Dodging Burnout, 4 Hours at a Time

J. Paul Reed
5 min readMar 31, 2015

I’ve encountered a disturbing trend recently: an increasing number of friends and colleagues talking about burnout.

To be sure, burnout has been on many a mind since John Willis’ revealing, personal, and quite moving post on Karōjisatsu.

But the conversations I’ve been having are different. They’re not exchanging analysis or commentary or discussing solutions. These conversations are personal.

And they’re worrying me.

At the heart of John’s post is his offer of assistance, one quickly echoed by others. As a community of practitioners, it’s both heartwarming and re-energizing to see us scrambling to solve this problem, offering up Twitter handles, emails addresses, and phone numbers to each out to in the dark hours.

But those solutions are aimed squarely at the back-end of the problem. They’re also hard to scale and they hinge on the right person making themselves available via a medium the person seeking help feels comfortable using. It’s 1-to-1, and while as a community (and an industry), we’re consistently marching toward decentralized solutions, there are a lot of hurdles.

While critically important as a tool to help, these solutions also don’t directly address the path to burnout. They don’t tackle the systemic problems within both startups and larger organizations that lead to burnout. They gloss over the patterned behaviors of sociopathic (or even merely incompetent) managers.

While ruminating over this problem with Mary, we ended up discussing a technique I’ve been experimenting with in the last year: the 4-Hour Decompress.

The 4-Hour Decompress is so stupidly simple that some history on how I stumbled upon it may be useful: back in 2013, I had just finished my first year of running my new consultancy. While I was happy I’d made it, I was also scared what the next year held; I hadn’t really made many plans for what that year might or even could look like.

So, like many management teams, I took a business retreat up the Californian coast. By myself. For 6 days. The goal was to unwind, but I also tasked myself with coming up with a more formal business plan and deciding on some focus and investment areas for the year.

It took a few days to properly unwind, disconnect from email, Twitter, and my phone, but it was worth it. It led to moments like this:

It also led to a business plan and some professional focus areas for the next year that directed some important “pivots” and led to, dare I say, successes. But probably most importantly, it left me with a serious sense of long-term perspective and a well of energy to tap into to start working on these new projects.

Upon returning home, I realized how necessary this retreat had been. I needed to find a way to re-create an environment that extricated myself from the day-to-day grind, provide that much-needed perspective, and work on this type of “higher altitude” planning, research, and learning. But I couldn’t drive up the coast every time I needed to it. I needed to find a way to do it within San Francisco proper.

Thus the 4-Hour Decompress was born.

The 4-Hour Decompress isn’t rocket science. But it is nuanced. There are four major components:

  1. Location: You need to go some place meaningful to you. This could be a coffee shop, a park, the library, the top of a mountain, a hiking trail, the apartment complex pool, whatever. It needs to have space for you to sit and spread out with your (note)books. I like to switch the location up every few Decompresses.
  2. First hour: deliberated disconnection. This may take the form of catching up on your RSS feeds, grabbing your favorite caffeinated drink and setting up your coffee house perch, responding to those last few emails so you can turn off your email client, closing down those in-progress Twitter-conversations, whatever. The point here is to set things up so you can confidently ignore everything for the next three hours. When you’re ready, TweetDeck, Facebook, email clients go off, phone to do-not-disturb.
  3. Hours two and three: stimuli. Now that you’re disconnected from the world, you can let your mind wander, but in a structured way via some activity. This may sound hand-wavy, but what I mean is: pick an activity you’ve been wanting to do, but haven’t had time for. For me, sometimes it’s digging into a book (usually related to my professional life). Sometimes it’s learning a new framework or language. Sometimes it’s going over business paperwork/plans I wrote up previously and seeing how I’m tracking. Sometimes, it’s researching a topic I want to know more about. The carved out time allows me the space to get into flow, but I usually plan for two unrelated activities, say reading a chosen and looking at business paperwork. The point of two is to create synthesis, and allow my brain to explore things in new and weird ways, making connections I wouldn’t have made if I were engaged with them in the context of the daily rat race. Ultimately, the goal is to wander through some unconstructed brain-space leisurely… but in a way that’s guided by a mission and grounded in a purpose. It might be a weird analogy, but you know people who always say they solve that nasty software bug or come up with some great lightning talk idea in the shower? This is like that, except with less water and more time.
  4. Hour four: reflect, record, and reconnect. This is the part of the 4-Hour Decompress that not only ties it all together, but actually makes it more than just “hey, let’s screw around for 4 hours.” Take the last hour to reflect on where you wandered in the previous two hours, and write down what came to you. It could be a list of tasks you want to tackle in the office later, someone you want to speak to or email with questions, or even cards to put on your personal kanban board. It might even be a random list of ideas to explore on the next 4-Hour Decompress. When you’re done writing these up in your Moleskine or OneNote or whatever works for you, take a moment to deliberately reconnect to the world again. Since the point of this is to get away from the pressure cooker and stress that is the daily grind, you want to re-acclimate to it again: you wouldn’t dive into a hot tub, right? If I’m in a coffeeshop, then I’ll have another espresso before leaving. If I’m at the library, I might pack up my gear and people-watch for 10 minutes. If I’m at a park, I might take a catnap in the sun. Whatever helps you merge back into hectic daily life.

And that’s it!

Of course, like meditation, it’s easier described than done. The first few times I did it, the middle 2 hours were hard to not run back to Twitter or email.

And besides: how does this help with burnout, you ask? And how, exactly, can you go about implementing it in your hectic #opslife?

We’ll explore that on Friday.



J. Paul Reed

Resilience Engineering, human factors, software delivery, and incidents insights; Principal at Spective Coherence: What Will We Discover Together?