Productivity is an essential part of being successful. Being a hardworking, productive person is very likely a huge part of what put you on your current leadership track. After all, it’s reasonable to believe your bosses saw everything you did and believed that you were capable of doing more.
I recall one of the Chiefs of Police I worked for remarked during our conversation that I had a “significant capacity for work”. That stuck with me… not only was I doing every possible thing I could in my 12 – 16 hour shifts, I was learning how to build a business in the few minutes I had to spare.
It was this foundation that provided me exceptional opportunities, even though there are numerous things to which I should have said No. At the peak of the busiest period in my life I was the Team Leader for our SWAT Team and training a new 2 i/c, President of our union and had just been given a 6 month old service dog to get ready for when I moved into my role as the K9 Sergeant… that dog had more energy than anything I have ever seen! Needless to say I was busy, so instead of dialling it back, I was also building out this venture.
It’s easy to get trapped within the identity of “being the most productive person in the room”. Once you get a reputation for being hard-working, you might feel like other people expect it of you all the time. No matter how much you take on, you should always be able to take on more, right?
The truth is that leaders are often the ones most at risk for burnout. They spend so much of their time being productive and proactive, and they’re always looking for something new, better, faster, cheaper, and more efficient. In the end, that drive to be hyper-productive can ultimately cause them to crash and burn.
How Going the Extra Mile Can Lead to Burnout
When you are a highly productive individual, you will find that you end up getting tasked with bigger and more complex projects. This is a good thing, and it proves that you are rising within your industry or company. However, those bigger and more complex projects require more time and effort, which means they are a greater drain on your energy, resources, and availability.
Harvard Business Review published an article titled “Collaborative Overload”, talking about how the most productive people, the 3-5% that get 20-35% of the work done, end up getting drawn into more important roles. However, as the demand on them increases, they become overtaxed and their efficiency decreases. That helpful, productive person becomes a bottleneck because too much is going through them, which in turn decreases productivity.
It’s a vicious cycle, one that is started by something absolutely positive: high productivity. People who are productive tend to take on and get assigned more, which can lead to their being overloaded, overworked, and finally burning out.
How to Avoid Burnout
The first step to avoiding burnout is to know your limits. You have a particular set of skills, coupled with a finite amount of time and energy in your day. If you tried to do everything, you would fail. So don’t try! Instead, focus on what you know you can do and get that done to the best of your ability.
Yes, you are the most productive person in the room, but even you can only sustain a high level of productivity for so long before you crash. The key is knowing how to manage your workload so you only do as much as you can without pushing yourself beyond your limits.
How can you learn your limits? Start off by taking daily stock of your health—physical, mental, and emotional. Evaluate yourself and how you’re feeling. Are you a bit run down, tired, or stressed? Are you feeling the pressure of work? Are you nervous, afraid, or anxious all the time because you’re worried something important won’t get done? These are signs that you are taking on too much, and your health might be compromised. Take a good, hard look at how you feel every day, and look for signs of overworking and overtaxing your finite physical, emotional, and mental resources.
Here’s another useful tip to help you avoid burnout: pace yourself. If you’ve ever gone running, you know exactly what this means. No one can finish a marathon running at a full sprint, but they have to set a slow, steady pace that they can sustain for a lot of miles. That’s how you need to approach your workload as well. Don’t try to sprint through everything you need to do, every to-do item on your pile and every task assigned to you. Instead, accept that you have limitations and that you need to keep your pace steady in order to get things done.
And, while you’re pacing yourself, try to give yourself a break if you don’t get everything done NOW. A lot of us can start to feel guilty if we don’t immediately accomplish everything, or if we leave work with something important unfinished. We end up pushing ourselves too hard and risking burnout because of that guilt.
Don’t give in to it! Focus on everything you already accomplished today, and walk away knowing that you were still the most productive person in the room. You’ll be back at work tomorrow and ready to tackle whatever projects didn’t get completed. And remember, there will always be more work, so finishing everything today won’t diminish tomorrow’s workload. Accept and embrace your limitations, and learn to recognize when you’re “done” for the day.
Focus on the activities that actually matter
Not the ones that appear productive, or that feel like they should be important, but the ones that actually ARE. A lot of us go through the tasks of clearing out our email inboxes or checking our messages, but how important are those tasks compared to putting down serious progress on an important task? Or, conversely, how important is that specific task compared to answering that critical, timely email?
Make a list of everything you need to do today, and rank it in importance on a scale of 1-5. Anything that is ranked 1 becomes the “most important” things, the things you do first. Then deal with any items ranked 2, then 3, and so on. Prioritizing will help you get all the really important tasks out of the way first, while you’re still energized.
Finally, be willing to ask for help
Help can come in the form of assistance in getting an important project done, or it can be a friendly word to remind you that you’re pushing too hard. Find someone who can be your support system, whether it’s a friend, a fellow leader, your boss, mentor, or a teammate. Get the help you need and stave off burnout!