For a lot of people, getting motivated isn't a major issue.
No. For an alarming number of people, their main problem is quite the opposite: they constantly find themselves in a state of complete and utter exhaustion.
Being over-worked is a default state of being in many parts of the world. In South-East Asia and Japan, 'burnout' is the norm. Now the West is following suit - more people than ever report being over-worked on a regular basis. The really scary thing is that a great many more people will constantly be in a state of near 'burnout' without realizing it!
People refer to this phenomenon by several different names: burnout, crashing, over-exertion, over-working, churn and burn, the list goes on.
But no matter what you call it or where you are, over-working has the same effect - it leaves us mentally, physically, and emotionally spent.
After an all-night stint at the office, we aren't going to be at our best the next day. We're always mentally sluggish, physically tired, and a little more irritable than usual. That is burnout in action.
So is this just a part of life as a professional now?
Or can we wave goodbye to burnout forever?
OF COURSE WE CAN!
But protecting yourself from over-working isn't easy. It requires you to properly understand what causes burnout, as well as the habits you need to develop in order to reduce it to an unpleasant memory.
What Causes Burnout?
In order to protect yourself from burnout, you first really need to understand where burnout comes from.
The causes of burnout differ slightly from person to person.
The most common cause is a total lack of time management. You know who you are!
A lot of people simply can't regulate their workflow properly. They constantly leave things until the last minute while using the extra time that frees up to take on yet more work. This only ever has one outcome; you are constantly forced into fitting a month's work into 7 days or less.
There are extremes of this, of course. Many people just allow themselves to fall a little behind and end up pulling an all-nighter to get things done on time. This kind of burnout is infrequent and more or less manageable. A small number of people, however, will constantly condense the amount of time allotted to each task while piling up their 'to-do' list. These are the people who "live" burnout as a consequence of poor workflow management.
The other major cause of burnout is a lot rarer, in any culture, but it is probably the most lethal.
That cause is greed...greed for work that is, not the money that comes with it.
You may be the kind of person who just can't stop working. More probably, you know somebody like this.
This sort of person just can't help themselves when it comes to working.
They will constantly put themselves forward for projects, they'll work well into the night, every night, and they'll always have multiple side projects on the go at any one time. They will fill up every single second of their day with productive activity, and for the time when they are supposed to 'unwind', they'll generally do something that most of us would call productive: exercise, writing, managing their investments, or reading material that will help them get more work done!
The reason these people are rare is because they are extreme - if they weren't rare, then they wouldn't be on the extreme end of the burnout spectrum!
You will generally find them at the top of their field; they'll be partners in major law firms, chiefs of medicine at large hospitals, and tech entrepreneurs.
These people are extremely conscientious. They like order, they like regularity, and they like hard work. You could take them from the boardroom of a law firm and put them in the back of a restaurant and they would STILL get up at 5.30am to get to work on stock-check.
Their personality is geared towards constantly piling up more work, which means that they are naturally inclined to burnout.
However, this type of person is a lot less prone to burnout than the first type. That's largely because of the aspects of their personality that makes them so diligent and relentlessly hardworking.
When they experience burnout, it will be intense - total mental breakdowns aren't uncommon at large Wall Street law firms.
But it is a lot less common among hyper-productive individuals.
Why is that?
It has to do with the structures these people have in place which help reduce the risk of getting seriously over-worked. It is also in part due to the fact that a lack of work is what makes extremely conscientious people panic. But that is definitely only half the story.
How To Avoid Burnout - 3 Steps
There are some very simple structures that you can build into your daily routine which will help you mitigate the 'burnout' effect.
The beauty of these methods is that they will work regardless of whether you experience burnout through poor time management or work greed.
1. Do As Your Diary Says
Planning out the week ahead in your diary is a fantastic idea and it can be a very soothing Sunday night ritual.
But a plan is only useful if you stick to it.
More often than not, I see individuals abandoning their diary because they simply don't feel like doing what it says they should be doing at that time. It normally takes until about Tuesday afternoon for your plans to no longer seem so relevant - "why should I do that task now just because I said I would on Sunday?"
The answer to that is "because past you wasn't tempted by short-term gratification".
The whole point of planning out your week in advance is to remove your precocious self from the decision-making process. If left to your own devices, you will always pick going to lunch with your friend instead of finishing that article, so you put yourself under the discipline of your diary.
You made your schedule because you know what you need to do. Don't deviate. Do what the diary says.
2. Don't Over-Plan
You'd probably be amazed at how many people I've seen plan their way into a burnout.
They think they're doing themselves a favor by planning out an absolutely insane week of sheer grind. But they quickly realize that they can't ever hope to meet the demands of the diary, so they get stressed. They stay up late trying to finish. They sacrifice other things to get more urgent work done now. They know they're behind schedule so they panic and their work suffers.
Giving yourself an overly-stringent plan can be just as detrimental as not planning a week out at all.
Don't do it to yourself.
The diary is king, but you decide whether it is a tyrant or a benevolent ruler.
3. Learn How To Say No
About 5 years ago, I was working at a mid-sized PR agency in the Netherlands. While I was coming to the end of my time there, a new girl started. She had some experience and she was unbelievably hungry for work. She said she wanted to learn everything she could about the industry and would constantly volunteer herself for side projects, like running the agency's social media accounts for the week or arranging a pro-bono charity flyer print.
I would regularly find myself buried under work - the reality of an agency is that when a client calls and asks for something, you do it then and there while they're on the phone. So, I would often ask her to take some off my hands.
The key word there is ASK.
She would always be only too happy to take a few jobs off my to-do list, and I could concentrate on more important things.
it was only about 6 months later when we met for a drink that I found out she had been absolutely swamped in work for the whole time we worked together - even more so than I was!
She would regularly stay late to get things done, and when I was heading outside for lunch in the summer sunshine, she was staying inside to get things finished.
Moral of the story: don't be afraid to say no. My poor time management skills shouldn't have put extra strain on this new recruit. Don't make the same mistake! If someone can't manage their workload, that's their problem. If you can help, then do so. But don't let yourself be someone else's 'burnout' safety valve.