Burnout is heavily talked about in the startup world, and you can see why. Wikipedia defines burnout as “exhaustion, lack of enthusiasm and motivation, feelings of ineffectiveness, frustration, and as a result reduced efficacy within the workplace.”. Doesn’t sound too good… Startups live or die by how fast they can move and disrupt an industry with barely any woman/man-power. Couple that with the fact that almost any successful startup requires huge amounts of labour intensive work in order to get to a popular working product – you really don’t want to burn out.
However, all this talking about burnout hasn’t seemed to have done much good. The startup Mattermark wrote a post about how they avoid burnout. Their tips included: cuddling with puppies, smashing a gong and walking. You can probably guess how effective those methods are going to be. The popular oversimplification of the cause of burnout is working too much for too long. Therefore the remedy (aside from getting a dog to cuddle) is to take a vacation. However, I don’t think that this fully takes into account why burnout actually happens.
I’ve recently launched a new kind of primary school curriculum for maths and science called Infinity School . You can probably guess that in order to make a new curriculum for the 7 years that children are in primary school you are going to need to put in a fair few hours. I’ve had to research heavily into how we learn, come up with hundreds of learning activities, test those learning activities, rebuild them, retest them, build a website to host them etc etc. Add to that being in the 3rd year of my Economics degree and you’d probably agree that you had a perfect recipe for burnout. I’ve certainly been waiting for it to come. But, it never came, and it certainly wasn’t due to taking taking vacations and having a good work life balance (I’m a bit scared of dogs so no cuddling of those either).
The closest that I came to burnout was when I had to record the video content for the Infinity School curriculum. It was a long, slow process with virtually no positive feedback loop. I had to record and edit over 500 videos. Contrast that to building a website. You make a page, you see the progress and then you move onto the next thing. You build a feature, you fix bugs, and then you move onto the next thing. Constantly getting that positive feedback loop of progress being made. I could work with infinite energy on building features for a website but when facing the seemingly neverending task of making 500 videos and I lose energy after 2-3 hours.
I’ve found that burnout isn’t a symptom of overworking, it’s a symptom of working hard on something that is giving you no positive feedback. I helped myself by spending 2 hours of my day working on the website. If I didn’t do that, the long hours in the recording studio would have really taken their toll. So if you ever find yourself facing burnout as a student or at work, remember to ask yourself if it’s because you’re overworked or because all those hours are being spent on something giving positive feedback.