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How do you avoid burnout?

As project managers, we often find ourselves looking into the deep, dark hole of burnout. What is burnout?

Burnout is the state of mind where we stop being creative, where our physical energy is low, where we can’t imagine doing one more thing, and where we’re very likely cranky and difficult to get along with.

Burnout is usually caused by working too much – and playing too little. When all we do is work, our brains never get the chance to recuperate. By concentrating all our mental and physical energy on one thing – work – we don’t allow ourselves a “change of scenery.” By that I mean allowing ourselves to think about different things so that we see things in a different way. Seeing things in a different way is what creativity is all about.

If you think you’re approaching burnout, or are already there, ask yourself these questions.

  • Do you prefer to eliminate stress, or learn better ways for coping with it?
  • Can you review your workload?
  • Can you assess the roles/responsibilities of your team (or get a team if necessary)?
  • Can you block out regular time for your favorite social activity, and then make it your priority?
  • Can you arrange your next vacation now, and make it non-negotiable?

Here are some ways to avoid burnout – or recover from it.

  • Keep a stress-level chart each day (1.0 = good day, 0.5 = so-so, 0.0 = bad). Review it weekly to see where you are, and where you want to be next week.
  • Delegation – I know, I know. Everyone tells you to delegate, but how can you? There’s a whole industry that will help you learn how to delegate. The point of this article is to suggest that you either start delegating, or delegate more work to others. If you choose wisely who to delegate to, and what to delegate to that person, both of you benefit. Win-win.
  • Start doing something that you really love. One project manager that I know took up sailing in order to prevent burnout and burn off stress. He started sailing every day by making it an appointment in his calendar.
  • Evaluate your life when you’re not hovering around burnout. What do you do? What don’t you do? Then look at your life when you’re burning out. What’s different? What can you start doing again, or stop doing at all, that will move you away from burnout?

Another interesting definition of burnout is that we are not paying attention to the things that we need in life to keep our minds sharp. By focusing our minds on different areas of life, we often see a different approach for solving a problem in our projects. There is one caveat to this, however, and that’s to stop over-committing ourselves and our time. Warning symptoms are the words “should” and “ought.”

As project managers, we’re used to setting boundaries for our projects and our project teams. The secret to avoiding burnout is to know and enforce our own boundaries.

A special thank you to the members of the SdB+PM Forum for their contributions to this article. Without their great ideas and input, this article would never have been written. You guys are the greatest!

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