Thoughts on burnout

I think at the end of 2011, maybe even the last 6 months of the year – I may have been suffering from burnout. Bad diet, lack of exercise, lack of socializing and feeling cut off left me feeling pretty de-motivated and down. I just wasn’t motivated to do anything. I first thought I was just being lazy, or disorganized – but when I didn’t even want do the things I really enjoy such as soccer or golf I thought I should re-evaluate everything I’m doing. I only really realized this might be burnout in December, and hopefully it is something that can be fixed by a few life style changes.

Below are some of the things I’ve been trying to change and some of the things I think I need to work on in 2012. I think every body’s situation is different – so there is no right or wrong answer for things like this. If it works – great, if not – try something else.

Stop being so competitive
I’ve always been a really competitive person. I used to think this was a really good thing, but now I’m not so sure. I thought being competitive gave you the motivation to push yourself, but recently I’ve started to think differently about this.
As you will read about shortly, I’ve started riding my bike again getting in some decent rides over the Christmas period. But as soon as I’ve done a few rides I start thinking about competitive cycling again – time trials, road races – things I used to do when I was a teenager. Compare this to my next door neighbour who regularly rides 50 miles a day and simply loves cycling. He has no interest in doing time trials or competing against other people – he just loves the activity for what it is.
This competitiveness not only covers sport though. Being on Facebook, Twitter and sites like Hacker News – people generally only post about the good things they are up to. Startups they’ve just sold or a great holiday they have just been on. While it’s great to read these things sometimes, on a miserable grey Monday morning in December the last thing I want to read about is someone who has just arrived for 2 weeks in the Caribbean. This is part jealousy and part “Keeping up with the Jones’s” – but I feel as though by spending time on these other sites you can start wanting to live someone else’s life.
Also it is important to remember life is definitely not a race. Someone posted on Hacker News the other day about being 30 and not feeling as though they have accomplished anything!!! 30?! Give me a break – you’ve got many, many years ahead of you. The media reports on people like Mark Zuckerberg as though they are the norm…every 20 something should be having success like Facebook. But if you try to compare yourself to Zuckerberg you will be trying to live his life and not your own.

Take your time, focus on what makes you happy, and work on things that you find interesting.

Hard physical exercise – get outside
As mentioned above I have been getting out on my bike doing between 20-25 miles every other day. I’ve also entered the Reading half marathon which takes place in April. I don’t enjoy running as much as cycling, but a half marathon is something I want to do. The cycling is much more important – it gets me out of the house, into the fresh air, into nature and not thinking about work and computers. Over the past couple of bike rides:
1, I got lost for an hour and ended up walking 3 miles down a muddy bridal way seeing some pretty awesome country side
2, Nearly got knocked off by a bunch of deer – but was amazing seeing them all
3, Pushed myself to the limit climbing up some pretty big hills (big for me anyway!)

The good thing about going down country roads is there are quite a few potholes and so you need to concentrate all the time. This stops your mind wandering back to day to day crap and keeps you focused on the task – as Jonathon Fields mentioned in his book this is itself a type of meditation.

I’ve not really played any golf for 3 months which is strange. A long trip away, crappy weather and lack of motivation hasn’t helped. I feel I need to take the competitiveness away from my golf and just enjoy it for what it is. Also you get a long time inbetween each shot in golf, and I found earlier this year in the 5-10 mins between each shot I was thinking about work. This isn’t really what you want to happen when golf is supposed to be the thing that relaxes you. I am hoping a mixture of golf and cycling in 2012 will be ideal as golf is quite a social sport and cycling is really great exercise and takes my mind off things.

Work the patterns I want to
I tried to be a morning person, and it just wasn’t working for me. My girlfriend is a teacher and unfortunately this means her alarm goes off at 6:15am each day. For the past few months I’ve been trying to get up at the same time and work a normal day eg 9-5. As many of you who know me will testify I’ve tried some pretty weird sleep patterns before such as polyphasic sleeping. During doing this I always noticed that I got more work done during the hours of evening and nightime, and I was the same at University. I never made it into the library as it was always closed when I wanted to do work at 10pm at night!
I think I’m the same now. Rather than try and force myself to work normal 9-5 hours, I’m going to work when I’m motivated and this has generally meant starting around 7pm after dinner.

Tidy office
I think mess creates confusion, and for someone that suffers with probable ADD – any kind of distraction is not good. My office seems to constantly be a mess – and Sophie always laughs when she asks what I’m going to be doing today and I say cleaning my office 🙂 But when you work from home you end up with papers, books, notes etc all over the place and trying to keep it in order is a job within itself. But when the office is tidier I think my mind definitely seems clearer and I feel I can concentrate more. I’m trying to move stuff out of the office to make it more minimal.

Plants – green stuff! I bought a couple of plants to put around the office. So far so good – I can’t say they’ve made a massive difference, but at least they take up space on my desk that can’t be taken up by notes and rubbish as noted above!

Seek feedback
When I started working on sites and product ideas many years ago I’d be telling anyone who’d listen how great they were going to be and what they’d do. Obviously not everything turns out to be a roaring success – but revealing ideas early gives people the chance to try your things out and give you feedback (both good and bad). There is nothing more motivating than getting feedback – and if you leave your release cycle too long and work away on things in solitude it can become easy to become very introverted about what you do. Get things out there, get feedback and ideas from your friends and colleagues.

For more on this take a look at another blog post I wrote recently:
Keeping projects and goals public or private

Just because the Internet has allowed us to work from home and in solitude doesn’t mean we have to be lonely when working on stuff – get your ideas out there and get talking to people about them.

Work on a quick side project
Related to the above – sometimes we do find ourselves working on a large part of a project which can’t be revealed to others yet (should this be broken down into smaller chunks?). Or maybe you are just bored of something right now. So work on a quick side project – build something that will take 2-3 days (a weekend) and put it out there. Shout about it publicly, get some ideas and feedback from people – and then either dump it or perhaps take it forward in some more spare time. So many times I did this in the past where I chose a project which enabled me to learn some new tech – and then we ended up building that or using it in one of our core products.

Thanks Gabriel Weinberg for this one.

Get out and meet people
Well I’ve been getting out of the house more since getting back on my bike, but I’ve not been so good on the people side of things. For the past few months I’ve been trying to find events and networking things going on that I’d be interested in. Living in Reading and being so close to London certainly gives plenty of options – but I have developed a really bad habit of signing up to things with the full intention of going, but when it came time to leave the house and attend the event I’d rather jump into bed and sleep or hide in my office.
I’m going to make a real effort in 2012 to do something once a week whether it’s dinner with a friend or a presentation/networking events. I’m hoping as exercise and other work practices kick in my motivation to get out and attend these events will increase.

SAD syndrome
I do kind of remember feeling similar in previous Autumns and Winters. This might be ‘old wives tales’ but my two sisters who I caught up with on Christmas day are/were nurses and mentioned about people born in the Winter months (apparently called Winter babies) are susceptible to feeling down in Autumn and Winter. As the days are shorter, weather is crappy and skies are grey I’d have thought this would affect anybody no matter what month you were born in, but apparently if you are a Winter baby you are more likely to be affected. The answer provided was one of those blue light devices to get over SAD. I’m thinking more about moving to Spain for 4-5 months of every year – but if you own one of those blue light things and they’ve worked for you please let me know.

Lots of notes, thoughts and hypothesis there. A lot more than I was intending to write so if you have got this far thanks for staying with it.

Has anybody else had similar issues, and tried things I’ve described above? What are your tips for dealing with burnout? Or do you think burnout is something made up by people just being lazy? Interested in all opinions and views.

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