3 Ways to end burnout

Jun 30, 2020

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A lithograph print by the Dutch artist M. C. Escher, titled "Relativity." It depicts a world in which the normal laws of gravity do not apply.

My friends and colleagues know me as the budding software developer that blows away expectations and delivers impactful results. Within a year, I accelerated our team’s software delivery process with countless CI/CD pipelines, re-architected and migrated several on-premises workloads into Microsoft’s Azure Cloud, and trailblazed the architecture and implementation of cloud native applications. The cherry on top: I received a promotion in recognition of my accomplishments.

Although my accomplishments were recognized by respected peers and mentors early in my career, I always fall short of my own standards and expectations. I know that there are more ways to deliver value and help others, but I feel like I'm not doing enough of that.

For over a year, I've failed to take action on my blog and share my thoughts on software development, career, and self-improvement. Although I was productive in other parts of my life, this part felt like being in a never-ending slump where I was stuck in a "fixed mindset" mode. On top of ramping up in a brand new role, I was also engaged in several side projects. At the time, I said "yes" to just about any project that came my way; this habit led to an overwhelmingly busy time. I didn't realize it until it was too late. I burnt out and my cognitive bandwidth was at an all time low.

Identifying Burnout

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest and motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.

I was extremely productive at work and I enjoyed tackling many challenging software engineering problems. I was highly motivated and well recognized as a trailblazer. In contrast, I believed my lack of productivity on personal projects was due to the effects of decision fatigue by the end of the work day. Although a possible contributing factor, it was not the main reason why I was experiencing burnout. The most tell-tale sign was the insurmountable mental block that I felt whenever I thought of writing even one sentence for my blog or one line of code for my personal projects. I kept thinking about the holistic end product, but felt overwhelmed and helpless because I couldn’t convince myself to translate my thoughts onto the screen. When I’m burnt out, I severely miss self-imposed deadlines and I get stuck in a soul-crushing vicious cycle—feeling more demotivated and detached instead of an increased urgency to get things done.

Start with why

Simon Sinek’s "Start with Why," explored the mission and purpose of organizations. Although Simon explores this idea with organizations, I believe it can also be applied to us. We know what to do and how to do things, but if we don't know why we are doing these things in the first place, then why should our projects or goals exist? Sinek’s methodology helped me cut through the noise of the discouraging thoughts and focus on surfacing the motivation that had been suppressed due to burnout.

"Starting with why" created a lighthouse that I can easily find, even in a sea of darkness, I won't lose my "why."
Simon Sinek’s “The Golden Circle” showing three circles. The innermost circle has “why,” the middle circle has “how,” and the outermost circle has “what.”

While procrastinating by watching YouTube videos, I stumbled across Jeff Bezos’ discussion on the "Regret Minimization Framework", which asks, “if you project yourself to 80 years old and look back on your life, would you regret your decision?” For Bezos, it made his decision easy to start a new business in the once-uncertain world-wide-web. We now know it as Amazon, a dominating e-commerce empire. He said he wouldn't regret trying even if he failed, but he would regret it if he didn't try at all.

I realized that I would regret it if I discontinued my blog and abandoned my purpose to positively impact others. Instead of procrastinating further, these concepts made it clearer and easier for me to make difficult decisions.

Clear up your cognitive bandwidth

If you feel overwhelmingly busy all the time (like I do), then you may be experiencing low cognitive bandwidth.

Cognitive bandwidth is: feelings of scarcity, whether money or time, prey on the mind, thereby impairing decision-making. When you’re busy, you’re more likely to make poor time-management choices – taking on commitments you can’t handle, or prioritising trifling tasks over crucial ones. A vicious spiral kicks in: your feelings of busyness leave you even busier than before.

Triage your to do list

Start each week with a list of to do's and triage using the Eisenhower Matrix. This will help you gain more clarity and focus by visualizing and triaging the important things you want to accomplish.

A 2x2 grid with column and row labels. Column labels are “Urgent” and “Not Urgent.” Row labels are “Important” and “Not Important.” For the grid values, Important and Urgent intersect at “Do.” Important and Not Urgent intersect at “Decide.” Not Important and Urgent intersect at “Delegate.” Not Important and Not Urgent intersect at “Delete.”

As you complete your tasks, intentionally check them off. Your sense of accomplishment will be mentally associated with the action and the satisfaction is tangible. If you're a university student or a software developer, you most likely resonate with the sense of accomplishment of closing all of your browser tabs after completing a project.

To reduce my mental clutter, I created a system to prioritize the allocation of my mental space. I write down and triage every important or interesting thing that comes into my mind. With this, I'm able to prioritize and revisit the thoughts at a relevant or convenient time in the future. Although tedious at first, this process helped me reduce the amount of unwanted and distracting thoughts that linger in my mind and helped me maintain a state of flow.

Working on our to do's in the always-online world, we also must be mindful of the countless digital distractions that became normal. Further fueling our feeling of busyness, we frequently and mindlessly scroll on our phones for hours. To be productive, try to work with your phone faced down and in silent mode. Disconnect from the digital world and take frequent physical breaks. Get up and stretch, walk around outside, or do a short workout. It may be unthinkable because of the pressure from the mental demands from burnout, but be reasonable with yourself and take mental breaks.

Create and execute on micro-goals

Early in my university career, my motto for managing some of my assignments was, "due in one week? do in one week." I didn't know at the time, but this was Parkinson's law"work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." Despite never missing a deadline, I was under perpetual stress because I spent most of my time procrastinating and cramming to completion. Timeboxing your tasks will help you be aware and conscious about the time you are committing to your activities.

A 2 axis graph with Effort in the y-axis and Time Allowed in the x-axis. The graph line exponentially increases and falls off a cliff in a short period of time, then it gradually decreases to 0 over a longer period of time.

On top of timeboxing, I now break down the focused task down to tiny, easily-achievable micro-goals. For example, if you were to write a blog post, you can break down the first micro-goals to be:

  1. Open your editor
  2. Name and save the file
  3. Write one sentence
  4. and so on...

Like Newton's first law of motion (objects in motion tend to stay in motion), simply getting started can build your momentum to keep progressing on your goals. When you stop, it can feel like you need to muster more energy than usual to get started again. Although the pressure of completing my projects can still be intimidating, it is no longer an impossible task. This is the power of micro-progression. As cliche as it is,

"Slow progress is better than no progress."

Many software developers may also not realize that they are already doing this. When trying to solve complex problems, they have to break it down into smaller parts so that it is easier to understand. This is known as decomposition. It may seem glaringly obvious and trivial at first, but this epiphany made me fully appreciate the shift in perspective.

Adjust your physical environment

The brain is very powerful with mental associations with the physical environment. A great example is getting into your bed is a cue for the brain to sleep. If you spend your time doing work or play video games in your bed, you can associate the stress from those activities into the physical space and can contribute to unwanted effects like reduced quality or duration of sleep. In contrast, if you originally get into bed in "relax mode" and you try to start doing work in your bed, it may feel more difficult to be productive than usual because your brain thinks it's time to sleep and not time to do work.

As someone who has grown up with the internet, I spend the majority of my time sitting at my computer desk. It is difficult to work on my personal projects in this space because it has long been associated with playing video games, indulging on YouTube videos, and endlessly surfing the web. For years, my brain has associated this space with relaxation, which makes it challenging to change my habits and become more productive.

Therefore, it is ideal you have a dedicated “productivity” space. If you don't have the luxury of space that is free from distractions and interruptions, working in public places like cafes, libraries, or co-working spaces are great alternatives.

Right now, there is a global pandemic and in the interest of safety, these public work spaces are likely closed for the foreseeable future. In this case, we have little to no choice but to work in the personal spaces that we have.

Given the new normal of remote work, try identifying and creating new mental associations to transition your mind into “work mode”:

  • Pretend to commute: If you used to commute regularly to work, pretend to commute (take a walk) and then return home to officially start your work day.
  • Do not disturb mode: Put your phone in silent or "do not disturb" mode and put it face down on your table or out of reach so that you won’t be distracted. Let your family or roommates know that you are working and do not want to be interrupted.
  • Caffeinate: Make yourself coffee or tea right before you start your work.
  • Put on some tunes: Play some music that will help you get into a state of flow. I personally recommend "lofi hip hop radio - beats to relax/study to" on YouTube or Spotify. You can also curate your own playlist specifically for work, I suggest selecting music with little-to-no lyrics because they are the least distracting.

Taking steps forward

When you're faced with burnout and low cognitive bandwidth, a great place to start is to reflect and recognize it's effects on you and identify the possible causes of those problems. Start with "why" and use the Regret Minimization Framework to make it easier to answer the difficult questions. Why do you want to be productive? What purpose are you trying to achieve by being productive? When you are 80 years old, do you think you would regret it if you never tried?

Use any feelings of purpose and motivation to move forward, and guide your decisions and actions. Write down any distracting thoughts that come to mind and delegate them as future concerns to prevent them from recurring. These tips will help you gain control and help keep your cognitive bandwidth at a manageable level where you don't always feel busy.

Create a to do list and triage with the Eisenhower Matrix to gain clarity and focus on the important things you need to accomplish. Timebox your activities to be conscious about the time you are committing. Keep in mind the effects of Parkinson's law and set easily achievable micro-goals. Incremental progress on meaningful work will make you more satisfied and more engaged with your work. Sometimes, it's also just a matter of getting started.

Adjust your physical environment to fit the needs of what task you are trying to accomplish. Be conscious of the mental associations and cues and how they subconsciously affect your mood, emotions, and your desire to complete your activities. Try working at a cafe, library, or co-working space instead of your bedroom. If those options aren't available or aren't working, try re-associating some of your spaces with using new and different mental cues to associate your space with productivity. You can try things like playing a work-specific music playlist that signals the brain that you are now in "work mode" or make a cup of coffee or tea right before you do your work.

These are 3 notable learnings that have helped me get out of my year-long hiatus from blogging and make progress to deliver and accomplish some of my personal goals. I understand that this is a lot to take in and learn, especially because if you're reading this, I can understand you are also experiencing some level of burnout or low cognitive bandwidth like I was. I want to make it clear that this is still very much a work in progress for me (Rome wasn't built in a day), but I'm no longer discouraged as I originally was.

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