain is capable of many different types of activities, so the list is endless, just separate work and home.

Original Post

We’ve all been there, work is just droning on and on. from week to week. Today is no different. You wake up, hit snooze, wish it were still the weekend and slowly drift off to sleep, then 10 minutes later, do it all over again. You drag yourself out of bed and into the shower. That’s over, even getting dressed feels difficult right now. Then there’s the dreary drive, with the never-ending queues of traffic. You finally get to the office and hope nothing major goes wrong, you just want an easy day. You finish, some fuzzy amount of time later, only to realise it’s Monday and you have to do it all over again for the next 4 days.

You swear the job didn’t use to be this bad, that Sally in marketing wasn’t that annoying just a few weeks ago. Yet the spreadsheets you used to tackle with glee (for some people this is true, don’t judge) suddenly look like a grey pile of sludge you have to trudge through. You are stressed. Last week you were stressed. This is what being burnt out feels like.

You see two ways out of this funk:

  1. As soon as you get home, just do nothing. Relax in front of the telly and pretend the whole world away. Then tomorrow, you will feel refreshed.
  2. Don’t work so hard anymore, this feeling is horrible and you don’t want to repeat it.

Here’s the problem, you try plan 1. but you are still stressed the next day, you realise escapism isn’t working, you are just as burnt out as before. On to plan 2. this lasts maybe an hour, then you realise you don’t want to do the bare minimum, you care about doing a good job and you want to progress in your career.

What now? Your two plans have failed. Time to hand in your letter of resignation? No. According to Google’s in-house productivity expert, Lila MacLellan, there is a better way. Google has shown time and time again how successful they can be in cognitively demanding environments, so she must know what she’s talking about, right?

MacLellan recommends doing activities that require you to use your brain in a different way to how you do at work. It’s like when people who go to the gym have different days for different muscles groups, if you did leg day every day, 3 days in a row, your legs would be exhausted and perform more poorly each successive day and you may even injure yourself.

It’s all about using your different brain muscles (figuratively speaking) if you have a super social chatty job like making sales calls one after the other, try quietly reading a book once you get home. If you stay sat at a desk all day, go for a brisk walk in the evening. If you write code at work, try drawing in your spare time. The task can be equally demanding of your brain’s abilities, but it just has to be a different way of using your brain than what got you so fatigued in the first place. Research has shown this to be much more effective in refreshing you from day to day, than just trying to avoid the stress or doing nothing.

This makes your day-to-day life more fun and fulfilling. It will help you to be more resilient, making you feel fresher at work for longer and improving your mood as you will have more skills to handle stress. You can’t avoid stress forever (sadly), but you can become better at handling it.

If you have any stress-busting tips, please let me know in the comments below.