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3 ways to prevent micro-burnouts

Sandor Dargo
Happy father. Blogger. Developer. Creator of dailycppinterview.com
Originally published at sandordargo.com ・7 min read

I've been proposing some topics for a person I'm mentoring and one was "productivity/motivation". She immediately became quite excited about the idea, so I asked what is going on.

She told me that she is regularly facing issues regarding her motivation and therefore her productivity.

Working in bursts

It turned out that she is often doing unpaid overtime to meet some deadlines. Usually afterwards she has a period when there is less tasks to do, but she doesn't really work less. She is losing a lot of time during those more slack periods because she is not concentrated and whatever time is left for her, she doesn't use to have a rest or to learn something new.

Is there a problem with this? You might say no, but I think there is. To say the truth, it doesn't matter what I think or what you think about this. She said it's a problem to her and it's happening with her, so that's a problem.

Without proper rest, towards a burn-out

The results of these long hours manifest in extra tiredness felt after the overloaded sprints, after the burst of overtimes. This makes sense, we cannot overload ourselves in the long run without paying a penalty and even in the short terms we can see some harmful effects.

This is not a problem if it's handled the right way. Think about sprinters. They have to deliver extreme performance in a (few) hundred meters. But after, they get some rest. They wouldn't be able to sprint through a marathon.

Bolt running and resting

It's not different at work. You cannot crunch for weeks and than claim that everything is fine. It's probably OK to do a full-nighter once in a while (though I would discourage you from doing it), but you cannot work late night every day and stay mentally healthy.

In fact, one of the departments I worked for had such a problem - luckily it got solved before I joined. Due to extremely bad management, people were doing overtime for long times, and of course, the productivity dropped even below. By the time they kind of finished their project, people were so much fed up with the situation that in a year everyone left. The first one was the manager and but she didn't leave voluntarily. Even that didn't save the team, it had to be rebuilt from its ashes.

What my mentee is experiencing is in fact a form of burnout. A micro-burnout. After each sprint (not using the agile terms here), she experiences lack of motivation, exhaustion, lack of performance. It's not dangerous yet, she can climb back to her previous states, but if she doesn't change her attitude she can soon find herself in a situation where it will be impossible for her to come back. Or better to say to find any motivation to come back.

She will eventually burn out following this pattern.

Solutions

You might argue if what I call a micro-burnout is a burnout or if it can lead to a "real burnout". I'm not a doctor of any kind. Probably you are not either. But we can agree that it's not healthy to regularly do unpaid overtime without having a clear goal in mind.

Preserve yourself, you're in a marathon

You might commit to do this for 2 years until you become a tech lead, a manager, whatever. I wouldn't advise to do so, I think there are better ways - more on that in my future book The Seniority Trap - but at least you have a plan. Most people have no plans. They work hard, because they take pride in it, because of their ego, but they have no idea where they want to end up.

Working so hard without a plan simply paves the road to an early job switch at best, psychological and physical problems at worst.

I remember what probably my so-far best boss used to tell one of my colleagues who used to put in a lot of overtime. "Look, Josh (not his real name), go home. I don't need someone who works so much in a day. I need someone who will be still here and work for me in a year." He nailed it. You have to find a sustainable pace to serve your team in the long run.

A great manager understands this and acts proactively. A good manager understands if you tell him that you cannot keep working like that because it will harm you and eventually the team. A bad one will not understand anything like that, so you should leave.

There are always so many tasks, manage your expectations, manage your time

We have to consider that the amount of work to be done is always more than our resources would allow us to complete.

That's something we have to live with both as an individual contributor and both as a manager.

If we don't understand it as a manager, we will chase away our best people one way or another. If we don't understand it as an individual contributor, we will suffer and always feel dissatisfied.

I'm a firm believer that we are responsible of our state. Let it be mental, physical, financial, whatever. So before you start blaming your manager you should also consider what if it's a you problem. What if the workload is normal, but you struggle. Maybe you have to top up your skills, maybe it's about your time management skills, maybe it's projecting unreal expectations.

I knew people who were technically very competent, not extremely productive people who spent significantly more time at work than the average others simply because - according to them - they had very poor time management skills. If that's the case, you should start working on those skills, there are good trainings on them. I really liked the classroom trainings of John. B. May. As a start, let me share this summary with you based on John's course.

Let give you a sneak peek:
1) Mute your IM and e-mail client and check them at regular intervals.
2) Block out uninterrupted times in your agenda. Preferably at 2 hour longs, but longer the better.
3) Use the pomodoro technique and work for at least 25 minutes without checking anything. No e-mail, no IM, no social media, just focused work on one task.

Click here for more details!

Span out the workload or vary your weeks

Yet another possibility is that your workload is really just varying. E.g. for accountants it's quite usual, they have more work at certain periods of the month and of the year as well.

It's fine, if you and your management can handle it properly. If one week you work 60 hours, the next week you should work 20 and take the time to recover, or maybe you can take two 30-hour weeks, if you prefer. If you have such long weeks regularly, you should make sure that you take the time for rest. But you should also examine what you could do in order to span that workload over multiple weeks and to have a balanced workload. In software development, often this is just a planning and communication issue.

In case it's not and it's indeed not possible to span that work out then it's crucial to set up weeks with varying working hours. It'll not only give you time for recovery, but it will also make you more productive. As Parkinson's law says, work expands to fill the time allotted. If you have 40 hours to do 20 hours of work, for sure it will take up 40 hours. Limit it and you'll find a way to do it in 20 hours.

Conclusion

In this article, we explored the phenomenon of micro-burnouts. You might experience it after working very-hard for a couple of weeks or days but you don't take time to rest afterwards. Instead you just fall back to your normal hours. Repeat this cycle and it's more and more likely that you're going to experience micro-burnouts. You'll know that you have it when you experience unreasonable tiredness, demotivation and you feel that each of your tasks take too much time compared to previous experiences.

How to overcome this? I don't know, but I collected a couple of techniques to prevent it!

First of all, you must understand that there will be always more work to do than hours in the day. Once that sinks in, you have to prioritize and delegate your tasks (when possible) and definitely communicate the changing priorities if that affects for your team.

Often, you just have to stop those churns. Maybe nobody expects you to work so much and they don't even award it. Maybe it's your own expectations or ego. Let it go.

You have to think about your time management as well. It can simply be that you are slow, scattered, while technically good at the same time.

If you often have longer periods of overtime followed by periods of less work, you should sit down with your boss, with your team and either try to span out the work for more equal workloads or you have to plan shorter weeks after long ones to give yourself recovery time.

Have you ever experienced micro-burnouts? What did you do to overcome or to prevent them?

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