Burnout is the worst. There is nothing quite like it. You go from performing at 100% to less than 50% and there is nothing you can do to boost your output. Not even caffeine helps. I remember the first time I experienced burnout. We had just attended a trade show in Toronto. The months prior to the show I worked very hard to get everything ready. I was designing the trade show booth, the signage and programming the new StreetText features. Then in the airport on the way to Toronto I got food poisoning. It wasn’t until after the trade show that I burnt out. I didn’t even understand what was happening.
Sitting at my kitchen table with my laptop open, I was writing some code. I think it was a Saturday afternoon. Suddenly my brain started to get foggy. It’s hard to explain. I stood up shook it off and sat down again to keep working. Again my mind became foggy. So this time I thought I must need a five minute break. So I took one, everything cleared up I felt normal again and went back to work. I wrote about 2 lines of code and again my mind became foggy. I kept doing this all afternoon wondering what was going on until I finally gave up and took the rest of the day off. The next 6 months were brutal. I went from foggy to exhausted, my productivity decreased substantially and I began depending on caffeine to power through the days. Soon my body became sick, I stopped caring about leading a company, setting direction or fighting to maintain the levels of excellence I believed in. I felt like giving up.
That was not quite 2 years ago and I am still recovering. On my journey to overcome burnout I allowed myself to repeat bad patterns of behaviour again and again before becoming sick enough that I knew I needed to re-look at how I was operating.
Have I learned anything?
Rule number 1: Stress kills.
This is really important to understand. It is hard enough when you need to work late to complete projects, but when you are under stress too, that’s when your body gets sick. I was working in a high-stress environment. I have two business partners, one of which naturally puts a lot of stress into the business. I’m very grateful for both of my business partners, they bring a lot of different skills to the table that I don’t. But a culture of stress is not worth much.
If you work under a culture of stress you need to stop. Either change your environment and work somewhere else or change the environment. For me to change the culture meant that I needed to lay down some ground rules. Project deadlines need to be realistic. Over expectations are not acceptable and additional “outside” pressure to complete jobs is not acceptable. High performers like you and I don’t need additional stress from others. It doesn’t help productivity. Ultimately it kills it. The challenge with rules is they need to be enforced. Our tendency as a company is to under-estimate project deadlines, become stressed when we cannot meet our own promises and project that stress onto each other. I am still working at changing that culture and it usually requires a battle every step of the way.
Rule number 2: Get active.
As my body became more sick it became harder for me to eat food. I would feel sick at work, at home, at meetings and when traveling. This summer I started biking to work regularly and I noticed that when I biked I felt better. Biking became an escape for me. It gave me time to feel normal and the space to process some of the problems we were trying to overcome at work. Overtime biking actually improved my health. Not a lot, but a little bit. But when I stopped biking for a short while I would get much sicker. I know that being active helps combat stress. For me cycling was my way out.
Rule number 3: Live caffeine free.
I no longer drink caffeinated drinks (for the most part). Caffeine is really dangerous. It gives you energy when you actually need to rest. I don’t drink coffee anymore. Like a lot of people I would drink coffee though out my day to keep me focused and charged. But caffeine also increases your blood pressure, increases your stress level, and in my case contributed to me becoming sick. Not having any coffee during the day is hard. It means I have to had to change my sleep routine to get through the day focused and energetic.
Rule number 4: Establish a regular sleep schedule.
I’m somewhat disciplined, but this has been the most difficult thing for me to implement. When I have a big deadline approaching my natural habit is to work late nights. Not only that, I love hanging out with people. Pulling the plug on a good evening with friends is like pulling teeth. Going to bed the same time every night however has proved to be extremely valuable for my health and my productivity. After just 2 weeks of maintaining a steady schedule I noticed drastic improvements in my work output.
Getting a good rest can be hard. I live on a noisy street, I know. But it is worth getting. If you have a hard time sleeping due to stress it is probably a good idea to talk to a doctor. For me I found keeping a fan running all night helps deaden some of the noise. On some nights I have resorted to earplugs.
Rule number 5: See a doctor.
Not everybody needs to see a doctor. However, for myself seeing a doctor was tremendously valuable. After various tests and failed diagnosis, my doctor put me on a short term medication that allowed my body the time to recover and heal itself. Honestly, this was a huge aid in recovering from stress induced sickness. Everyone is different and may develop different symptoms. Doctor’s are extremely educated on matters of stress and even just talking to one can greatly benefit you.
Rule number 6: Do what motivates you (work in your strengths and interests).
We are all good at doing some things. Some of those things are enjoyable for us to do and some of them are not enjoyable. I will give you an example. I enjoy programming code and I am good at it. However, even though I am good at fixing computers I really don’t enjoy doing that. Some of the things that we enjoy doing are going to pay the bills and some of them aren’t. I really love free skiing but that is not going to pay me anything. I also really love building cool applications. That does pay my bills. So do the things you are good at and that pay your bills. The rest are called hobbies.
If I had to fix computers and other peoples problems every day, it wouldn’t take long before I was burning out. Because I would be using energy to not only do the work but to motivate myself to keep doing the work I hated. Most of us have to do somethings that we don’t enjoy along with the things that we do enjoy. Just make sure that the majority of what you do is something that you enjoy being good at and that you enjoy doing.
Rule number 7: Celebrate large milestones with short holidays.
In our business we have numerous tasks that we work hard to achieve. However, we don’t celebrate when we hit our targets, we simply go to the next one. I was lucky enough to have a good conversation with another business owner who also has experienced burnout. In the conversation he asked if we set milestones in our company. I answered that yes we did. Then he asked me if I took time off after reaching them. I responded, “Why would we do that?”. He explained to me that when we reach our milestones we need to take time off to recharge and recover for our next one. No use starting the next milestone on anything less than a full tank of fuel. This is an important piece of wisdom that I am going to implement in my life. Had I taken a week off from work after our trade show in Toronto there is a chance that I would have recovered and not burned out at all.
Burnout is not something that I need to experience again. I know that it is an unpleasant experience. For me these steps are now part of my life. I value my health and I believe that it is something worth fighting for. For some of you it may mean finding new employment and for others who are self-employeed like myself it may mean creating a new culture, developing new habits and changing the way you motivate yourself and your employees. I wish you the best in your effort to eliminate burnout.
2018 update: The truth about burnout