When I was a kid I thought burnout was something you did by slamming on the bicycles pedals to squeal the tires. When I started driving a car, I thought burnout was what the cool kids did by revving the engine, popping the clutch and putting tire marks on the pavement. (Full disclosure: I wasn’t cool and I’ve never actually put tire marks on the pavement.)
Real burnout – the stuff adults and doctors talk about – will make you miserable. I learned this the hard way.
When I was leading a team of 200 people, the term “burnout” never entered my mind. I thought the stress, the long days and 7-day work weeks were just part of life during the “crazy season.” The cycle repeated itself for a few years: work like a mad man, hit key financials for the big quarter, and then crash during a week of vacation.
Like clockwork, I would get incredibly sick two days into vacation. Once we were visiting my wife’s family when the sickness hit me. I knew it was bad when one night my mother-in-law, who is an ER nurse, gave me an ultimatum: if my fever and other symptoms did not improve by morning I was heading to the hospital.
The sickness was only one symptom of a bigger problem. Burnout was eroding every other area of life. I was ineffective as a leader, my relationships were suffering, and I was constantly on edge.
The warning signs were all there, but I was choosing to ignore them. It took a legitimate threat for me to realize burnout was about to cost me more than I could pay.
The sad part is it didn’t have to be this way. If I could have a do-over this is what would be different:
In the crazy season everyone who had my phone number had access to me. I was on call every hour of every day. (I really did get the 2 AM phone calls!)
In the do-over I would make sure every vendor, every team member and every customer knew who to call as their primary point of contact. If I needed to be involved it would be the last step, not the first step, in the process.
The do-over would have processes in place to prevent an issue at 2 AM. Stuff happens at all hours of the day. When it does there needs to be an action plan to deal with it.
Margin is life’s shock absorbers. It is the space that provides reaction time for unexpected events.
In his book Triggers, Marshall Goldsmith talks about “the high probability of the improbable.” Because so many events are improbably we don’t plan for them. However, the probability that an improbable event will occur is very high.
For example, it is highly improbable that I will:
However it is highly probable that something will prevent me from being on time for an early morning meeting.
Creating margin allows time to deal with these incidental events by assuming you will need time to handle that something.
In my do-over I would not schedule everything so tightly. Hour long meetings would be scheduled for 50 minutes. I would give myself 20 minutes to arrive at a meeting 15 minutes away. I would say “No” to a lot of (distracting) “opportunities.”
Leaders know it’s how important it is to bring their mental A-game every day. My younger-me thought that meant all I could think about was the business all the time. Not true.
In my do-over I would spend more time reading, learning a craft, or listening to powerful interviews. With the availability of podcasts and on-demand radio I would immerse my mind in non-work related topics as often as possible. I would use my commute, TV time, and time I spent cleaning the apartment listening to great, mind-refreshing content.
Top performers know that they must have down time to recover. Athletes cycle through their routines to allow the body to rebuild. Startup leaders will take weeks off between major projects. Even the busiest executive takes periodic vacations.
When I was in the worst phase of burnout I felt as if I couldn’t afford to take down time; I was afraid the new business would falter if I wasn’t neck deep in it every day. Wrong again.
Counter to my thinking, the lack of down time made me a worse leader. Fatigue and mental exhaustion resulted in lousy communication, terrible interactions with my team, and poor execution.
In my do-over I would commit to time away from the office and protect it. During the busiest seasons I would use an out-of-office Email responder for my days off. My voice mail would tell the caller when I will be back in the office to return their call.
It took a major crisis for me to recognize the damaging effects of burnout. Don’t make the same mistakes I did because life doesn’t give you a do-over. Whether you’re in the throws of burnout or feeling on top of the world, recognize the signs of burnout and take action today to avoid it.
How do you avoid burnout? I’d love to hear your thoughts – join the conversion on Twitter!