Avoiding burnout

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“Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands.”

In today’s world of startups and mega-software corporations, it can be super easy to burn yourself out. Demands on founders and employees are strong. There is pressure to go the extra mile to ship products and hit deadlines. As a designer, this is one of the biggest risks to your creativity. Take it from someone who has suffered from burnout, the first thing to go when you have nothing left to give is your creativity. Coming to work starts to feel like a chore and your passion for the craft disappears. Let’s dig a little more into how this happens and how you can avoid it. 

The biggest burnout cause

The most common cause of burnout is that you're working too many hours. There’s a debate currently swirling on Twitter about whether startup founders and employees need to work 40+ hours a week to be successful. I land in the camp that 40+ hours is the max you should be putting into your day job. If your employer expects you to consistently work more than 40 hours a week, find a new employer. The need to work overtime is almost always derived from causes outside of an employee’s hands. For example:


- management’s unwillingness to set realistic goals based on the capacity of their team

- putting too much scope into a release

- not leaving time for proper quality assurance

- and the list goes on. I


It boils down to a problem with overall team management and planning. If your process is weak, your employees will suffer.

Take care of your body

Another major cause of burnout is not taking care of yourself outside of the office. This can be summed up in three points: diet, exercise and sleep. We all know it is tempting to go for the fast and easy food options, stop doing this. You need to eat whole foods or nothing else will matter when it comes to avoiding burnout. Don't skip breakfast, you need it to kickstart your metabolism and provide you with protein. At lunch, go for the salad with chicken instead of McDonald's. Then for dinner, get into the habit of cooking instead of eating takeout.  An app that is great for tracking your meals to ensure you are getting all the nutrients you need is myfitnesspal. Download it and start logging all your meals. 

Get your sleep

Make sure you are getting at least 6 hours of sleep a night. You may be tempted to work into the wee hours of the night on side projects, stop doing this. Set aside time for your own projects and wrap them up before midnight. Get into the habit of getting to bed before the clock rolls over to the AM. If you need time to wind down after work, then stop even earlier. If you’re looking for an app to help track your sleeping habits, I use Sleep Cycle. It's free and also integrates with Apple Health. 

Get yourself to the gym

Once you’ve mastered your diet and sleep, make sure you are getting proper exercise. This one has always been the toughest one for me as you will find a million excuses not do it. As you age and get deeper into your career if you want to continue to have a good quality of living, you need to exercise. Don’t be afraid of the gym. For many years I was intimidated because I didn’t know how to lift weights or use any of the machines. What I did was to finally hire a personal trainer to work with me 1 on 1. It was well worth the investment and I currently visit the gym 4-5 days a week now. If you feel like you can’t find time for the gym go either before work, at lunch, or after work. One of the best things about hitting the gym is tracking your progress. If you’ve put a few extra pounds on, it's great to see that melt off. I like to use the Apple Health app to track my workouts and it integrates with myfitnesspal too. Between those two apps, you can start to get a handle on your diet and exercise.

Don’t forget to meditate

When I was younger I would have likely laughed if someone told me to try meditation. Nowadays, the digital assault we get from work, social media, and smartphones means you need to unplug and reset if you want to avoid burnout. This doesn’t have to be hard, download the Headspace app on your phone and find 15-30 minutes a day to meditate. The app is awesome and makes it super easy. I tend to do it in the evening as I find it helps me to unwind and calm my mind before I go to sleep. 

Do I really need to do all this?

Damn, you thought you were here to learn how to build your design career? The thing is you need to set these habits as soon as you can if you want to have the best career possible. You can easily burn out in your 20’s if you eat poorly, work 60 hour weeks, don’t exercise and get barely any sleep. I know because that was me! If you want to consistently do good work and feel motivated to be creative you have to take care of your body first. 

How should I divide my day?

One of the best systems I’ve found is the 888 plan. You spend 8 hours on work, 8 hours on personal time and 8 hours of sleep. If you have a day job then that would be the 8 hours you spend on work. Your personal time is the most flexible. Here you could spend 1 hour at the gym, 2 hours on a side project and 5 hours with friends and family each day. 8 hours of sleep is pretty self-explanatory. Start to plan your day using this simple system and you’ll see some quick wins in how you feel. 

Do I have time for side projects?

Yes! I am a huge supporter of designers who do side projects; especially in the early days of your career. Just make sure you aren’t overdoing it. You have 8 hours of personal time a day. I wouldn't do more than 4 hours a day. Especially if you are already working 8 hours at your job. Another strategy might be to not do side projects during the week and only spend time on the weekend doing them. Of course, you need to leave time for taking care of yourself, hobbies, and having a break. Experiment with different systems and see what works for you. Yet, if you find yourself working on your project at 3 am on Tuesday, you are on the wrong path. 

Don’t give up

If you’ve been leading an unhealthy lifestyle this might seem like a big change. Don’t be afraid to start this work in stages. Try to get 8 hours of sleep a night to start. Next, work on eating better and tracking it. When you are feeling comfortable with that, get yourself to the gym and hire a personal trainer. Finally, start meditating before you go to bed. Hey, if you want to do it all at once you will see results sooner, but don’t feel like you have to change everything tomorrow. 

The other important factor is to not give up! Get your routine set up and implemented and stick with it for at least 3 months. It will take time for your body to adjust and for you to start to feel the benefits. If you are burnt out now, it will take even longer. For me, the weight started coming off quickly but it took me about 6 months to start to feel the fog of burnout lifting. 

This might not seem like the type of design advice you were expecting. Let me assure you that if you stay on top of of this, you’ll avoid burnout and be positioned to be the best designer you can

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