The Antidote to Burnout is Progress

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Andrew Dumont wrote about his grueling schedule at a startup and the lessons on “Avoiding Burnout” which spurred a torrent of comments on HackerNews. For me, the most interesting comment is this one by Daniel Ribeiro who quotes Isaac Yonemoto:

Burnout is caused when you repeatedly make large amounts of sacrifice and or effort into high-risk problems that fail…You effectively condition your brain to associate work with failure… The best way to prevent burnout is to follow up a serious failure with doing small things that you know are going to work.

Burnout is a motivation problem, a listlessness, a defeatist attitude, and perhaps even a hopelessness, triggered by the lack of progress.

I suspect burnout is much more pronounced for information workers - people who deal in bits each day - because unlike a mason or an architect, the product of much of our work isn’t visible. Even the tools we use, virtual to do lists and email, hide the work we’ve completed: tasks checked off and emails sent.

Reading through Andrew’s advice on managing burnout, the common theme is seeking progress in life (exercise, walks, small wins, hobbies, diet). All these habits are hedges - each one offers a guaranteed little bit of progress each day.

Coincidentally, NPR profiled a productivity researcher from HBS this morning. According to her research, the most important driver of productivity is motivation which aligns with Daniel’s comment.

Her recommendation for improving motivation? Use tools like IDoneThis to track what you’ve accomplished each day and take the time now and again to reflect on your progress through that journey.

At Google, we had an internal product called Snippets which is functionally identical to IDoneThis. I’d always believed the purpose of Snippets was to improve communication across a team and company about the contributions of employees. But perhaps I missed the more important benefit: motivation management and burnout prevention.

We all need to feel like we’re making progress and simple tools like these bits of software and exercise, diet, reading and Andrew’s other suggestions are part of the antidote to burnout.

Apr 4, 2013

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