How to Avoid Burnout: Getting Things Done Efficiently

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How to Avoid BurnoutDon’t tackle the beast all at once. I know you want to. It’s haunting you. You want to take on the entire thing now.

You’re always going to want to get the best results possible in the least amount of time. It’s only natural. You’re human. But don’t get this mindset confused with efficiency. It’s not the same. In fact, you’re probably doing a lot of things with an inefficient approach.

As many of you know, I’m writing my eBook. It’s scary and quite frankly sometimes I don’t want to.  It’s this great big beast I am somehow supposed to finish all at once, or at least that’s what I thought.

I was always ambitious and loved to complete things in one-go if possible or at least into as few pieces as I could. High school projects with deadlines months away would be conquered within a few hours when possible. Articles that needed weeks of preparation would be half-done in one or two days. I wasn’t efficient or producing quality. To put it simply, I was just mass-producing mediocrity.

This sort of thing is what kills you early. Or worse. Burnout. I went through a time where I did a lot in a short period then eventually got to a point where I no longer wanted to write because I had burnout. When I did get to work my level of craftsmanship wasn’t there.

How to Avoid Burnout and Maintain Efficiency

Start breaking the beast down into digestible pieces. I took a note from Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity secret. Jerry revealed that he writes on a daily basis by buying a large calendar with an entire year on one page. Every day he sits down and writes a joke. Each day he writes he gets a nice big red X over the day. Doing this for several weeks gets you a long chain and your only goal is to avoid breaking it.

“Don’t break the chain.” Can’t you just hear Jerry’s voice?

Following his method got me to write at least once a day for three months in a row. For my beast, I make sure I write at least 500 words each day to my eBook. After only a week of this I already have a few thousand words done. Avoiding burnout? Check.

Instead of sitting down in one sitting and writing 10,000 words (or more) I’m taking my time and focusing on the quality of each 500 words. Dividing them over the course of the next few weeks, being mindful, and making it a ritual got me started on the project. Get started on the beast? Check. Focusing on quality? Check again.

Work in bursts with breaks in between. Breaks? That is sacrilegious! Hold your pitchforks productivity junkies and hear me out.

The Pomodoro Technique has gotten a lot of attention. It is a time management technique developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s and it works. It basically instructs you to work on what you need to work for 25 minutes without rest or distraction, then you take a 5-minute break. Rinse and repeat until you’re done.

This is perfect for me because I work best in bursts and the 5-minute break lets you catch your breath. I use a Google Chrome extension called Strict Workflow as my timer. It blocks off any website you tell it to so you can’t get distracted. I’m looking at you, Facebook and Reddit.

Focus on what brings the most results, cut out those bringing little to none. When I started Self Stairway I focused on at least 10,000 different things. More than half of what I did brought little to no results. Instead, I noticed that a handful of what I was doing worked consistently, so I began focusing on those.

There’s a popular idea called the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 Rule. I’m not going to get too much into the history or anything, but an Italian economist named Vilfredo Pareto noticed 80% of the wealth in Italy belonged to 20% of the population. It turned out there were a lot of situations showing similar results.

For example:

80% of interruptions in a workplace came from the same 20% of people.

80% of a problem could be solved by correcting 20% of the issue.

80% of results often came from 20% of the effort.

The last scenario is the most relevant to what I’m addressing. We blow a lot of ideas out like bubbles, hoping they collide with others and get bigger, bringing in more results. What usually happens though, is we spend time blowing bubbles that don’t add up to anything, but we continue doing them anyway. Don’t waste your time and start taking note of what works. See where 80% of the results are coming from and focus on them full-time. Cut out the excess fat.

It’s harder to burnout when you’re actually doing less (yet getting more results.)

Learn to turn down projects. I get asked to do guest posts pretty often and I’d love to say yes to everyone, but it’s impossible. I have to prioritize and if I take on too many things I’d burnout. It’s easy to be a yes man (or no man,) but the difficulty is finding a balance.

Your time is finite and even the most skilled individual is able to balance a million different things. You need to prioritize and focus on certain tasks unless you want to be overwhelmed. Trading time means you give up doing something else to focus on another.

Stop trying to multitask. The majority of the people I know would claim they’re good multi-taskers. There’s a difference between being able to perform actions at the same time and doing these things well.

Don’t juggle things if you aren’t getting optimum results. Sometimes it’s better to sit down and just focus on what you can. Afterwards, you can move to the next thing. Don’t sacrifice quality over quantity.

I’d love to be able to hear all your productivity tips in the comments! What would you recommend to readers who want to learn how to avoid burnout?

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Vincent Nguyen is the author of Self Stairway. He was a full-time college student, a freelancer, and an intern for 3 different companies, but more recently dropped out of school after landing his dream job with Empire Flippers.

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35 responses to How to Avoid Burnout: Getting Things Done Efficiently

  1. To avoid burnout I simply listen to my body and mind. Take yesterday for example – I had 3 articles to research and I had to get them finished before today because this week I aim to focus on my maths assignment (for my degree). Although I have deadlines (both real and self imposed) I decided to only finish researching 2 articles because I needed a nap.

    None of these ‘powering through’ nonsense like many people do. I knew I had hit a brick wall so I simply gave in to my body and slept.

    Today I had planned to start my assignment but instead I listened to my head and finished the article research instead as that was what I felt was better for me today. There is no point forcing myself to do something that I had no desire to to. I will be far better equipped to deal with my assignment when I’m in the right frame of mind.

    I carry this philosophy over to every aspect of my life. If I feel like it, I’ll do it – even if I have to re arrange my plans or extend a self imposed deadline.

    My philosophy in a nutshell – work with yourself, not against yourself and everything will be easy.

    • Good point, Jamie! The reason that works for you is because of your self-imposed deadline. People usually rely on the actual deadline so there is no leeway if they decide to work up to the deadline. Allowing yourself free gaps in between lets you tackle these things with the security that you actually have more time if your body does need to take a rest.

  2. Burnout is a wild beast that must be tamed.

    I’ve dealt with burnout on numerous occasions throughout my life. It’s easy to get burned out when you don’t actively take a breather. It’s why I don’t work on weekends anymore. Everyone needs time to recharge the batteries.

    I’m also totally on board with breaking things down. That’s what I did with my e-book as well. It makes the project flow at a slow but steady pace. It’s also a great way to avoid overwhelm. Because writing 20,000 words sounds scary as shit, but writing 500 words is sooo much more manageable.

    • Back when I first started Self Stairway I nearly had burnout within the first two months because I was writing something like 4 or 5 articles every day. It was bizarre and I realized how inefficient it was. That’s why now we’re getting one high-quality article each week instead of 2-4 lower quality ones. :)

  3. Hey Vincent -

    Congrats on the e-book – keep plugging away and you’ll be finished before you know it.

    My best productivity tip is to make a to-do list the night before of the most important things you want to get done the next day.

    Nothing crazy big or anything – typically just the 2-3 things. And not all the errands and daily responsibilities that fill up our days either.

    Think of yourself as your own project leader rather than your own admin.

    And then ask yourself, what specific objectives or goals (or individual steps in a project) do I want to have accomplished by the end of the next day?

    Putting your objectives down on paper and getting a sleep cycle in before you actually begin working on your tasks is almost magical. The work goes so much more smoothly. You’ll get more done in less time and it will be the important stuff, too.

    The conscious mind may have the vision and the goals, but it’s the subconscious mind (or whatever you want to call that other you) that does all the work.

    I’ve learned, when it comes to any kind of creative work, that I need to give that other me advanced warning (and some sleep) – otherwise it’s going to take a whole lot longer to get anything done, and most likely, it’s also going to be of a lower quality. The harder you work at something – because you’re muscling through with your conscious mind – the lower the quality of the work.

    Good luck!

    • Good idea, Brad! I do this a little by having a to-do list I create on Evernote that lists what I need to do each day. Very similar to what you’re doing. I’d suggest Evernote for people who want to store everything digitally and want it accessible through computers or phones.

  4. Dealing with Burnout today, majorly. Thanks for the timely encouragement

  5. Hello Vincent. I love this line: Hold your pitchforks productivity junkies and hear me out. That is very, very funny.

    I like the simplicity of Jerry’s red X’s on a calendar. That is something I just might try though I’m not sure what I will use it for yet.

    I am most productive because I have prioritized and simplified my whole life. I only have a few things I must do each day: exercise, eat healthy, and write. I exercise first thing every day, write next, and my meals are automated (same meal for breakfast Monday – Thursday). I think being a bit of a freak about certain things enables me to be more productive.

    I hope you’re enjoying writing your eBook, Vincent. I know tons of people will benefit!

    • Your life is streamlined, I love that! Maybe I should start cutting out some of the excess activities from my own life. Definitely give Jerry’s method a try once you find something. I can’t believe how effective it is and I wouldn’t write nearly as much as I do now if it wasn’t for him.

      Thanks, Tammy!

  6. Breaks and bursts are great ways to prevent BO, Vincent! I use these techniques in my guitar playing all the time. I almost never practice for more than 30 consecutive minutes and I use breaks quite liberally to drink water and stretch. Longer breaks can be useful too, as in an entire week off as I just did. When I returned to practicing, my efforts were redoubled and so was my enthusiasm! Love your post, man!

    • That’s an awesome schedule you’re sticking to. I used to play Tennis from morning to evening and well, you can imagine what happened next. I of course burned out, started losing form, and things were just going terrible each shot. Taking long breaks (I’m talking weeks here) got me back to speed.

  7. Burnout typically occurs within a similar framework, just like workplace accidents tend to occur under common conditions (over populated, equipment not replaced etc).

    With that in mind I make sure I set up my environment to limit the chance of burnout occurring. Regular physical and social breaks, multiple interest just to name a few ways.

    Aaron
    The Confidence Lounge

  8. I absolutely LOVE the chain idea, I’m going to try that starting now and post back in a few weeks on how it worked. Your writing is always easy to read and implement, but this took it to a whole new level. Awesome job!

    • Woo! Definitely keep me updated on how it works out for you. How’s your new job, by the way?

      • Its so much different down here in Florida than it was down in Baltimore. The humidity is the same, but it rains way too much and the heat is a bloody killer!

        Disney lost my drug test, so I have to wait an extra few days before I can start training – apart from that its awesome. Lots of cute foreign girls!

  9. There is a lot that can be gained by consistent effort over time, isn’t there? I’m thinking of starting a blog series on updating my resume – as prep for creating an e-book. The idea of writing it a post at a time is a lot less daunting!

    • Definitely is, Tom! I decided to take a few days off from the eBook and focus on a bigger project that I have on my plate at the moment. 3,000 words, I’m already almost there so I think I can collect my thoughts a bit and take a look again with a new, fresh mind. :)

  10. Your suggestions for avoiding burnout are great! Sometimes I don’t notice that I’m burned out until it’s too late. Recently, I’ve been learning about HALT. (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired) From what I understand, this framework was developed for people struggling with addiction. But I think it’s useful in examining myself in regards to the way my work is affecting my life. If I can set good goals and maintain balance, I won’t develop HALT, and I won’t eventually burn out.

    • Hey, Paul! That’s a good anagram there. I can see it being useful for more than hardcore addicts and it gives us something to consciously try to avoid. Thanks for sharing that. I’m definitely keeping it in mind.

  11. Great post, Vincent. As someone who has written two books and is on their third, you have touched on some key points for writers. When I’m working on a book, I will write 500-1000 words per day. But I will also take breaks, anywhere from a few days to a couple of months at a time. The long breaks have allowed me to work out the stories/organization in my head. That’s very important in the way I write. On the other hand, I will have times where I might write 5000 words in a single weekend. Those times are very fulfilling. The bottom line is that you keep moving forward. A good book takes a year or more to complete from start to publish. You have to accept that from the start. If you push too hard, too fast, you’ll become overwhelmed and disappointed. I’m actually slowing down on my third and will likely spend closer to 18 months for the full project.

    One more thing: When you take days, weeks, or months off of your book project, make sure to keep writing in other ways: blog posts, poetry, articles, songs, journal, anything to keep your skills sharpened.

    • Thanks, Dan! You’re a very ambitious writer and I’m not surprised that you handle your workload well without burning out. Some people may think long breaks are outrageous but I see the value in them. I’ve never taken a break longer than a week yet, but I know sometime in the future I will have to.

  12. Great post and tips Vincent! Breaking down large goals into small tasks has helped me. I’m also writing an eBook and found daily specific progress is key. Setting reachable goals can move anyone closer to achieving a big desired outcome.

    When do you plan on having your book finished?

  13. Hello Vincent,

    I am a huge proponent of your tip, “Start breaking the beast down into digestible pieces.” I find that for myself if I approach a project and try to finish it in one sitting, I become overwhelmed, and the anxiety and aggravation that results simply makes what should be an enjoyable task a unpleasant one. I am currently in the process of finishing my dissertation, in addition to several other projects, and I am using a similar approach to the “500 word” method that you discussed. I have found that I am much more productive and much more relaxed when I employ this method. In fact, I employ a “chunking” style approach to all of the projects that I undertake, though sometimes I fall off and resort back to the last minute tactic.

    I also can identify with your advice on multitasking, as it is something that I unsuccessfully try to do. Your article is a good reminder to stop trying to do it!

    I found your article very helpful!

    Jeremy

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  1. How to Avoid Burnout: Getting Things Done Effic... - August 5, 2013

    [...] How to avoid burnout, start working efficiently, and start getting great results.  [...]

  2. How to Avoid Burnout: Getting Things Done Effic... - August 7, 2013

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