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How to make an anti-burnout schedule

The people who study burnout show how to douse the flames that lead to it.

Burnout matches, one burned out grey very close. Burnout and stress

Twenty-nineteen was a big year for burnout. In the summer, the World Health Organization made some updates to the definition of burnout in the 11th edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), an atlas of all maladies that the agency tracks. In older editions of the ICD, burnout was considered a “life management difficulty,” but now it’s defined as a work-related problem. It’s now also assigned an international ICD code to burnout.

That means that the World Health Organization can actually track burnout around the world in the same way it would another disease. That comes on the back of decades of burnout research that links it to certain jobs, traces it to certain cells in the brain, and boils burnout down to three defining characteristics:

  1. Increased negativity, cynicism, or mental distance from your job
  2. Exhaustion
  3. Decreased professional efficacy

We’ve diagnosed the problem, so now it’s time to find a solution. To do this, I spoke to Claire Steichen, the founder of Clear Strategy Coaching, and a coach at Columbia Business School’s Leadership Lab, where she advises early-to-mid career workers.

Research has pointed to the power of interventions like mindfulness or exercise, but this newsletter is about how you can stave off burnout with smaller-scale changes. In lieu of developing a new routine (which may be worthwhile for non-burnout related health reasons), there are some basic things you can do within the confines of your work day to lessen the load.

“Within the time management, there’s a lot you can do,” Steichen tells me.

Anti-burnout scheduling

Burnout can’t always be avoided through scheduling alone, but it helps. Steichen says that organizing your day douses the flames of burnout when they’re still only kindling.

Scheduling is not about micromanaging your day into an endless series of high-intensity brain intervals. It’s about allocating your energy over the course of your day so you don’t tap out early.

1. Cluster similar activities

Most jobs require a fair amount of task-jumping — which means that you’re probably not doing one thing over and over again. Switching between tasks rapidly has been a central focus of several decades of research.

Across four experiments described in a 2001 paper, people who had to alternate between doing different types of math problems had significantly slower reaction times than those who worked on the same kinds of problems in succession. In other words, switching between tasks cost them extra time.

To combat that, Steichen suggests planning to do similar work-related activities all at once or cluster your activities around one single project. When you do this, give yourself slightly more time than you think you’ll need, she advises.

“When you cluster like activities and schedule them, you give yourself the luxury of time around one task or cluster of tasks.”

2. Build downtime and recovery time into your schedule

Steichen advises that you resist the urge to “plow through” tasks. That comes down to working recovery time into your schedule.

Figuring out how much time you need or can afford to take is up to you, but one idea put forth by Tony Schwartz, the founder of The Energy Project, is called “intermittent renewal,” or the idea that after every 90 minutes of work, you should take a quick break.

When I spoke to Schwartz back in October 2019, he explained that the best breaks aren’t defined by time. Rather, the best breaks come from “changing channels,” or just breaking the monotony of your day.

Research into workday breaks puts a finer point on things.

A 2015 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology investigated how 95 administrative employees at a university took breaks. They found the breaks that enhanced recovery the most had two characteristics: They were taken earlier in the work shift and they involved some kind of activity that the people liked to do.

The benefits of an effective break were stark: When employees took better breaks during the day, they reported having less lower back pain, eye strain, or headaches. They also reported higher levels of job satisfaction and less emotional exhaustion.

To make sure you actually take those breaks, Steichen suggests baking them into your schedule, lest they fall by the wayside.

3. A “whole-life” to-do list

In early January, Steichen wrote a blog post for Columbia Business School that specifically dealt with burnout. In that post, she raised another pertinent scheduling idea: Once you’ve laid out a schedule, don’t be afraid to trim it down just a little bit. That’s where you’ll be sure to schedule in those breaks.

She also mentions that that list should include non-work activities: things in your actual life that are important to you. In the post she refers to that as a “whole-life” to-do list.

For Steichen, that meant realizing that between 3 and 4 p.m., she needed to be offline with her kids. (She works from home.) Then she could pick work back up later in the evening.

“This time is not instead of lunch. This is separate,” she says. “What I find is my day falls together so much more naturally.”

The same way that organizing your schedule during the day at work can show you the areas where you can slip in a break, including non-work items on your list can illuminate where you may have extra time (or need to build in that time).

If the idea of burnout is to leave yourself feeling energized, not just at work but for everything else, you’ll have to factor those things into an anti-burnout schedule.

A final note on burnout...

Burnout is often synonymous with stress. But as Steichen points out, it’s important to remember that burnout isn’t always the product of depleting work-related things.

Sometimes we get burned out by simply taking on too many good things.

“There’s that happy and positive upward slide of doing tons of activity. You don’t realize that you’re expending a lot of energy. You’re running this happy race and you’re excited. But it’s actually costing you a lot of energy,” she tells me.

As much fun as a packed schedule can be, sometimes we push it a little close to empty in ways we’re not expecting. Fortunately, for most of us there are ways to take back at least a little bit of control.

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