The Intern Diaries: “How to Beat Burnouts”

Late last week I caught employment’s common cold: “paralysis by analysis.” After several weeks of productive work, I suddenly sensed my motivation beginning to slack. Tasks that usually took me an hour to complete were taking longer; ideas were few and far between; and my vigor all of the sudden went stale. “Why was this?” I thought to myself. Surely, I wasn’t bored with my work. I love my job! And it wasn’t like I hadn’t any work to do. In fact, quite the contrary was the case—I had loads of work to get done! I was stumped.

So instead of sitting in front of my computer screen like a lifeless zombie, no real progress being made, I decided to take an early leave from my workweek. In desperate need of some mental relaxation, I grabbed my surfboard, saddled up my wet suit, and headed off to the beach. But before you call me Spicoli, and before AnnMaria calls into question my responsibilities as an intern, allow me to expound on a revelation I came to while I was catching some “tasty waves brah.”

Workers today, especially those in start-ups, commonly suffer from my same sense of burnout mainly because our society has shifted its focus away from assembly line, make-it move-it activities to a more knowledge-based work environment. In the old-days, work was self-evident. Crops had to be tended, cars repaired, and boxes stacked. As a result, workers knew exactly what their tasks were and when their job was complete. However, in today’s more knowledge-based, email-crazed system, our work never escapes us. It seems like there is always one more thing to be done, one more piece of code to write, one more revision to be made. As such, we have totally lost our ability to “punch-out.” This, I believe, is the tradeoff we make in pursuing a white-collar career, and this is exactly what I mean when I say that I had suffered from a brief case of paralysis by analysis—I simply hadn’t a clue of what task to do first and when I should stop to take a breath.

All of this got me thinking: “Is there a way that I can optimize my efforts so as not to burn myself out all the time?” The answer came to me in a book I recently read called, Getting Things Done, by management guru, David Allen. In it, Allen describes a system of actions to take when given a task. Each time an assignment is given to you, he says, you must categorize it in order of its importance. If it is urgent and important, Allen encourages you to “Do it now!” If it is not urgent but still important, he advises you to either “Delegate it” or “Defer it.” This system, Allen claims, may be used to help organize your commitments so that you may finally focus your efforts fully on one assignment at a time. And, as a result of your prioritizing, it also gives the ability to make sense of when your work is finally complete.

Ever since applying this method I have witnessed a dramatic improvement in the quality of my work, as well as my overall happiness. Therefore, I strongly suggest that every start-up purchase a copy of David Allen’s book and refer to it whenever you sense the burnout bug creeping up. Indeed it will be your most valuable vaccine.

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