These days, I’ve got my hands into a lot of cookie jars. Variety is important to me both in my work and in life, so I’m working on a wide net of personal and work projects. These range from becoming more fit, improving my listening skills, and learning to speak Spanish to volunteering my time to serve on student government and organize entrepreneurial resources at my university. Between learning to be a great husband, writer, scientist, entrepreneur, and community servant, I’ve got around a dozen projects that I spend my time on at work and at home.
A dozen major projects is a lot, and as this list has grown, the time commitments have continued to build up as well. Maybe your own list is even longer. Whether you’re a CEO serving on the board of a few non-profits and trying to balance all that with your family life, or you’re a stay-at-home parent who’s actively engaged at your children’s school and elsewhere in the community, people are pretty good at finding things to fill our time. In fact, we’re so good at it that it can sometimes be a challenge to keep up with the burdens that we put on ourselves.
I’ve noticed that successful people often end up in this situation. Part of that is because we invent work to fill empty spaces — if you’re stuck in this rut, give your work a Pareto chop! — but I think it’s also partly because many people, including myself, are just more comfortable when they’re carrying a heavy workload. I actually don’t think is a problem, within reason. I often spend evenings and weekends working on projects that are work-related, and nevertheless, or perhaps because of this, I’m very happy.
For that reason, you won’t catch me trying to talk you out of meaningful projects. If you want to be convinced not to take on more work, check out this article from Forbes, this one from Lifehack, and this one from Entrepreneur. … Did you read them? I hope so! There are definitely good reasons to say ‘no’ to extra work, but I gave you plenty of time to read those articles, so from here on out, I’m assuming that you want to be working on all your active projects.
Today, we’re going to focus on how to work at a consistently high level on all of your projects, and more importantly, how to prevent yourself from burning out. Here are a few questions to get you thinking: Why is it that some people are able to work seemingly non-stop without needing a break? Are these people workaholics, or is there something more to it? Are they working themselves into early graves, or does their work make their lives fuller?
Strategies for Avoiding Burnout
These are five techniques that I use to keep my energy up throughout the day and over the course of months. To prevent yourself from being overwhelmed, I recommend adding one of them at a time until you make a habit out of each of them. The end result will be a dramatic increase in your energy and focus.
1. Choose work that boosts your energy, instead of taxing it. The work I choose invigorates me. Every one of the projects I’m working on right now is a boost to my morale, not a sink. This, I think, is the difference between working yourself into your grave and making your life fuller with work.
If you curse every weekday you have to go to your job, you are working yourself into an early grave. If you commit your time to activities that make you tired instead of excited, and still do it compulsively, you’re a workaholic. If, on the other hand, the opportunity to go to work brings a smile to your face, and work is a joy instead of a burden, then you’ve found something that adds joy to your life and enhances your quality of life. It’s easy to keep working on things that make you happy.
As an important addition to this, note that work isn’t the same thing as an occupation, which is why you should include personal projects in your daily work as well. It takes work to learn a second language and to move heavy weights off the ground. No, most people don’t get paid for these things, but they take concentrated effort and they give us a return on our investment. Make sure to keep them high on your list of priorities.
- Consider whether your occupation is a source of happiness and energy, as well as a source of money. If it’s not, what can you do to change that? Can you leverage your current position into something more meaningful to you? Are there comparable or related positions within the same company or elsewhere that would leave you with more energy at the end of the day? Do what is needed to find happiness in your occupation.
- Choose activities in your free time that invigorate you. Cut out activities that drain you emotionally, like binge-watching television and scrolling through Facebook, and replace them with activities that energize you, like exercising or playing sports. Exercise in particular has a profound positive effect on every aspect of life. Do it.
2. Have a daily routine. I’ve already described my morning routine, but I also have a routine for my whole day. After finishing my morning routine, I bike to work for the morning, return home for lunch around noon, go back to work for the afternoon, then return home for the evening. While I’m at work, I break down my time into chunks, as I’ve described below, and during the evening, I generally have more flexibility to intermix relaxation with whatever lingering activities I’m working on at the time.
You’re daily routine doesn’t, and likely shouldn’t, look anything like mine. It should reflect the priorities in your life and work, and it should incorporate those priorities as important parts of every day. The power of having a routine is the lack of a need to think about what comes next. You don’t have to waste your time thinking about what’s most important or what makes the most sense because you’ve already done that! Once you’ve developed your routine, you just follow it to the best of your ability on a given day. It’s as easy as that.
- If you don’t already have routines for the different parts of your day, find ones that incorporate activities that energize you, and stick to them. Having a template for your day makes it easier to stay organized, focused, and efficient.
3. Mix up the type of work you do often, so you don’t get bogged down with any one thing. As the saying goes, “Variety is the spice of life,” and it holds just as true in your daily schedule. Having a routine doesn’t mean every day needs to be the same. Variety is a useful tool for preventing boredom and plain old tiredness. If your work gives you the opportunity, mix up your activities once every hour or so to maximize your productivity. For example, I spend my time at work in classes, doing research, and in meetings with different campus groups.
There are a few objections that you might have about this technique. What if you’re working on one big project and there’s nothing you can do to add variety? Sometimes there’s no getting around a situation like this. I’ll just add that while it’s sometimes necessary to commit to working on a single project for many hours or days at a time, an average day should have lots of variety. Change things up as often as you can.
Depending on your occupation, it may also be difficult to mix up your activities during your normal working hours, but you can and should still apply this principle when working on projects outside of your job. I suggest blocking out your flexible time in chunks of fifteen minutes, half an hour, or an hour whenever possible. Then, fill those chunks of time with whatever activities you want to work on for the day.
- Shake things up within the normal context of your day. Mix up your activities to incorporate plenty of different types of work to avoid burn out.
4. Prioritize in advance, relegate your schedule to a calendar, and then stop thinking about it. I’ve talked about how to schedule and prioritize your day at length. In the past, I’ve advocated doing this the evening or morning before, or a full week in advance, when possible. I’ve found that a combination of both strategies works best for me. I schedule high level priorities for the week on Sundays, and more granular daily priorities in the morning before I get started with other activities. It helps me to write all this stuff down so I don’t have to remember it. For this, I use a Five Star 1-subject notebook (affiliate), but you can use whatever you have handy. There are apps for this as well, but I’ve found that having my priorities on paper helps me keep track of everything, and it does wonders for my motivation to write them down in my own handwriting. I highly recommend trying it for yourself.
On the other hand, when it comes to meetings or other time-sensitive events, do yourself a favor. Use an electronic calendar! The minute you learn about a new event, schedule it into your calendar. To ensure you never miss an appointment, use one application like Google Calendar or something similar for all of your scheduling, and set alarms sufficiently far in advance that you can make it to the event from wherever you’re likely to be. I also like to review my calendar for the week every Sunday and daily in the morning as part of my daily planning process.
The power of planning in advance is that you never have to worry about whether you’re working on the right thing or if you’re going to miss a meeting. You set your priorities and review your calendar in the morning, and you don’t have to think about it anymore. This practice saves me a ton of emotional and mental energy trying to do prioritization acrobatics throughout the day.
- Start a habit of writing down your priorities in advance. The planning process should become part of your routine. I recommend setting weekly and daily priorities.
- Start a habit of scheduling meetings and time sensitive events in an electronic calendar like Google Calendar. Use alarms to make sure you never miss an event.
5. Take small breaks throughout the day to re-orient yourself and stay focused, and take longer breaks as needed throughout the month and year. This is the part that I think will surprise some people. Short, purposeful breaks are an integral part of my work day. I take breaks during the day because taking a few minutes to review my priorities, check my progress toward meeting each of my goals, and orient my next set of tasks accordingly makes me more effective and more efficient. These purposeful breaks are part of my working process because they make me more effective at whatever I’m doing.
In addition to its importance for recovery, rest facilitates productivity as well. It’s impossible to sustain working 100 hours per week forever. At that level of intensity, you would be working yourself into an early grave, even doing rewarding work and using all the tools and techniques I’ve laid out here. It’s important to take some time to completely forget about work of all kinds. That’s why I spend at least one day every couple of weeks to do absolutely no work, and once or twice a year, I take a vacation for several days and leave work completely alone, even if I have no plans to go anywhere.
- Start a habit of pausing periodically throughout the day to assess whether you’re meeting your goals, the reasons you are or are not meeting them, and how to better reach your daily goals.
- Take time to decompress and forget about the challenges of work once in a while.
Burnout can happen even to the most dedicated and focused people. You can mitigate the wear and tear on your mental and emotional well-being by adopting a few simple techniques and taking time to care for yourself. Take the guesswork out of your day, and save yourself a huge amount of mental energy, by planning ahead and developing routines and habits that support your goals. Stay at the top of your game by implementing variety into your day and taking regular breaks to refocus and recover from the mental stress of work. And most importantly, choose work that energizes you day in and day out.