6 tips to avoid burnout and stick to a 40 hour work week

To an outsider, working from home looks like endless easy days of working in your pajamas until 3pm. On the inside we know that “no pants til 3” is actually a result of getting sucked into a never-ending work vortex and failing to even find a minute to put on pants until 3pm. When you don’t have the ebb and flow of office cues, like coworkers leaving for lunch or closing up shop for the day, to give you social permission to wrap it up for the day. Pair that with cross-timezone coworkers, or teammates that sets their own hours to follow a less than traditional work week schedule, and you’ve got yourself a perfect map to 12-hour workdays leading straight to burnout town. If you’re not used to creating your own schedule and sticking to it, here are a few ways to keep yourself from making work your new life.

Eat a live frog

“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”
-Mark Twain

Don’t worry, Kermit. Not literally.

We all have that one task that sits on our to do list day after day, week after week, extending our work day. How does this one task extend the work day when we aren’t even touching it? Procrasti-projects and mosquito tasks.

Procrasti-projects are totally non-essential ventures that make you feel super productive while you do them, but are actually insidious time sucks designed to distract you from that live frog looming at the end of your list. The procrasti-project pixie whispers in your ear and inspires you to do things like re-organize your Trello board or “research” industry news (aka get trapped in a Medium vortex) when you actually need to start the first draft of your next blog post.

Mosquito tasks more essential than procrasti-projects but also more pesky. These are all the little, annoying tasks that come in from Slack pings, that inbox clear out procrasti-project, small asks from coworkers that make you feel super helpful, and ultimately can get squashed within seconds, but in swarms can draw you into an itchy mess for hours (too much with the pun?) When you have a live frog on your plate, the impetus is to take care of mosquito tasks as they come up, instead of tracking them separately to exterminate in bulk later.

Unlike normal procrastination, procasti-projects and mosquito tasks are actually work, so they do feel like you’re accomplishing something, but all they’re really doing is distracting you from that live frog you have to eat sometime this week. Try knocking this bad boy out first thing in the morning one day, before signing into Slack or email. You’ll get through the rest of your hit list more quickly when you’re not trying to stuff it with non-essentials.

“Forget” your charger

One of my favorite fail-safes from falling into the neverending work vortex came from Josh French, a former coworker of mine from Upworthy. Josh would charge his laptop overnight and head to a coffee shop, deliberately leaving his charger at home. A MacBook Pro battery lasts from 5–7 hours, a pretty solid chunk of time to work. He would leave the coffee shop when his battery died and head home. Even when you pick up the last couple hours when you return home to your charger, the separation in the day and location helps to reserve the final hours for tying up loose ends instead of getting whisked away into late evening hours by the momentum of the rest of your workday.

Take yourself for a walk

Not only does walking help us think and improve our creativity, but carving out a 30 minute to an hour chunk of time to walk will give you distance from your work and break up your day. Schedule your walk for mid-afternoon to get your juices going for a late workday productivity burst when you come back. You’ll do better work faster once you come back from your walk, and will find it easier to put a productivity button on the end of your day as a result.

Timebox

Timeboxing helps you break up the massive, overwhelming pile of work into easy, snackable pieces. The essence of time boxing is taking something you might have a week to do, breaking it up into smaller tasks, and then giving yourself an allotted amount of time, like 25 minutes or an hour, to execute that task (and no more). Giving yourself that set amount of time crushes perfectionist tendencies to overwork until oblivion, and the sense of pressure will heighten your execution focus.

If you’re the sort of person who thrives in extremes, the pomodoro technique is a famous timeboxing technique on steroids. Named after the super cute tomato-shaped kitchen timer by Francesco Cirillo, the pomodoro technique breaks tasks into 25 minute chunks. Here’s how it works:

  • Decide on the task to be done.
  • Set the pomodoro timer (traditionally to 25 minutes).
  • Work on the task until the timer rings. If a distraction pops into your head, write it down, but immediately get back on task.
  • After the timer rings, put a checkmark on a piece of paper.
  • If you have fewer than four checkmarks, take a short break (3–5 minutes), then go to step 1.
  • Else (i.e. after four pomodoros) take a longer break (15–30 minutes), reset your checkmark count to zero, then go to step 1.

How ever you decide to timebox, make sure to set an end time and stick to it once you have finished your final box. Turn off Slack, sign out of email, close all of your work related tabs. Trust you did good for the day. If you timeboxed, you probably did.

Location Hop

Similar to timeboxing, location hopping groups tasks by location to give yourself ample breaks, keep work manageable, and ensure you spend your time more efficiently. Take your todo list and break it into three 2–3 hour chunks. Depending on the magnitude of each task on your todo list, it may look like 1 task in each chunk, or three, or even five if you have a lot of mosquito tasks to take care of. Once you have set your task list for the day, set your locations.

You can start or end at home, but if you do, pick two other additional work places away from your home for the other two chunks. Coffee shops work well for creative tasks, libraries or other pin-drop quiet locations work for tasks that require focus, and any more private locations where you won’t be a huge annoyance for anyone would be well suited for your phone calls or meetings. Once you finish your group of tasks at one location, literally pick up and go to the next one. You’ll build in breaks, possibly take yourself for a walk, give yourself some distance from your work, break up your day, and timebox all in one. Joel Runyon calls this technique “Workstation Popcorn” and writes about it at length here.

Commit yourself

If you worry the never ending workday is starting to eat away at your sanity, commit yourself. Sign up for a class or event right at the end of the working day so you have no excuse but to close up shop and officially put a button on your day. It works best if the commitment is pre-paid for (not just a yoga class you’d like to catch one day), so when your coworker sends you a ping at 5:30 your time with that “quick question” you could oh-so-easily help with, there’s money on the line. Everyone understands “about to head to a class, but will get back to you first thing tomorrow!” No questions asked.

The truth is, your coworkers probably don’t even care if you have a class, or are signing off to walk the dog, or just go live your life because your work is done for the day. Working remotely, especially with coworkers in different timezones or on their own schedules, can cause the illusion that everyone is online and working all the time. More often than not, they are asking a question they expect the response to be asynchronous, when you are available, but it’s hard not to satisfy the urge of the Slack ping. The commitment is not to prove your coworker you have a reason not to be working right now, it’s for proving it to yourself.

You can also commit yourself to a date or night out with friends, but this is a bit riskier. It’s easier to break last minute plans with someone who’ll understand that “something came up at work.” You may end up hurting some friendships if you repeatedly bail last minute.

Conclusion:

If you’re an overachiever or a perfectionist, employing any one of these techniques may actually feel like you’re doing less work, or “cheating” at first. Doing more work in less time isn’t cheating. Remember: burnout is real. You’ll be doing your company way more a disservice if you leave after 6 months from overwork than you will by closing up shop at a normal end time. Managing your time and protecting yourself from getting overwhelmed will help you do better work for your company, and help your company retain a great team member longer.