Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Jeffrey Tang of The Art of Great Things.
“Do what you love.”
We’ve all heard this advice before. It’s great advice, though not many people truly take it to heart.
But sometimes doing what you love isn’t enough to keep you going. Inspiration, passion, and motivation are difficult things to hold on to. They always seem to slip away right when you need them most.
You know that feeling. Where you’re that close to finishing a project, or achieving a goal, or crossing a task off your to-do list … but you just can’t muster the energy. You’ve lost interest. You’re exhausted. Drained. And you don’t know why.
That’s burnout. It’s something many of us are all too familiar with. I’d like to share with you a few ways that I fight burnout – or prevent it from catching me in the first place.
1. Achieve in increments. When you only focus on a big goal someday, it’s easy to get burned out by the daily grind. It’s like driving toward a mountain in the distance. You can drive for hours, but the mountain doesn’t seem to get any closer. And spinning your wheels gets real tiring real fast.
The solution is to give yourself a way to measure and record every little step forward you take. Here’s how:
- Get a journal, notebook, or calendar. Writing things down is important.
- Identify milestones on the road towards your goal.If you’re writing a book, you could treat each chapter as one milestone. Or, even better, treat each 500 words or 1000 words as a milestone.
- If milestones aren’t obvious, create them. For example, if you’re training for a marathon, hold yourself to a progression of distance. If you start out running at your maximum distance, you’ll plateau very quickly. Instead, start at a shorter distance – even if it’s very easy for you – then work your way up slowly.
- Track milestones in a simple, visual format. Think of the progress bar on a download. One glance tells you exactly how much progress has been made. The format you choose doesn’t need to be detailed or comprehensive. It just needs to show that you’re moving forward day by day.
Learn to appreciate the little accomplishments. Let yourself enjoy the feeling of getting things done.
2. Train your muse. One of the biggest myths about inspiration that it’s random. One day you’re inspired and motivated, the next day you’re burned out – and there’s no way around it. Or so they say.
In fact, inspiration is just like any other skill. It may start out as unreliable, but it can be trained and developed into something you can rely on.
So how do you train your muse? The best way I’ve found is immersion. Surround yourself with things that inspire you and reflect your goals. Great composers listen to music. Great authors read voraciously. Great marketers attend seminars. Great productivity-ists subscribe to Zen Habits. And so on. Immersion trains your mind to work efficiently in the ways you need it to.
The more that your inspiration becomes a part of your life, the less likely it is to run out when you need it most. With that in mind, be creative. What ways can you connect with your inspiration on a daily basis?
3. Work less. Cut down on the amount of energy and time you spend working. If you have sick days or vacation days left, take advantage of them. Or, if you’re self-employed, force yourself to work fewer hours each day – even if that means turning down new projects.
Working less doesn’t mean you have to slack off or get less done. It does mean that you:
- Eliminate unnecessary tasks.
- Take strategic breaks.
- Stop multi-tasking.
- Seek help from other people.
4. Define success realistically. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having big dreams and big ambitions. But if you’re constantly frustrated by a lack of progress, it might be time to take a step back and examine your goals. Are they achievable? Are you holding yourself to a reasonable timeline?
Here’s a good way to do this. Get a piece of paper and write down your big, ambitious goal. Then write down at least 10 specific, concrete steps that will allow you to achieve that goal. Be as detailed as possible. If you can’t come up with a series of down-to-earth steps to get you from here to your dream, that’s a sign that you need to either redefine your goals or rethink the way you’re pursuing those goals.
5. Get more sleep. You’ve heard this before, I know. So have I. But that didn’t stop me from going against my better judgment and tiring myself out by staying up late to work. Getting enough sleep takes a conscious decision – and, just like any good habit, takes time to develop.
One of the biggest barriers for me in this area is procrastination. I have a tendency to put things off throughout the day, then stay up later as a result. What’s keeping you from getting the rest you need?
6. Take it slow(er). The world tells us to rush things: “Get there faster. Make money quicker. Retire sooner.” And while these things aren’t necessarily bad, they can easily get us in over our heads. If you’re feeling burned out and overwhelmed, it’s time to slow down.
A few ways to take yourself out of 24/7 high gear:
- Spend at least 10 minutes a day in a quiet place, away from distractions. Breathe.
- Put together a playlist of slow, relaxing music. Listen to it whenever you start feeling frazzled.
- Take a butcher knife to your to-do list. Set a limit to the number of tasks you take on each day and stick to it.
- Extend your deadlines. Do you absolutely, positively have to get this done now? Just remember – this isn’t an excuse to procrastinate.
7. Get a second opinion. It’s hard to spot burnout from the inside. Your close friends and family are likely to identify the signs of burnout long before you do. So listen to what they’re saying. The next time your spouse, parent, or best friend tells you you’re working too hard, take it seriously.
8. Set clear boundaries. Burnout happens when we allow work to overflow its boundaries and interfere with every other part of our lives. So set strong boundaries. The clearer the better. In writing, if possible.
For example, instead of saying: “I’ll spend at three hours every night with my family,” make it clearer: “I won’t work after 8 o’clock. That’s 100% family time.” Clear boundaries are easier to stick to and harder to rationalize away.
Once you’ve set up your boundaries, make them public. Let your family know that you’ve set aside time just for them. They’ll hold you accountable to your promises. Let your clients know that you’ll be unavailable during certain hours. This will reduce the temptation to fudge on your boundaries.
9. When you’re working, focus. I’ve found that concentrating on work is actually less exhausting than allowing yourself to be wishy-washy about it. When you decide that it’s time to work, buckle down, eliminate distractions, and do it wholeheartedly. There’s something amazingly refreshing about pure, sharp focus.
10. Create outlets. If you’re a person of diverse interests (and really, who isn’t?), it’s likely that you have several very different goals and ideas bouncing around in your head at any given time. These ideas need outlets. If you hold them inside, they’ll eventually start interfering with your focus and creating unnecessary frustration, leading to burnout.
In other words, I think it’s okay – healthy, even – to start a few side projects as outlets for creative energy. Just make sure that you keep your priorities straight and your side projects fun. If these side projects become sources of stress, cut them out immediately.
11. Know when to power through it. This is going to sound out of place given what I’ve said above, but it’s powerful – if applied correctly. Sometimes the solution for burnout is just to power through it. Sometimes burnout can be an illusion. In these cases, the best choice is to refuse to use burnout as an excuse, ignore the fact that you feel burned out, and just work through it. It’s like a runner gaining her second wind and coming out stronger on the other side.
However, just as an experienced athlete knows when to push through the pain and when to pull back, you’ll need to be very careful how you take this particular piece of advice. Until you develop a keen awareness of your own tendencies, it’s usually better to err on the side of caution and pull back when you start feeling burned out.
12. Never accept defeat. Burnout is an obstacle like any other. It can hold you back for a while, but it’s not the end of the world – unless you let it defeat you.
If you have a great goal in mind, don’t give up on it, no matter how apathetic, exhausted, or frustrated you might feel. If everything I’ve said up until this point fails, do this: hold on to your dream – even if it doesn’t feel like much of a dream at the moment. Hold on to it anyway. That way, when the storm clears, your dream will still be intact, ready for another try.