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How to Resurrect Yourself from Total Project Burnout

Culture, Project Management

By David Wierbiki

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There is a thrill to starting a new project... delving into the requirements, discussions with enthusiastic business partners, new teammates, and usually something new, technically or procedurally, you hadn’t done before. That "something new and exciting" feeling that sparks jumping out of bed in the morning in a rush to get started and/or those late nights following inspiration to genius ideas and solutions is a very powerful thing. Motivating. And a lot of times, just downright fun.

What Happens Over Time

Designers and developers typically, but not always, last 2-4 years in any given job or project.  Why is that, exactly?  Burnout, overwork, exhaustion, draining co-workers, unsavory managers, learning plateau, loss of interest or maybe a better professional or creative opportunity comes along...  The thrill of the new project is likely long since over and the status quo is either maintenance mode or business-required enhancements.  Which are all necessary, of course, and a great way for new developers or designers to cut their teeth working on an existing app, but for the seasoned veteran it can become stale and mundane unless they have a real passion or personal investment in the project.

Pitfalls of Trudging On (Dying the Slow Death)

Denial is not a river, folks, and listening to your inner self is key. It's either time to move on or reinvigorate yourself. If you find yourself experiencing depression, irritation, the development of physical ailments, a frequent desire to call in sick, chronic grumpiness, or you’re late for work and early to leave on a daily basis, it may be time to start taking that long hard look at your situation.
Time to weigh the benefits of continuing the project or job vs. moving on to greener (healthier) pastures. The alternative may very well be your long-term mental, emotional or physical health. Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is crucial over the long haul. If you are not, then chances are you are well on the road or have completed the journey to project burnout. Humans simply cannot maintain an overworked state indefinitely without some level of repercussion.

Recognizing Your Mind Frame (The Awakening)

Let’s start by taking a look at some telltale signs:

  • Do you find yourself isolated as an army of one or simply routinely doing everything yourself?
  • Are you consistently overwhelmed or experiencing serious long-term pressure or anxiety?
  • Do you keep taking on other people's responsibilities because "only you can do things right"?
  • Are you unable to say "no" to additional responsibilities thrown your way, even if they mean overtaxing yourself for the foreseeable future?
  • Do you find yourself unable to delegate tasks that further drain or tax your limited resources and time?
  • Is the job or project no longer fun, motivating, or inspiring?
  • Are you constantly concerned or worried about your job or the success of the project to the point that it keeps you up at night and inhibits your enjoyment of free time?
  • Has your work-life balance been thrown out the window in favor of work alone?
  • Are you sleeping or eating poorly on a regular basis, if not routinely, so you can continue working or put in those extra hours?
  • Do you feel guilty if you’re not working constantly?
  • Do you forgo time with your friends or family in favor of work beyond a normal, expected work day?

All these things sound like aspects of a hard working individual who is a "company person". But they should be warning signs not only to yourself but also to your co-workers, boss, friends and/or significant other that something is out of kilter. The answer may be something simple. Perhaps you are purposefully throwing yourself into your work due to trouble in your personal life, and that just simply needs to be resolved to bring your work-life balance back into check. But, then again...
Step one is recognition and getting out of that denial river. Take stock of where you're at mentally, emotionally and physically, and realistically assess any discrepancies. Talk to your significant other, friends or trusted co-workers to see what their thoughts are - if they haven't already talked to you directly themselves. Make a list of the things you like about your situation and a list of things you’d like to experience. I live by my lists. I make them for everything, and they help me focus on prioritizing the more important tasks or things I need to be focusing on, which should always be on the positive - focus on the things you DO want to do, be, or have. Regardless of how you choose to go about it, some self discovery is what’s called for. Only then will you be able to grasp the situation and begin making a change.

Making the Change (The Resurrection)

Passion is a wonderful thing. You had it; now it’s time to reclaim it.
The answer may be something as uncomplicated as talking to your manager about working on something else or cutting your time on the long-term project to allow time for a side project, skills enhancements, or something else your company or manager believes is necessary. But it absolutely should not add to your current workload. Perhaps a leave of absence - if you can afford it - is in order. Working hard, putting in uber hours and driving yourself into the ground clearly has not worked in your favor or else you would not be needing some self-reflection and a change.
Keep in mind I am not advocating slacking, working with negligence or caring less about your work life. The passion we have for what we do is undeniable or we wouldn’t be overworking ourselves to the point of ill-health. What I am advocating is being aware of your physical, emotional and mental health.
Now, let's raise you from the dead.

  • Physical activity is one of the best stress relievers. Gym memberships are relatively inexpensive, but you do not need to go to the gym to get your physical activity needs. Go walk for twenty minutes a day, or wake up to pushups and situps or do them before bed (or both!). Exercise releases endorphins which can release stress dramatically.
  • Meditation, even ten minutes a day, can bring you clarity and focus that can better hone your ability to accomplish the more important tasks.
  • Drink more water. All those caffeinated beverages are great for short bursts of energy, but over time they become less effective and drain you further.
  • A balanced diet will take you so much further than snacks or packaged goods.
  • Reinvent or polish your personal look. Go buy some new clothes, polish your shoes, get a haircut. The key here is to change things up and freshen your look and the way you feel about your self image.
  • Do something regularly that isn’t code or design related. Take a break from the side of the brain that you use day in and day out.
  • Find a hobby or new activity, explore a new interest. It may be fleeting and you may have a few misses before you find something that sticks, but the important thing is to do something you don’t normally do but find interesting.
  • Get social offline. Call up a colleague, old friend or make a new acquaintance and go do something. See a movie, go kayaking, grab a couple of bikes and trek. Even if it is something as simple as going for coffee or some other tasty beverage, the point is to get out and interact with others beyond the job.
  • Go on vacation. Not a stay-cation either. The goal here is to experience a change of scenery and detach from the day-to-day.
  • Weekend day trips or social events give you a change of scenery on your days off and ensure that you’re not working just because.
  • Clean off your desk, redecorate your workspace or simply work somewhere else one or more days a week. With the wireless options available to us now you can work remotely from just about anywhere.

What I get out of this list is that change needs to happen. Lately I have been studying the habits and lifestyle of Winston Churchill. If ever there was an overachiever, this was the man. The hours he kept were incredible, yet he accomplished great works and still had time to play virtually every day and was well rested - when the whole war thing wasn't going on of course. Churchill was an adventurer and lusted for new experiences around every corner. Part of a healthy lifestyle should include trying new things according to Churchill:

 "Change is the master key. A man can wear out a particular part of his mind by continually using it and tiring it, just in the same way as he can wear out the elbows of his coat. There is, however, this difference between the living cells of the brain and inanimate articles: one cannot mend the frayed elbows of a coat by rubbing the sleeves or shoulders; but the tired parts of the mind can be rested and strengthened, not merely by rest, but by using other parts."
- Painting as a Pastime, Winston Churchill

The point is, you need to add some zest to your life, make a change and reclaim your work-life balance. If you stop thinking about work ALL the time, clean up your goals, and treat your body better, you’ll find that you have more energy and solutions just flow freely from you, instead of struggling through the day-to-day. You will, indeed, work less and live a happy, healthy, wholesome life.
Reclaim the enthusiasm and passion you had originally and so desperately want back. No one will do it for you. This is a change only you have the power to make.

TAGS: Culture, Project Management

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