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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Picking the right philosophy to solve your problems

I find that we humans sometimes become obsessed with philosophies that we think will help us overcome our flaws or that are the opposite of our weaknesses. We find the exact opposite of our reality and repeat it like a mantra. Sometimes, this works!

But have you ever found yourself repeating a mantra that doesn’t work? The problem persists? More often than not, we pick philosophies that only sound like the solution, but in actual practice they don’t work.

Sometimes you just have to keep striving and the philosophy will help you. Just because something takes a while to work doesn’t mean it’s wrong. But, sometimes you’re backing the wrong horse. Sometimes you’re trying a philosophy that really won’t help you.

I’ll use myself as an example. For years I felt powerless over certain weaknesses and habits and I sought a way to overcome them. Many talk about how you should “man up!” or “just do it!” or “pick yourself up by your bootstraps!” (a physical impossibility, you need something to push off of to pick yourself up, all you’ll do is tighten your boots if you follow that advice!). They say that by throwing agency and willpower at problems that you can conquer anything! You can be anything that you want! Like in the poem below. I once had it memorized and repeated it thousands of time. Hoping that it would give me strength:

Invictus
by William E. Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may
for my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance,
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.

Sounds awesome right? Sounds epic? How many memes and songs are out there today that are all about “Look at the awesomeness of me! I can do anything!”

Well, the poem didn’t fix me. I fell prey to the same weaknesses over and over again. Anger. Selfishness. A desire to consume entertainment and mental stimulation to excess. I was powerless to break my habits.

Thomas S. Monson (one of my Church’s leaders) said: “It is a great poem. It places upon the individual the responsibility for what he does with his life… But on the other hand, it may sound arrogant and conceited in terms of the Atonement.”

I learned over time that I couldn’t overcome my flaws by agency alone. That poem didn’t give me power. Why not? Why couldn’t I “man” myself out of my weaknesses? After some new understanding, I found this other poem which was written as a response to Invictus:

The Soul’s Captain
by Orson F. Whitney

Art thou in truth the master of thy fate?
The captain of thy soul?
Then what of him
who bought thee with his blood?
Who plunged into devouring seas
and snatched thee from the raging flood?

Who bore for all our fallen race
what none but him could bear–
the God who died that man might live,
and endless glory share?

Of what avail thy vaunted strength,
Apart from his vast might?
Pray that his Light
may pierce the gloom,
that thou might see aright.

Men are as bubbles on the wave,
as leaves upon the tree,
O’ captain of thy soul, explain!
Who gave that place to thee?

Free will is thine–free agency,
To wield for right or wrong;
But thou must answer unto him
To whom all souls belong.

Bend to the dust thy head “unbowed,”
small part of Life’s great whole!
And see in him, and him alone,
The Captain of thy soul.

Whether you are religious or not, the example works. Both poems are used as a solution to a flaw: feeling powerless to overcome weakness. One says grit your teeth and be tough, the other says use your agency to rely on something more powerful than yourself. You need someone/something to help lift you.

I had felt powerless that I chanted “I’m powerful!” a thousand times. But now I know that I am powerless. And only through the surrender of my will and my life to God do I find power.

Now, by switching philosophies, I have made much more progress with my flaws. I’m not perfect, and don’t expect to be anytime soon. But when I encounter a weakness, I surrender the battle with it to God. I bend with the wind, letting it pass over me, letting God take care of it. And the wind doesn’t break me nearly as often.

Not my will. His will. Not my glory. His glory. Not my battle. His battle. Let go and let God.

There are others that I see chanting their mantras such as miserable people who say “Do only what makes you happy and you alone.”

Those who have hurt others that say “If it’s in the past it doesn’t matter, accept what everyone does, have no expectations” and say nothing of the need for repentance, forgiveness, and restitution for harm done.

Those who are promiscuous and say “This lifestyle makes me happy” yet end up wondering why they are so sad and lonely.

Likely the greatest and the most harmful is the modern philosophy: “To follow your impulses with no restraint is freedom” and those who repeat that often learn too late that following impulses alone with no control leads to a life of slavery to addiction and to habit, with no friends or loved ones, broken and weak. Lonely and alone.

If you take a hard look at yourself, past the lies you tell yourself, you might find that the mantra or philosophy you keep repeating isn’t yielding the results you want. You might see that you need to double your efforts and persevere, you might see that you misunderstand the philosophy you are repeating, or you might see that you are trying to implement a philosophy that just won’t work. The philosophy is either a lie, or a half-truth.

Good luck! Keep trying, or give it up!

Booyah.

Just keep reading

Although this is the second entry in my “just keep… “ series, this may be the first rule you should keep and the first rule you have probably kept.

(There are people who don’t read much who decide to write novels, maybe because they love TV or video games, but if you don’t have a passion to consume the art form you’re trying to create, I don’t think you’ll be very good.)

One of the most important reasons to just keep reading is to learn through osmosis. Passive consumption works as a form of unconscious learning. You begin to absorb the rhythms of story and prose from the writers that you read. Things begin to get embedded into your instincts and intuition that will come out in your writing. (One reason it’s important to read good fiction.)

You can also do what I call “active reading.” This is when you read fiction with a more critical eye, focusing to recognize the patterns on the page, sitting and analyzing a phrase that had a particularly strong effect on you and to trying to understand why it had that effect. If you come to learn why and how, you will then be able to use those tools and components in your own storytelling.

I find that it is very helpful to look back at a story that I’ve read and analyze it. What made me care? What made me feel? How did the writer achieve  getting me through that emotional journey? What worked for me? What didn’t? And, perhaps most importantly, what almost or only partially worked and why or why didn’t it?

As I ponder these things (and write them down), I am more and more able to use the things I’ve learned from my reading in my own writing. I let the fiction I read fill me until I just burst.

I won’t give you a random number of books a year or pages or hours a day, just that you should do it consistently.

Go forth and fill your mind with awesomeness!

Booyah.

Why “just keep writing” is the best writing advice ever

The most common writing advice I’ve heard is to “just keep writing.” When I was very new to writing I thought that such advice told me nothing. I had a million questions about writing, so why was that what I heard the most? Just keep trying? Just keep writing?

The key is that practice makes… better. The more you attempt a certain goal, the more able you become at achieving it. Each time you fail and try again, you get better. It took me years of trying and failing to build enough self control to get to the point where I was writing every single day. Not writing well, just writing at all. I wasn’t ready for more answers before then.

The natural man doesn’t have the drive to “just keep writing,” he looks for every excuse not to write. Every failure is actually a success, for each time you fail at writing consistently, you had also tried again. So keep trying, keep failing, and watch the failures become more and more spaced out. The days where I didn’t have the drive to write became further and further apart (habit tracking apps are great for helping with this).

5 years ago I would  have never dreamed that I’d be willing to wake at 5:00 AM every single day (including weekends) to write for 2 hours to meet my writing goal.

It’s what transitions you from someone who wants to write to a real writer. Wannabes talk or complain about writing. Real writers, well, they actually write. Once you have mastered the principle of “just keep writing” and you have a consistent writing habit, then you will start to discover your own answers to your other writing questions.

The next piece of advice I would offer is to “Just keep studying the craft.” you don’t have to wait ’til you master  “just keep writing” to start working on this skill, but “just keep writing” is more important. I’ll talk about studying craft in a future blog post.

So, here is you first and most important piece of advice:

Just keep writing!

What that really means is “if you fail, try again. This rule does not change.  No matter the number of failures.”

Booyah!

 

How to overcome getting overwhelmed and work efficiently

I sometimes have a problem with getting overwhelmed and feeling anxious about all that I have to do. Over time, I’ve come up with these ludicrously simple (and ludicrously difficult for someone who has a hard time focusing) rules and tools.

Here are my rules of efficiency:

1: Focus on one task at a time

Focus on one task at a time, work on it for at least 30 minutes (use a timer, it helps) or when you need someone else’s input, then make the contact (in person, set up a meeting, make a call, or send an email).

2: Focus on a task for at least fifteen minutes to get momentum

I find that if I focus on one task for at least fifteen minutes, I get into the groove and the rest of the time comes much easier.

3: List all projects and subtasks, put aside and focus

List all projects and sub-tasks needed to get those projects done. Put this list aside when focusing on 1 task (this helps keep you from feeling confused and overwhelmed because you won’t have to remember it all, there is a list!).

4: Multiply expected time by 2 or 3

Assume that everything will take 2-3 times as long as your first impression. Don’t commit the planning fallacy!

5: Listen to non-distracting music

Listen to wordless, calm music like this meditation track (it must be music that will help drown out distractions but won’t be a distraction itself).

5: Wait to check texts or emails

Do not check texts or emails until you are between tasks.

6: Take breaks

Take short breaks (5-10 minutes) every hour or two and long breaks (15-30 minutes) every three or four  hours.

7: Spend 5 minutes pre-task getting pumped up

Spend 5 minutes before each working session to plan, visualize, brainstorm, understand and get pumped up for what you are going to work on next, write this in a paragraph or two on paper. It helps you to get in the mindset.  (Thanks to Rachel Aaron for this glorious tip!

8: Be patient with yourself

Some days you can’t do it all. Forgive yourself. You’ll have to shorten your list and simplify your life as you go along. But if you stress about everything you have to do, the guilt will make you explode!

There you go! Quit lying to yourself about your ability to multitask. You can’t. Become a monotasker (someone who can actually focus). Quit stressing out about all that you have to do, and do one thing at a time. You’ll get a lot more done.

You can do it!

Booyah!

-Thomas

Note: Article Updated Mon Dec 5 2016