I have worked with many people in burnout and have observed that they tend to push themselves really hard, sometimes for years, and end up exhausted. Not surprisingly, the quality of their work can suffer over the longer-term.
I spend a lot of time with clients talking about how they can change their approach to work so that they can recover from burnout and stay out of it. One of the cardinal rules we discuss is the benefits of pacing themselves. This means routinely tapping into only about 65% of the energy you are capable of expending on a day-to-day basis.
Read more about Pacing.
If you are willing to routinely work at 65% of how hard you are capable of working, it means that you can retain 35% of your energy for another day. You can occasionally dig into this reserve when an important deadline looms, but I caution people against entering this zone for more than a couple of weeks every year. And when they do, I encourage them to focus on recovering quickly, so that they can return to a normal, healthy baseline in short order.
Some of my clients will say at first that it’s not possible to hold back 35% of their energy in reserve. But I believe that it is. Holding back energy means that you will need to not work more than core business hours as a general rule. It means you will need to take your full lunch hour to visit with friends, attend an exercise class, or read the newspaper. It also means you won’t “give ‘er” during your regular work hours as well. It means you will take time to chat with coworkers at the coffee machine once or twice a day, too. And it means you will take weekends off.
Research documents that humans cannot concentrate to a really high degree – as if you were studying for final exams at university – for more than four hours a day on routine basis. If you look at professional athletes, concert pianists, and best-selling authors, this number bears out. Our brains just can’t work harder than that over the longer-term in a sustainable way.
Rather, the trick is to pace yourself. Once you’ve put in your four hours of intense concentration, you’ll need to back off if you want to be able to do it again tomorrow and stay out of burnout. Once you’ve put in four hours of intense concentration, change tasks and do something that doesn’t require “heavy lifting.” Activities in this category can include answering emails, making phone calls, networking, booking appointments, and getting organized.
But how can you be productive on only four hours of intense concentration a day? The answer is to make those four hours count. It is during those four hours that you will want to be strategic. This is when you will tap into your creativity, and utilize your full attention to do smart, meaningful work.
Often, we don’t work smart. Instead, we try to work flat-out for more than four hours every day, thinking this will lead to better results. We end up being tired, and when we’re tired we make more mistakes. Then we have to re-do or correct our work because it’s not of a high enough quality.
I encourage you to try using the 65% approach if it is novel to you. You might be surprised to discover that you are more productive than you have been, and that the results you produce are consistently better.
Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta
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