When you run your own business, it’s common to bite off far more than you can chew. The work is hard yet well-loved, and you’re never really off the clock. We love to hustle and grind, hit our goals and have that wonderful feeling of productivity.
And the worst thing that can happen to your productivity is the feeling that you’re overextended or burned out. Why? Because a tomato-shaped timer and a stack of post-it notes cannot win over the pervasive bleah of burnout.
I’ve learned to hoard my eagerness, energy and good intentions likea dragon hoards a pile of gold. I have become super selective about what I take on, and what I allow to stress me out.
Because I get stressed out sometimes, believe it, but what gets that kind of power is my choice, my decision.
Choices and Decisions
The average person makes thousands of decisions every single day. Did you know that your brain can actually tire of making choices? It called decision fatigue and it happens all the time. It can hit me as early as late afternoon, but on a good day I can almost make it to bedtime!
But either way, choices become harder to make as the day goes on. It’s not only our decision quality that declines throughout the day, but our discipline, willpower, and self-control suffer as well.
This is not good news. Running your own business successfully depends on making good choices. When you’re inundated with important decisions, it’s a good strategy to try to clear away the unimportant ones.
One good way to do that is by giving your self some helpful habits. Art director Matilda Kahl wears the same outfit to work every day, so she didn’t have to fret about what to wear. She says it’s like setting up a bill for auto-pay, that it feels good to have one less thing to worry about.
Here’s a good symptom of decision fatigue that can show up at dinner time. You’ve had a long day – maybe a great day, a super duper productive day. Even if you’re happy, it was still a long day full of decisions. You find yourself incapable of choosing a healthy dinner. So you order a pizza. Or grab takeout.
Listen, we’ve all been there.
We’re tired. Burnt out. We don’t care anymore. Just give us whatever.
This lady feels my pain.
A Tale from the Front Lines
I remember once, back in my Fortune 100 career, coming home from a long day of being a project manager and all that that meant. I wandered into the house, a little shell-shocked from my exhausting day of mental gymnastics. My husband asked me what’s for dinner. It was a fair question; I loved to cook, and unwinding in my kitchen as I puttered around making things smell good was a favorite de-stress technique of mine.
But that day, he asked me what was for dinner, and I burst into tears. I hadn’t thought about dinner yet, and the idea of thinking about it right then, with zero functioning brain cells left, and my decision-making tank empty, was too much.
It turns out that crying in the kitchen after being asked a simple question is a good indicator of…. c’mon, say it with me… b-u-r-n-o-u-t.
Meal planning was the answer for me. Instead of having my outfits figured out, like Matilda – I figured out a schedule for family meals. Having the “what’s for dinner?” conversation every night was a hard No.
An Important Distinction
There’s a difference between the exhaustion of a long workday and the perpetual fatigue of burnout.
Burnout is a total loss of motivation and energy with no sign of relief. More than just increased stress, burnout causes overwhelming exhaustion and feelings of cynicism and detachment.
And while burnout used to refer to refer to the extremes dealt with by cops, firefighters and ER doctors, we now know that burnout can impact anyone.
Do your most meaningful, most important work in the first part of your day, while your mental energy levels are high.
The Real Secret to Productivity
Whatever your field is, you want to keep up. Learn the altest methods, know the latest software, have the best tools for the job. Also, humans are social creatures, and it’s in our nature to say yes to new requests for our time, to be a team player and to please other people.
But saying yes to every new thing is a slippery slope towards burnout syndrome. Pretty soon, you’ll be jam-packed with to-dos while trying to balance being always available.
An effective way to avoid burnout is remarkably simple, but also really hard. Are you ready? This is the true spice of a productive life: Learn to say “No.”
The reality is that saying yes to one thing is saying no to something else. What is that going to be? What’s going to take a hit because you said yes to this new thing? Is it your other important projects you’re already working on? Is it your work-life balance? Something is going to take a hit… what is it?
Make an effort to be more deliberate with what you commit to. Shiny object syndrome can strike the best of us. I like to think of my attention, focus and talent like precious dew drops in a desert of distraction. I have to safeguard them and use them wisely before they evaporate (ha!) at the end of the day. So I use a rigorous “does this deserve my time?” process to figure out if the shiny New Thing is really worth it.
Is the new request going to be a distraction from running your business? Does it complement initiatives that are already underway, or is it a complete detour? Remember that distractions, especially those that force you to context-switch, will use mental energy and contribute to decision fatigue.
Does the new thing fit into any of your current objectives? Will taking it on help meet your goals?
Is this something you can actually do in a realistic time frame? Have you considered other tasks you’ll need to do to complete the new one?
Are you willing to give something up to add the new thing to your schedule? What, exactly, might that be?
What is the potential benefit? Will it help you get a better paying job, impress future clients, or allow you to raise your rates? Will it please someone in your network that you want to build a relationship with? If there is no concrete advantage to doing a New Thing, then it’s merely a distraction.
The Power of Your Productivity is in Your Hands
Productivity and burnout have a troublesome relationship. The more work you do, the more burnt out you get, and the more work you feel like you need to do. To avoid that cycle of unproductive thought, consider the progress you make each day, and not just how many items were checked off a list.
Acknowledge your progress, celebrate your wins, and make note of what needs to be tackled first thing tomorrow. Then call it a day. Here’s some great ideas for an end of workday routine.
I hope the tools and frameworks in my series on Boost Your Productivity help you achieve every little thing your heart desires.
Be productive. Be happy.