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What Athletes Can Teach You About Avoiding Burnout

Some of the same principles that help athletes avoid injury and make the most of their workouts can help you avoid professional burnout as well.
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Chris Yeh is a very busy guy. A VP at a growing company, a startup mentor, and a partner at VC firm Wasabi Ventures, he is also married with kids and even manages to blog regularly. How does he accomplish all this and not collapse in exhaustion?

That’s the topic of a recent post he wrote on the Unreasonable Institute blog in which he recounts a time in his younger days in which he completely burnt himself out. He’s older and wiser now though, and claims to have learned his lesson. He offers readers the five steps he now employes to maintain massively packed schedule without running through his energy reserves.

Some of them are sensible but hardly shocking like getting regular meals and sleep (naps are great!), but a couple of the principles are borrowed from a less expected source -- athletics. To keep yourself in top form at work, Yeh recommends you borrow a few of the practices that help athletes keep in top form at the gym:

Cross-training. Cross-training in athletics refers to switching sports, rather than burning yourself out with the same exercises and drills over and over. As a corporate athlete, cross-training refers to regularly shifting activities. I consciously shift from activity to activity. First, I might work on a blog post. Next, I might answer emails. After that, I might read and highlight a scholarly article. The idea is to keep changing what you’re doing so that you don’t have a chance to get bored and burn out.

Interval training. Interval training in athletics refers to alternating high-intensity exercise with conscious rest periods. I do the same thing in my life. I use the Pomodoro Method (20 minutes of sprinting, followed by 5 minutes of rest). This keeps me fresh, and also gives me convenient reminders to shift activities as part of my cross-training.

Yeh isn’t the only one suggesting intriguing parallels between what works for athletes and what works for busy professionals. Other founders and executives have written about the decision to dial back the length of their workweeks, while increasing the intensity of the work they do when they’re at their desks. While the gym metaphor is less explicit in these cases, the end result is similar to Yeh’s program -- a regime that any personal trainer would be proud of, combining variety, challenging bursts of high difficult activity, and few enough hours that the routine is sustainable over the long haul.

What other insights from the gym could apply to how we manage our workweeks?



Last updated: Oct 21, 2013

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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