On Burnout - Part 2

Burnout [Olympus Trip 35]

In part 1 we talked about my strange nearly-overworked period.

This story takes place a few years later, I was working at a different place, and I was not working nearly as much. I may or may not have been more exhausted at times, but that’s not what this post is about.

Instead, I will talk about my two colleagues at this place. Let’s call them Jake and Elwood, just because we can.

First out: Jake

For the longest time, I though Jake would burn out from being over-worked. He was a true hustler. Constantly on the phone, always on his way to a new meeting, usually one he was already late for.

Everyone kept saying the same thing about Jake; “Man, he’s gonna burn out. It’s just a matter of time”

But he never did.

During my entire stint, he kept trucking at the same speed. I have no doubt he was tired and exhausted from time to time, but he never hit that wall that everyone was expecting.

Next: Elwood

Elwood was a different character. The pace was slower, more relaxed. Sure, he was difficult to get hold of sometimes, being that he also scuttled from meeting to meeting, but he was less engaged than Jake.

And then he burned out…

One day he didn’t show up at work, and a week later we were told he had broken down and couldn’t leave the house. It took almost a year before we saw him again.

What? Why? HOW?!

The rest of us were a bit confused. We weren’t exactly flabbergasted that Elwood had burned out, per se. We were questioning how he could have burned out before Jake.

It took me a while to figure it out, but I think I know why it turned out like this.

The big difference between Jake and Elwood was how they treated their todo-lists. Elwood, who would eventually burn out, had an ever-growing todo-list. Not only was it constantly growing, the truth was that he never took anything off his list. Every task was tagged to be followed up. Often the follow-up was scheduled for the next week, often in a weekly recurring meeting, and often knowing that the needle would not move for at least the coming month or two, because we were waiting for information or deliverables from a third-party.

Therefore, Elwood was constantly reminded, often every single day, about the progress that had not been made. He was reminded about the ever-growing list of tasks. And he was reminded that he was powerless to do anything to improve the situation.

Jake had a completely different approach. He didn’t have a todo-list. At least not the way Elwood did. Jake’s tasks were more… ephemeral.

During my time with the company, I can’t recall Jake ever asking me “How are things going with Project X?”

In all likelyhood, he wasn’t aware that we had such a thing as Project X. He didn’t let stuff like that occupy his mind.

But that doesn’t mean Jake was not engaged. He just asked different questions; “Is everything going OK? Is there anything you need me to do?”

I had to remind him that we were working with Project X, and that the database permissions were still an issue. Upon hearing this, Jake would pick up his phone, call the database team and ask them to get to work on the permissions. He would do that immediately. Once he hung up the phone, the problem was gone. See, ephemeral! He had done his part, and now he could move on to other things.

If Jake happened to ask the same question the next week, and the permissions still hadn’t been fixed, that was, from Jake’s point of view, a different problem. Again, he would pick up his phone and call the database team, right there, right then. Sure, maybe this time he would scold them for still not fixing the problem, indicating that he knew that this was an ongoing problem, but an ongoing problem for someone else, not for him.

Which of these approaches causes most negative stress?

Boiling down the differences and GTD

With his approach, Jake never had to look at an ever-growing list of tasks. One phone call, and the problem was gone. No problems, no stress.

Elwood, on the other hand, would never pick up his phone on the spot. He would register that phone call needed to be done in his todo-list and then perpetually postpone it, since it never bubbled up to the top of the list, thereby forcing himself to look at the same list of problems week after week after week. It eventually wore him down.

As a side note, I happen to believe that David Allen’s two minute tool is a good rule to live by. I’m not saying it’s simple, just that it is effective.

Elwood’s plan was to be super-effective at all times, by always making sure that he worked only with the highest prioritised task. Everything else would end up on his todo-list. That’s a good plan in theory, but on a micro level it becomes unsustainable. Elwood’s highest prioritised task was almost constantly blocked by something or someone else.

But what is correct?

You could argue that neither Jake’s nor Elwood’s attitudes towards their respective task lists were optimal. Jake’s approach made him less efficient. Since he was stateless, meaning he scarcely remembered what had been discussed two days earlier, everytime you wanted him to do something you had to waste a bunch of time just to bring him up to speed on the project and the problem to be solved.

Elwoods approch made him vulnerable to external factors. Being reminded time and time again that you cannot proceed with a project because your third party supplier will not supply a solution until six months from now is just bad for morale, and stress levels goes through the roof. On the other hand, Elwood was engaged in the process, and very little time was needed to get him up to date on the latest news on the project.

But this article is about stress and burnouts, and in that regard, Elwood’s approach was by far the inferior one.

It is my strongest belief that it is not being busy that is damaging, it’s being busy without seeing any reward or progress.

Surely, there must be an easy fix?

Unfortunately, no.

As with so many things, this is not a black-or-white issue, it is about finding the appropriate spot on an analogue scale. And it becomes even harder when we consider that the sweet spot is moving. It will be different for different people, in different times and with different tasks.

The appropriate thing to do is to pay attention to signals that your body is sending out. If you’re feeling stressed out, act on it now, not later. If you feel that you don’t have time to deal with the stress, because there are other things that are higher on your priority list, maybe that’s the clearest signal you’ll ever get.

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