How to keep working when you feel burned out

I have a theory that there are (at least) 2 types of work. This theory has been stewing in my head for a few months, and I’ve recently tried putting it into effect. I think it works for me!

The first type is more commonly known and understood. I’ll call it exhale work. It’s when you put forth outward work, expelling energy and effort out from within yourself to some external thing. Hammering in a nail, speaking on a phone call, or typing up a report are all forms of this exhale work.

But often I’ll have times where I have a super productive 4 hours and get a lot done, but dang I need a break! Even after a 15 minute break or a 30 minute lunch, my brain is still sore.

So what do I do? I can’t just take the rest of the day off. That next report is due soon! It’s like I’ve just let out a very long breath and now I need to breath in!

The same can happen with creative work. You can only output so much before you need more input. And you can only breath in (read or watch shows) so much before you have to breath out again (write/create).

That creative analogy holds the key. I can’t have my output be writing fiction and my input is eating a sandwich (that had a very different output). Therefore I can’t expect to output research reports if my input is a YouTube video.

Now legitimate breaks have their time and place (hey man, I didn’t say the breathing metaphor was perfect). Sometimes you need to be not working at all (that’s why it’s the law to have two 15 minute breaks and one  30 minute lunch in a standard 8 hour work day), but I’m talking about something else. I’m talking about eating calories before you output physical effort. I’m talking about reading the minutes before planning the next meeting, I’m talking about casually reviewing your boss’s comments on your report before revising it.

I’m talking about inputting the raw data into myself, in a calm and stress-free fashion, with no thought of output but only thought of input. 

It’s the type of work that keeps you at the station, it uses less energy as you’re trying to recover, and it helps you keep your momentum, like jogging or walking for a few minutes when you are out on a long run.

You have to know the difference between inhale work, exhale work, a break, and a false progress activity.

The other day I thought I was doing a type of inhale work but was really doing a false progress activity. I was working on one report and didn’t want to use my brain, so I decided to just make tons of charts to “get started.” It took me hours. It turns out that when I make a conscious and strategic decision of how to present all of the data (what to not include at all, what to mention in a simple sentence, and what to put in a chart) that the work is harder mentally, but much shorter. I make real progress on outputting the report.

I have to make sure that my working breaks are motivated by exhaustion rather than laziness. When I try to be lazy, I waste time making fifty charts when I only needed ten. And if I needed some inhale work? I should have just read the unfiltered data and wrote the report later.

So, when you’ve been outputting a lot and you feel like you need to breath, the breath. Find what the intake when is for that task, and do it. If you need a break, take it. Trying to output all the time will kill you. You’ve got to breath in.

Now for me, and I am writing this at 11:16 at night, which is late for a dad. And I need a break break before I can exhale any more life.

Booyah!

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