Trying to prevent or recover from burnout? You're likely focused primarily-- if not exclusively-- on what happens while you're working. Yet, what you do after work to recover for the next day and the rhythm of your work is just as important for sustaining your pace and performance.
Few take an intentional approach to recovering in their off-hours. This is fine if your workdays aren't rushed, stressful, and demanding, but if they are, you need to be strategic about your recovery.
To perform your best at work, you need to start the workday with a full tank of physical, emotional, and mental resources. The consequences of working with diminished resources are significant, including reduced performance and increased likelihood of burnout.
The time it takes you to drain your internal resources to the point of distress is what I call your burnout cycle. At that point, you don't have the internal resources to manage the stressors you face. The three most common burnout cycles are daily, weekly, and project. Each has a different cause and, as a result, different solutions:
Daily Burnout Cycle
If you're in the daily burnout cycle, you completely drain your resources each day before you're done with work. This creates problems for your work and personal life. The work you do at the end of the day will likely take longer and be lower quality than work done when you're first at the office. When you arrive home, you have so little energy that you find it difficult to do anything but collapse in front of the TV.
If you are experiencing the daily burnout cycle, the way out is building intentional rhythm into your workday. As an example, it may seem effective to keep Friday as a meeting-free day, but it might be causing the other four days to be so rushed and filled with people that you leave them on empty. If this sounds like you, you likely need to mix your meeting-free time throughout the week.
By scheduling your day out each morning or preceding evening, you can intentionally mix your days with motivating and mundane tasks, individual and collective work, emotionally engaging and cerebral work. The goal is to find a rhythm that enables you to recharge throughout the day.
Weekly Burnout Cycle
In the weekly burnout cycle, you're resources drain to empty over the course of the workweek rather than each workday. You're able to make it through most weekdays with some energy to devote to your personal life, but as the week goes on, you finish each day with less and less energy, focus, and willpower. By the time you hit Friday afternoon, you can do little but head to the office kitchen for a 3pm happy hour. The weekends become essential refueling time. If they end up being exhausting, you have little chance of having a good week because you're starting the week so depleted.
The way to avoid finding yourself completely empty by Friday is to schedule specific recovery experiences during your off-hours. Set aside time for these three effective recovery experiences at night and in the morning: psychological detachment (i.e., not thinking about work), relaxation (e.g., sipping a warm drink), and mastery experiences (e.g., running a mile in under six minutes). Psychological detachment is particularly important if you feel mentally or emotionally drained, while relaxation helps refuel physical energy and mastery experiences restore your will.
Project Burnout Cycle
Project burnout happens when you drain your resources over the course of completing a piece of work. Your passion for the work generally erodes as the project progresses, causing you to ask, "When will this end?" When it finally does, you do what you can to take significant time off.
To avoid the project burnout cycle, you need to create rhythms in project intensity. While in consulting, I would find myself very busy leading into a client meeting and then with a lull right after. As long as significant client meetings happened monthly or less, the project was very manageable. Project burnout set in when-- as was often the case with our peers working on private equity due diligence cases-- serious client meetings were scheduled too frequently. Project burnout can also happen when too many deadlines are set too closely together.
Your goal should be to start work each day with a full tank of resources and leave work with enough resources to be present and engaged at home. If that is not happening right now, start by identifying your normal burnout cycle(s). In doing so, you'll shed light on the patterns that are draining you too abruptly. Then, you can work toward finding a pace and rhythm of both work and recovery experiences that make burnout a rare occurrence.