Burning myself out by not following my own advice.
Near the end of my 10-year tenure at my last job, the company adopted a phrase that I said in passing a few times — “Quit doing stupid shit” — as a quarterly theme.
Was that a great phrase for the company to rally around? Probably not.
Most office workers do some amount of pointless busy work in their day (some more than others, perhaps), but saying that out loud can rub people the wrong way. No one wants to hear that their bosses think they’re doing stupid shit!
The phrasing wasn’t great, but the idea is a good one — doing time wasting, low value work isn’t fun and eliminating that work when possible is important.
Since leaving that job in January of 2021, I have reflected on the events that led me to the end of my time there. At the top of the list was intense burnout. After ten years of grinding to build the business, my brain and body needed a break, and they told me that by breaking down.
By the end of 2020, I was constantly sick, my cholesterol was through the roof, I was exhausted, and I was incapable of focusing on anything for more than a few minutes. I was diagnosed with two separate autoimmune diseases at the end of 2020. Both diseases are genetic and weren’t directly caused by the burnout; however, it is likely that the timing of the emergence of symptoms is directly related to the burnout I experienced.
What caused the burnout? Doing stupid shit, mostly.
I didn’t follow my own advice, even as I pushed for my team and the company to focus on what mattered most.
I did all kinds of things that didn’t need to be done and put pressure on myself to do more and more, even when I knew that the work I was doing wasn’t vital to the business.
Eventually, all the pressure from overcommitting and doing work that didn’t add value or move the business forward caught up with me.
Why didn’t I follow my own advice?
- Focusing is hard. Especially in a bootstrapped business when resources are extremely tight. There’s always something else to do, and only so many people to delegate to. I took on tasks to avoid burning my team out, and paid the price.
- Pushing back doesn’t come naturally to me. I like to help people. Other people realized that, and got into the habit of coming to me to solve things for them. I didn’t do a good enough job protecting my time, especially in the early years of the company. Over time that meant I owned lots of low value tasks unconnected to my core job, none of which could easily be delegated.
- I was too optimistic. I committed to deadlines because I believed we would find a way to get them done. I set outrageous deadlines, missed them because we were spread too thin to hit them, and then tried to push harder to make up for the missed deadlines. Setting unrealistic, unnecessary deadlines is the epitome of stupid shit. Disappointing people repeatedly hurts, and that cycle contributed to the downward spiral into burnout land.
- I was unhappy with the work. I love building new things — that’s the work that energizes me. As the company grew, teams began competing for resources, new product work became harder and more fraught. Building was no longer the primary focus of my role. Eventually, every change was difficult. The joy in the work went away and I tried to grind harder in response, despite the bad feelings.
What did I learn from burnout land?
- Focus is a company-wide effort. If you preach focus at an individual level, but everyone has a different focus, no one will focus on anything.
- Work towards clear, measurable outcomes. If you don’t, you will have no idea what work you’re doing matters, and which is worthless. If you don’t know where you’re trying to go, you won’t get there.
- Being a short-term pessimist has advantages. Optimism is necessary to succeed in the long term — big wins often come from big bets. In the short term, when it comes to delivery, being a pessimist gives you space to deal with unseen problems without blowing a deadline. Stay positive about the future, be pessimistic about what you can deliver in the short term.
- Loving your work can carry you through hard times, but you’re on thin ice. I worked long hours for years without feeling the pain, largely because the work was energizing. Once the work was no longer energizing, I was way overcommitted with a rapidly depleting gas tank.
As I move on to the next phase in my career, I’m hopeful I will be able to identify burnout-producing busy work more effectively, for myself and, more importantly, for my company.
Tune out the noise, focus on what matters, and measure the outcomes your work produces. Easy.