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.

The 3 Types of Burnout And How To Prevent Them

Be like the happy matchstick, don’t burnout!

In my last post, I talked about the best way to avoid burnout without slowing down. I have been reading more since and have found out there are actually 3 distinct types of burnout, that have different causes and different remedies. In this post I will describe each one and the recommended ways to prevent them.

Overload Burnout

This is burnout classic. The most familiar type of burnout and the one I described last post. Overload Burnout is caused by working too hard for too long. The human mind can only focus for so long, focusing is best in short sprints, not marathon sessions. Imagine what trying to sprint for 8 hours straight, 6 days a week for several years would feel like, this is what your brain would be going through, if you worked relentlessly for the same amount of time.

Prolonged burnout, essentially stress, has been linked to serious health issues both mental (depression and anxiety ) and physiological (heart disease, tension, headaches) the list goes on. So preventing burnout, isn’t just something that feels good, it could save your life!

The usual way to deal with Overload Burnout is exercise and taking breaks. Taking a break allows your mind to rest and recuperate. Rest allows your mind to recover, you can approach tasks feeling refreshed and ready to go.

Exercise releases endorphins that are natural stress relievers and feel-good hormones. A repetitive exercise like running allows your mind to focus on something other than work, giving you that contrast between work and non-work that your mind craves.

Under-Challenged Burnout

Ever had the feeling that you aren’t utilising all your skills at work? That you’re just going through the motions and the challenge isn’t there anymore, or maybe it never was. As humans we crave challenge, that’s why we create, why we solve problems, why we compete. Take away our challenges or our creative pursuits and we start to deflate. Life loses its colour, its flavour, you get bored and lose motivation.

If you haven’t learnt anything new at work in the past couple of months (or ever) you may start to feel Under-Challenged Burnout. You’ll notice yourself procrastinating more, not because you are scared of the workload but because it simply bores you, your mind is searching for distraction from the drudgery. You can’t bare to comb through the same set of files, write the same document, or whatever it is you find dull and easy at your job. If this goes on long enough you will start feeling cynical, disengaged and just plain moody at work. You will be less pleasant to be around, you will be rude to your friends and snap at people who don’t deserve it.

Taking breaks or exercising isn’t going to fix this, you need to speed up, not slow down. You need your mojo back. If you want to be inspired at work again (or for the first time), reflect on what drives you as a person. Do you thrive on solving problems others give up on? Do you get a little warm feeling when you make a customer’s day? Think about how you could do more of this at work.

If you love to be creative, find the creativity in your projects, if you get a rush from solving huge complicated problems, find more complex problems to solve. Ask your boss for more challenging projects, no company is short on problems and your boss will probably love to unload some of their problems on to you.

If you can’t find your inspiration at work, consider doing something creative or exciting in your free time, start woodworking, learn to repair bikes, write a blog…

Neglect Burnout

What if you haven’t been slaving away for too long, you haven’t been doing easy, dull tasks for too long, but you still feel burnt out. Maybe you struggle to juggle, all your work and social commitments. You just don’t have the hours in the day to complete all your tasks. You’re putting out fires all day and when you go home, you don’t feel you’ve accomplished anything meaningful. In fact, you swear your task list is longer than when you got in. You feel the responsibilities growing, the pressure rising, the weight of your task list crushing you. It’s hard to breathe and getting harder – you may just have Neglect Burnout.

Neglect burnout is caused by having too much work and/or too difficult work for the level you are currently able to handle. Many people believe asking for help will make them look weak and turning down extra tasks will anger their bosses. So they keep going, saying yes to everything and plugging away. Struggling more and more every day, making no progress, so the work keeps piling on.

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to do every task you are assigned. Your boss is (probably) human. Talk to them. Humans love talking. Tell your boss you are struggling with the workload or that you are insufficiently trained to deal with certain types of work and you want to learn how to better achieve those tasks. Together you can work out a training plan to be better prepared for such projects or reduce the number of projects you have going, so you can focus on a more narrow set of objectives, allowing you to make significant progress.

This seems so simple. That’s because it is. I have had a situation where I had more projects than I could meaningfully progress with at work. I was stressed out, because I just didn’t seem to be able to please everyone and as a result I wasn’t pleasing anyone. I couldn’t go on like this. I plucked up the courage to tell my boss, expecting her to tell me that I just needed to work harder and figure it out, only for her to say that while being challenged is good, she didn’t want me to feel overwhelmed. As a result, she prioritised my work for me, delayed some work or passed tasks on to other team members and left me with fewer, more urgent and important tasks to deal with. My stress levels decreased overnight. Try it with your boss, I bet they will react the same way.

If you have any more tips for preventing the three types of burnout or even know of some I wasn’t aware of, please feel free to tell me in the comments below! This post was inspired by Melody Wilding’s post on inc.com

The Best Way To Avoid Burnout, Without Slowing Down

One frazzled brain

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.