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Beware Burnout! A Survivor’s Tale

Burnout: I couldn't do anything quoteIt happens. One moment you’re steaming along, juggling ten full time projects, you game designs, family life and your Game of Thrones fansite and the next – BAM – you ram your head into that red brick wall.

It happened to me. I was rocking along, getting a pretty decent career going, and – BAM – one morning I couldn’t get out of bed.

It wasn’t as if the bed had suddenly grown fences but it might as well have. The very act of pulling my leg from the covers and putting it on the floor was too much. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t finish my work, I couldn’t do anything.

Coming Back and Falling Down

I don’t remember what I thought at the time, everything’s a big blur, but I do know that it took me some months to crawl back. Those months I lived off my wife’s salary, since I didn’t manage to produce or sell anything. Fortunately we didn’t have much costs, being just past our student days, but it was a hard time.

Then I managed to get my career going. I got some freelance jobs, got some more jobs, got some setbacks, some comebacks and generally got going. Then I decided to get a decent job, and got one.

A few years in I started to feel bad. Like real bad. I wasn’t motivated at work at all. I didn’t have the energy do do much when I got home. And this time I spoke with a friend a work. “Go see the company doctor,” she said. So I did.

I got a burn-out diagnosis. The doc said that by the symptoms I got in just in time, had I waited a few more months I would probably had crashed. Like I did the previous time.

Creativity Increases Burnout Risk

Engaged people are at higher risk for burnout quoteApparently creative people and highly engaged people are at risk of burnout, especially when they work in organizations with a culture of “hard work” (as opposed to efficient work). This summed me up to a T: I’m creative, I engage deeply with anything I do and I was working in an environment where talking about how busy you were and how much you were working was rewarded.

That woke me up. I spend my sick leave reading up on the subject of motivation, work, efficiency and effectiveness. I started following GTD (that’s Dave Allen’s Get Things Done method) and took a lot of clues from the 4-hour work week. And I stopped complaining about how busy I was.

It no longer mattered how busy I was. All that mattered was that I got the things I needed done. And I never, ever, left anything in my email inbox.

 80/20 Time

Surprisingly I started getting the same amount of things done in a lot shorter time. I had thought that I was effective, and by the standards of my organization I was, but that was very far from the truth. To quote Pareto’s principle: 80% of the work gets done in 20% of the time. I allowed that to guide my days and I made sure to stop spending the remaining 80% of my time trying to keep busy.

Instead I started to look for ways to increase my productivity for the times where I could be productive. Then I spent time making sure that I had time to be productive.

The last one was surprisingly hard. I try to say no to meetings but I’m in a meeting-heavy organization. The best I’ve managed to do is to end each meeting by asking for a clarification of exactly what we’ve decided and how we should proceed next. And I’m trying to keep meetings shorter than average, which has given me a bit of a reputation for being stressed.

Which is as far from the truth as possible. Since I no longer consider keeping busy as the optimal way to work those meetings that drag on and on stress me, not the ones that are short, sweet and lead to action. Which is something that isn’t 100% appreciated by everyone, but does work. I get more done in shorter time now than ever before.

And I’m ever vigilant for the signs of that burnout wall coming.

Dreams of Futures Past Book Cover

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