Over the past couple of weeks, I have been looking at the various steps of my “boom and bust” working cycle, including last week, which covered step 3 – working too hard. The main purpose of this series is to look at ways to improve upon the flaws in my working patterns. However, last week, I failed to define any concrete solutions, and commit to anything more generalised than “try not to overwork.”
Although this may seem like a cop-out, the main reason for this is that overworking itself is cause of the real problem – burning out. Thus, while attempting to limit my overworking, the real problem is trying to avoid burning out, and the effects that causes on my working patterns. While overworking is the main cause of burning out, it is not the only cause of it, and we can solve the same problem by looking at other causes that will help reduce, or even prevent, burning out from overworking.
What is Burnout?
Burnout is the term for becoming emotionally, mentally, and even physically fatigued with a given set of tasks. This effect can cause you to actively avoid pursuing such tasks, even to the detriment of yourself and those around you. More importantly, you may become so fatigued that you end up being unable to function efficiently, if at all, in certain areas and tasks.
We covered some of the areas in which you can overwork, and these areas also correspond to the areas where you might suffer burnout. This means that overworking and burnout is a “positive feedback” cycle – as overworking increases, the chance of burning out increases, which in turn leads to even more overworking and a higher chance of burning out further.
Quite often, overworking in this case isn’t so much about consciously trying to do too much, but that what you currently trying to maintain becomes increasingly harder, until you fail. Even mundane tasks, such as simple household chores, minor social interaction, and maintaining your basic standard of health can become almost impossible to keep up as you burn out.
Preventing Burn Out
Because overworking and burning out is a positive feedback cycle, it can be extremely difficult to prevent, particularly once it has started going out of control. This is normally when most people begin to suspect that they have a problem, but quite often this is too late – and the main solution is not to prevent burnout, but instead to try and mitigate the damaging effects of burning out, while picking up the pieces as quickly as possible to try and return to a position of strength.
However, there are actions that you take before this “point of no return,” especially if you are aware of the issues caused by potentially burning out. Trying to reduce your overworking is but one of these options. Some others include things like self-awareness techniques, understanding your motivations, prioritising your goals, time management, learning to say no, and including downtime into your schedule.
Self awareness is a key activity when it comes to managing yourself, and your capacity for work and burning out. At the very least, self-awareness allows you to realise when you are overworking to the point of burning out, and allows you to take actions to slow or prevent this from happening.
Self awareness is also good for letting you plan ahead and spot potential troubles that you might encounter, and to try and deal with them and mitigate them before they become real hassles. In this way, you can try to pre-empt any such problems, and create solutions that will reduce the stress such incidents can cause. For example, if you know that you are prone to having “off-days” where your capability to work at certain tasks is limited, you can try to find ways to help with the necessary tasks, or consider using this time for activities that you find easier to deal with.
The main benefit of self awareness, however, is the ability to read your own mood and motivation levels. If you know you are feeling low, drained, or depressed, then you can take actions to correct this – such as switching to activities that you enjoy, or to taking it easy for a while. Alternatively, if you are feeling in a good mood, inspired, or energetic, you can look towards taking full advantage of this fact by tackling some of the more difficult tasks you might be facing.
By being self aware, you can adapt your plans to your own individual circumstances, and this can help your workflow better. This roughly equates to your tolerance for work, and as such, the general principle of doing more when you can, and doing less when you can’t is paramount here.
Understanding Your Motivation
Understanding your motivation is a side-aspect of self awareness and allows you to get an insight into why you are doing the things that your are doing. According to Maslow, we have an “hierarchy of needs” which drives us in our goals. This hierarchy starts from simple physiological drives, through to emotional drives, all the way to the topmost drive – an innate desire for self-improvement.
This means that most of our actions can be defined according to one or more needs, and one or more levels based on those needs. By understanding this factor, we can look to see if what we are doing is fulfilling our needs efficiently, and if not, whether changes can be made to help your actions better fulfil your needs.
In my case, my projects tend to be driven by the desire to prove myself as a games designer. This is my chosen profession, and as such, I yearn to engage in this profession, to have others recognise my talents, to improve my abilities, and so on. This ranges from the mid-level “love/belonging” tier, through the “esteem” and “self-actualisation” tiers – the top half of Maslow’s hierarchy. I need to be appreciated, and this is more important to me than the actual financial benefits of my work. As such, I greatly favour blogging and similar forms of content creation, as it allows for quicker feedback on my work.
An important skill to learn to avoid burnout is to try and prioritise your goals, so that you are working on more effective, and more desirable tasks, which have a longer lasting benefit.
Prioritizing your goals is a very personal skill, however, that is largely based on your own motivation. As such, any advice beyond general principles is hard to come by, and each person should look towards developing and understanding their own list of priorities.
In general, faster tasks should come before slower tasks, since you can do more of them in any given amount of time. For example, answering an email might be prioritised above writing a product or doing the laundry, because it can be completed quicker, leaving time to work on other goals.
Look towards doing the tasks with the longer lasting benefits, that require the least amount of upkeep and maintenance. For example, writing content can be prioritised before housework, simply because once content is written, then it is generally done and can be put aside. Likewise, a bigger product with a long-term shelf-life might be prioritised before producing website content that only lasts for a few days on your website.
As mentioned, motivation is important – for example, if you like playing computer games, and this helps you feel better, then you might prioritise playing computer games over doing other tasks, particularly when you are feeling low and need the boost. What might seem like a low priority task to someone else may be better as a higher priority, particularly if it has some other, often overlooked, benefit.
However, one key thing to watch out for is that you don’t over-prioritise “busy-time” activities – activities that seem to be efficient and keep you busy, but don’t actually achieve much. For example, responding to a specific email is quite quick, but responding to multiple emails and trying to clean out your inbox can be quite time consuming, and can often be an uphill battle if you continually receive emails as you are working on them. It is all too easy to find that you have spent all day reading and replying to emails, and left no time to actually do any vital content creation.
Time management is a useful skill that allows you to make the most of your time, simply by being aware of how you are using your time. We only have 24 hours each day, and we often have numerous tasks which we have to accomplish in that time, including physical necessities like eating, sleeping, and washing. Add in things like work and social commitments, and it is easy to find that your time quickly disappears, often without you realising it.
The essence of time management is two-fold – being aware of what time you have, and trying to make the most of that time. Like priorities, time commitments are largely personal, and everyone should do their best to try and develop their own processes for working.
To be aware of what time you actually have, it may help to draw up a timetable of your most common activities. From this, you can see where most of your time is going. Make a note of what “free time” you actually have – time where you get to choose what you do. Most of us tend to have several smaller blocks of free time, rather than a few large chunks, and as such, we rarely realise just how much free time we actually have.
Such a timetable allows you to also be self-critical about your habits. Are you over-sleeping or spending a lot of time commuting to and from work? Do you spend a large amount of time watching television, playing computer games, or checking Facebook? If so, then looking at the time table can allow you to see if any changes can and should be made, so that you can get as much free time as possible.
The second aspect of time management is time efficiency. This is about using your free time, as well as other time, to get the maximum potential out of your 24-hours. In regards to free time, this is largely about prioritizing your goals, but also includes how you organise your use of your free time. This depends largely upon how your free time is arranged.
For example, if you have a big chunk of free time, you might allocate bigger tasks to this time, so that you don’t have as many interruptions, particularly if the task requires some time to warm up or wind down. Alternatively, you might break down bigger tasks to fit into smaller free time slots. Breaking down tasks can also allow for greater flexibility. In many cases, doing a task a small step at a time is better than waiting for an opportunity to do it all at once that may never come.
Learning to Say No
The most important skill that you can learn is the ability to say no – to others, and to yourself. You need to be realistic about what you are capable of. Taking on too much is often the main cause of overworking – even if you have a narrow scope for your projects.
It is all too easy to bow down to peer pressure, and there are many cases when you just can’t say no. For example, if your boss asks you to do something that is part of your job. But in many cases, the sole reason people have difficulty saying no is simply because they are scared that they will look bad or let other people down.
Saying no is probably the biggest form of agency that we have as an individual, yet many people simply don’t know how to use this properly. Although some people may try to pressure you into changing your mind, by saying no and sticking to it, you help prevent people wasting both their time and yours.
It is important not to abuse this power, however. Saying no for the sake of saying no is almost as damaging as not saying no in the first place. Be honest, and think about your priorities and motivations. Think about your time commitments to yourself and others.
Ask yourself if you want to do it, will it help you, and is it an efficient use of your time. Likewise, ask yourself if it really needs to be done, and what the outcome of you not doing the task is actually going to be. Can the washing be put off for a day while you finish your product? Do you have other plates in the cupboard? Are you really needed to go shopping right now?
Most importantly, the biggest issue most people have with saying no, is that they don’t give a clear reason why they are saying no. Don’t be afraid to justify yourself when you say no. It is perfectly acceptable to say that you simply don’t want to do something, and if you can demonstrate why, people are more likely to either offer a solution or accept that you have said no.
Being realistic about your priorities, motivations, and commitments is very important in making sure that you don’t overwork, and in limiting the possibility of burning out. However, it is also important to understand and accept that main way in we recover from work is by taking part in downtime activities. People need time to relax and wind down, to avoid being overworked.
However, just not working isn’t necessarily the best way to wind down. Everyone should allow them some time to do what they want to do, just for fun. It might not be efficient to just relax on the sofa and watch TV, but if it makes you feel better, then it should be included in your priorities somewhere.
When it comes to downtime activities, look towards things that you actually enjoy. Everyone has different tastes and requirements. For some, listening to music or going to the cinema works, while others might need to take up a sport or engage in a more thought-engaging hobby.
If possible, try and keep your downtime and your free time separate. It is all too easy to consider downtime as free time, and then find yourself overworking as you fill up your free time with your work and neglect to give yourself enough downtime.
Downtime should be the periods where you get to choose what to do, for the sake of relaxing and recovering, rather than fulfilling other types of goals. There’s nothing saying that you can’t work on your projects during this time, if you desire to do so, but it isn’t a decision that should feel forced.
If you can find ways to combine your downtime and free time in synergistic ways, then that is good. For example, if you like playing games, pleytesting new ideas can make downtime productive for you.
I cannot state the importance of efficient downtime enough though. If you can use your downtime to relax efficiently, then that is good. It will help you feel better, increase your working tolerance, and your productivity and quality. The biggest cause of burn out is not giving yourself enough downtime, or using your downtime ineffectively.
If you are not recuperating during your downtime, you are not using your downtime effectively. Not doing anything isn’t downtime – it’s wasted time. Try to make sure that you are doing something meaningful with your downtime. Something as simple as cooking a meal, doing the washing up, or having a nap can be efficient if that is how you like to recuperate.
My Approach – Past and Present
My approach has often been to try and squeeze as much out of my free time as possible, and neglect my own downtime. After all, my priorities tend to revolve around me working, and if I am not working on something, I am not happy. In many cases, I will often use my downtime as my free time, leaving me little or no actual downtime for myself.
Because of my Crohn’s Disease, I don’t always know how I feel each day, how much energy I am going to have, and how much downtime I will need. In fact, as my Crohn’s Disease gets worse, I have discovered that I am requiring more and more downtime to recuperate. This makes time management a bit more difficult for me.
As such, I have adopted a simpler approach, which is based upon flexibility and self awareness. Basically, I tend to go day-by-day, giving myself a single task or priority for the day based on how I feel and my other commitments. if I feel up to a big task, I will do a big task. If I am only up to small tasks, then I will do one or more of those. If I am not up to anything, then I don’t do anything.
With this task-based approach in mind, the rest of my day is basically downtime for me. I might only have a small amount of downtime if I spend all day on a task, or spend all day in downtime if I am not feeling up to anything. I try to prioritise correctly, and I am not afraid to say no and be clear about why, regardless of what others might demand from me.
This project has required weekly articles for my website, and as such, I will generally spend a day writing these. If I am feeling up to it, I will write two or more in a single week, allowing me to get ahead of myself. As long as I have a single article scheduled for this website, I am happy.
The best approach that I can find to avoid burnout is to be realistic about myself and my capabilities right now. I don’t know if this will work, but as long as I can try to keep myself from overworking because of my desire to “prove” that I am a games designer, it seems like the best way to go.
Until next time, stay AWESOME!