Preventing Burnout and Defining Productive Downtime
How I Burned Out
I can describe myself as an ambitious person. In my late teens, after being repulsed by the corruption and knowledge-deprivation in the local Bulgarian design field, I had decided that I want to become a good, knowledgable and well-paid designer by myself. I dropped out of uni, and I left most of my hobbies behind and focused solely on work. I was on the path of greatness in my head, and the only substitute was the “good” old hustle culture. For more than four years, I worked long hours, believing that this is the way to grow. I was solely consuming design-related information - books, films and podcasts. This is what I thought I had to do to become someone in my field of work.
I was rejecting most of my hobbies that brought me joy but “felt” unproductive - especially when the topic of video games was brought up. I purposefully tried to brainwash myself that I disliked games and the culture around it and that what’s been in the past is not who I am now, which of course, was false. I grew around Sega’s, PCs and gaming events. With this out of the way, I informed the image that I was on the right path, and there’s no other way to become a better professional.
The combination of working long, underpaid hours, being deprived of positive downtime and limiting my source of information solely to one topic was a destined failure from the beginning. The end result was that I started to hate my job. I couldn’t look, listen and even think about design without getting extraordinarily anxious and thrown off. I had to force myself to work because I had rent to pay, but in the end, it felt unbearable. Looking back, the decisions I made seem irrational, childish and shortsighted. Still, such actions are taken by many of my peers due to the pressuring construct of “staying productive”. While I was slowly rebuilding myself and my relationship towards design, I had to find my answer of where and how to prevent myself from going into burnout again and how I can implement “productive downtime”.With all the research done in the previous month, I came up with a conclusion that fits my case and hopefully, it would help out with yours.
Changing work patterns
A crucial fix to burnout is changing our work patterns. Allowing yourself to work less or to take more breaks is a very effective tactic. When possible, avoiding overtime work always helps. If your job allows you more “flexible” working hours, like was the case back in my day, allow yourself to rest more often. My workday became 10 hours, rather than 8, but thanks to all the rests I was taking, slowly I managed to bounce back and organise myself better
Develop coping skills
Learning how to manage your time better is an effective way to deal with burnout. There are many methodologies - SMART goals, The Eisenhower Matrix, Kanban, Deep Work, Pomodoro etc. with related courses and books that could increase your productivity, allowing you to have more free time on your hands. Cognitive restructuring proved an effective process to identify and dispute irrational thoughts, leading to burnout and other low moods.
Implementing Relaxation Strategies
Relaxing is a skill that most of us are not utilising. These strategies cover a vast field of relaxation methods - from active forms of relaxation like yoga, tai chi, hikes, walks in nature and breathing techniques to various meditative practices like mindfulness meditation, metta meditation and prayer. I made a project a while back that lists helpful resources on the topic of mindfulness and meditation. You can check it out here:
Developing better self-understanding
Any sort of self-analysis would help. In my case, it has the habit to write a daily diary log in which I retrospectively go through my day. On top of that, I’ve visited a psychologist for the past month, which is a great helper. I can’t emphasise enough the importance of having a good therapist in your life.
With all of these prevention methods at hand, I’m confident we can see the main takeaway - we have to know ourselves well to keep ourselves protected. Having a clear and effective structure in our life is crucial for our well-being. Having healthy habits will probably prevent us from experiencing low moods in the future, and if we ever get in a rut, we’ll probably get out through a well-organised structure.
Paul Cezanne - Boy Resting (1880)
Defining Productive Downtime
The big breakthrough in defining what Productive Downtime meant was when I decided to strip myself of all the judgements and biases I had towards what’s productive and whatnot, but rather to seek and weigh in what’s positive in the actions I was taking and how significant was their impact. I ended up with four main categories in which I categorised what’s productive and not so effective. I listed out all my hobbies and activities I do in my free time. Later I split up a sheet of paper into four quadrants and listed my hobbies in their corresponding categories.
My modified Eisenhower Matrix
Once that was done, I stopped for a moment and pondered on what was written. With all of my hobbies listed and filtered, I thought about what I’m spending time on, what I feel I should focus on a bit more, and what I haven’t willingly done in a while.
The process of listing, categorising, and evaluating the actions I do in my free time helped me understand where and on what am I spending my time and how this reflects my day-to-day life. The first time I did this, I decided to build a gym in my basement and do at least 4 weighted workouts a week. While my gaming life “suffered”, I haven’t had back pain in almost 6 months, I’ve gained a tremendous amount of strength, and I’m gaining some confidence since I’ve started to build a physique that I’m content with.
The second time I did this exercise, I concluded that I need to better understand my emotions since I’m very anxious. Then I decided to journal daily, allowing me to have a daily-log in which I could potentially track down and analyse myself and what I feel from a different perspective.
At its core, burnout prevention is good self-management. Managing our health, time and work through various techniques assures our productivity, a sense of self-worth and possibly more enjoyment in the work we do for the long run. Having a delicate balance between our job and our hobbies is crucial, and overdoing in each of both fields could potentially lead to stagnation. With this, the three-piece saga of Overproductivity, Burnout and Preventing Burnout end. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences on this topic, so I’ll leave these questions here, hopefully sparking a discussion with all of you
The songs of the blackbirds greeting spring
“Inside Jeff Bezos’s failed attempt to make Amazon ‘cool’ like Apple and Nike”
The work my friend Denislav Jeliazkov puts in UILearn
The vast amount of free learning resources on the internet
Remote work and the possibilities it opens up for a major part of our world
The development of the world of medicine. The current global situation would’ve looked grimmer if this happened just 50 years ago
Let’s get a discussion going!
Is there anything you’d like to read about next? Do you need any help with something? Reply to this email and let me know - I want to shape this newsletter around our mutual interests.
If you enjoyed this issue and found it valuable, please share it with at least one person.