How I burned out and how a spreadsheet helped me recover

A year into my last job, I burned out.

I became irritable and sad. The weekend wasn’t enough rest; I felt perpetually tired. My brain was on constant overdrive. I was emotionally unavailable at home. I was seriously considering rage-quitting. Maybe worst of all, I didn’t know how to even begin improving my situation.

When I noticed myself snapping at folks on my team I knew I needed to do something. I did two things:

  1. I committed myself to a week-long vacation a few weeks into the future, even though I’d just taken time off for New Year’s a month before.
  2. I made a deal with myself to run an experiment testing the following hypothesis: “It is possible to work in a high-growth startup in a leadership role for prolonged periods of time.” While obvious-sounding, it was a positive way to frame the challenge. It turned my despair into curiosity and added a touch of a competition, which made a difference for me.

The experiment was successful: I came back from that vacation feeling like a human. The structures I’ve built to help me with burnout are still working for me today: they’ve turned out useful even post-crisis. On the job front, I continued to do good work, resulting in a promotion half a year later.

The story below is personal, and the reason that the approach I describe here worked for me is that it was a good fit with what I needed at the time. Particulars aside, I hope you find a useful nugget here to help you on your life-work balance journey!

How I got myself out of burnout

After I noticed I was snapping at my team, I realized I needed to change something. I defaulted to the problem-solving method that works best for me: read a bunch on the subject, formulate my position, make changes to how I do things. Snapping was the trigger that helped me reach escape velocity from moping, move to research, and later progress to action.

1. Reading a bunch of books

I like doing desk research on a subject as a way to get up to speed on it. That’s the ISTJ in me. For a project like this, the practical way to do desk research was to read a bunch of books on life-work balance.

My method is to get the top 10-20 recommended books on the topic. Here, I looked up the Life/work balance competency here and cross-referenced that literature list with Amazon and Google. I read the first ~30 pages of every book I got to see if it made sense to me, discarded those that didn’t and focused on those that did. My top picks from this pile were The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, HBR’s Work and Life Balance, and Gifts of Imperfection.

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey talks about the “four dimensions of your nature.” It was as fine a human-experience-encompassing framework as any other; all its components seemed desirable and important. When I mentally scored my competence on these four dimensions, I got grades I wasn’t happy with. For example:

  • On the Physical dimension, I wasn’t getting enough sleep, wasn’t paying a lot of attention to nutrition and certainly wasn’t managing my stress well. On a positive note, I was going to the gym twice a week.
  • The whole Social/Emotional dimension was basically a gaping hole.
  • On the Spiritual dimension, I did have defined values but I wasn’t devoting a lot of attention to further clarifying how I wanted to operate, and I was half-assing meditation.
  • Mentally, I was so tired from days full of meetings that most weekdays the only things I did at home were eat and watch some YouTube. Weekends were consumed by sleeping in, chores and maybe a bit of reading.

I was stuck in the vicious cycle of “work to the point of not being able to do anything else, so work some more the next day.” It wasn’t a pretty picture but it helped me formulate my problem statement:

I wasn’t nearly as competent outside of work as I’d like. There was important work to be done outside of work.

And yes, I fully appreciate the irony of being so wedded to work that I formulated my non-work goals in work terms. 🤨

For the first time in my life, I felt motivated to devote large amounts of energy to non-work activities. But first, I needed to get time and energy back to do so.

2. Formulating my position

Now that I’d formulated my problem statement clearly, things started to look up. I felt like I could apply standard problem solving: break down the challenge into its constituent parts and plug away at improving each.

I made a “Personal OKRs” Google spreadsheet. We were in the midst of rolling out OKRs at work, so the tool made a lot of sense. For my objectives, I picked a positive version of “Make life not suck,” a.k.a. “Feel content” and a learning goal. I then added a few basic but concrete KRs based on hypotheses of what could “stop the bleed:”

I started tracking the numbers and grading my KRs red-yellow-green weekly:

Sure enough, in a surprise to noone, the data verified that I had a problem. In fact, on the hours/week KR, things went the wrong way. The precision of the data was very valuable to me: it quantified how bad the problem was and added instant accountability.

Around this time, my vacation finally started, which helped me take a step back and start a new page.

3. Making changes to how I do things

At this point, I was pretty committed to making a positive change, and, looking at the data, I did make it happen:

Not reflected in this snapshot: I channeled the time and energy I got back from working more reasonable hours into doing the “work outside of work,” with satisfying results.

How I’ve evolved my approach in the 1.5 years since

The positive results have generally held for me in the 1.5 years since late March 2018. Here are my main learnings:

  • I’ve moved away from thinking about this spreadsheet as “Personal OKRs” and towards “weekly habits.” With experience, I’ve come to believe that setting goals in the true OKR format (“move metric X from A to B by date Z”) is less conducive to personal progress than building good habits that I hope to acquire and put on autopilot. I like the framing of “do things the way I want to do them, now.” Looking back, I’ve stumbled into this type of formulation from the beginning (I had “Gym 2x/week” vs. “Bench X lbs”), but renaming the whole effort was a positive mental shift. Confirmation bias alert: James Clear and Leo Babauta come to similar conclusions (the latter opinion is on the extreme side).
Iteration current at the time of writing
  • My spreadsheet has continuously evolved. When inspiration strikes, I reorganize its structure and/or contents to fit with my changing priorities. Some things, like going to the gym, have stayed on there – that priority hasn’t changed. Some things, like measuring the weekly NPS, which I’ve found rather unaddressable, have fallen off. I’ve added some things like “eat well.” Inspired again by The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, I’ve also added a whole section: what I want to accomplish the following week and how well I did on that in various roles I have, from important to less so. 🤪
  • I’ve invested time and effort in aligning my weekly tracking with higher-level values, principles and desired outcomes. For example, living a simple life is important to me. It means not having a lot of physical and mental clutter and feeling like my life and mind and surroundings are streamlined. I used to record these values/principles/desired outcomes in a separate document, but there was no good reason not to grade how I’m doing against them on the weekly.

Thank you for reading!

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Your life story sounds great, your evaluation of the life style seems adequate. I wish you good luck in all aspects of your life. Thank you for sharing, I hope it will be helpful for many people to navigate through their lives. I will follow you))

    1. Thank you for your kind words! Glad you found this story interesting!

  2. I love your stories Olga, the ones about you even more than the work advice. They’re wonderful. Bookmarking and returning!

  3. Thanks so much, Maya! :heart:

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