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How Do You Prevent Project Fatigue?
On our February 2020 Monthly Momentum Call, someone asked a great question about project fatigue. Shortly after the call, I had a hit that it’d be a great topic to share publicly, too.
Before I jump into that, though, if you’re unfamiliar with our Monthly Momentum Calls, they are free Q&A calls that we host once a month to answer questions our community has. You can find out more and sign up for our next MMC HERE.
Here’s what she asked: Do you have any hints or tips to prevent project fatigue from busy periods, both during the busy time or afterwards?
Since her question asked how to prevent project fatigue during busy times and after busy times, I’ll answer it that way.
AFTER Busy: Schedule Fallow Time Between Projects
Fallow time is a term from agriculture. It’s when farmers leave a field unplanted for a season so it has time to rest and the soil has time to regenerate the nutrients the crops took from it. The same idea has application to our own energy.
The rule I give my clients (and they fight me all the time on it is this): if it’s a quarter-sized project and it takes you most or all of those three months, I recommend you give yourself at least a week of fallow time afterwards.
Giving yourself a week of fallow time allows you to:
Do the necessary CAT work (Clean Up, Archive, and Trash) that lets you start clean with the next project. The creative process is messy and cleaning up the necessary and sometimes beautiful mess is itself a part of the project.
Celebrate finishing the project. Too often, we’re so busy catching our breath and catching up that we never actually allow for an “I/we did that!” moment.
Catch up on some of the projects you put off to get your project through the red zone. It could be the bills you put off because you just couldn’t think about them or the get-togethers you had to reschedule during crunch time.
I share more fallow activities you can do in Chapter 10 of Start Finishing, but these three are great starting points.
This may sound easy, but sometimes we have to hack our own brains because we’re tempted to think we can finish one project and jump right into the next with no break. Or we think we must start the new project, even if we know deep down we need the break.
Some of the best hacks come in the form of scheduling a vacation, trip, or other non-negotiable so you don’t absorb that time back into your work schedule. Another rule that may work for you is that after every (quarterly) project, you give yourself a 4-day weekend.
DURING Busy: Four Tips
During a project, it’s just as important to manage your energy to prevent project fatigue. Here are some tips that can help with that:
1. Adhere to the 5 Project Rule
The 5 Project Rule is critical, because it helps you not over-cram your schedule (at any time horizon: day, week, month, quarter). For example, if you get to a day in a month-long project where you’re just spent and done, instead of sliding into doing something else or into another project because you have free time, you can instead give yourself space to recover. You can finish early when you’ve finished all the work you needed to do for the day, or schedule more breaks throughout the workday… which leads to:
2. Schedule Recovery Blocks
For every two focus or social blocks in your day, make sure that you schedule a 30-minute recovery block after. For instance, if you work from 9 to noon, make sure you take a 30-minute lunch.
During these recovery blocks, make sure you actually get away from the work. Don’t eat at your desk and crank through emails. Get out of the office, away from your desk. Take a walk. Read a book. Visit with coworkers. Do something fun. Whatever it is, make sure it’s something that rejuvenates you. (During his corporate years, PF team member Steve always looked forward to Wednesday, because the newest Good Life Project episode released that day and he took a recovery block for lunch to watch/listen.)
In general, most of us are not scheduling enough human breaks during the day. Not just the five-minute ones for getting more water or coffee, but the longer, rejuvenating breaks that keep us from getting burnt out by the end of the day.
3. Know Your Chronotype
Are you a Night Owl, a Lark, or an Emu? You’re probably familiar with the first one, maybe the second, and probably not the third. Here’s the breakdown:
A Night Owl is at their most productive between 8pm and 4am.
A Lark (early bird) is at their most productive between 4am and noon.
An Emu (my word for a betweener, or afternooner) is at their most productive between noon and 8pm.
(Keep in mind that your exact hours of “most productive” might be a little different than these general rules.)
The importance of knowing your chronotype is this: make sure that you’re doing the heavy lifting work (focus blocks) during the times that you’re most capable of doing that work, both in terms of the quality of what you produce, and in terms of the amount of energy it will take to do it.
For example, if you know that you’re brain dead by 3pm most days, make sure you don’t have a bunch of heavy lifting scheduled after 3pm. Instead of accomplishing anything important, you’ll instead spend that time just staring at the screen, beating yourself up because you’re not getting anything accomplished, and depleting your energy and enthusiasm and confidence even further.
4. Get Off the Burnout Freeway
This one is simple to say, but not so easy to practice: when you know you’re done, be done. If you know you’re on the road to burnout, get off before you’re there. At the gym, pushing until failure is a great way to build strength and capacity, but at work, it’s the opposite.
Most of us know when we’re pushing into over-burn. For me, personally, it’s the difference between when I’m sort of grooving and knocking things out versus forcing myself to keep braining, cranking, and sending. It’s this crunch that’s the signal to you that fatigue/burnout is around the corner. Whenever you sense yourself crunching, stop.
The trick to avoiding fatigue/burnout is like driving on a long road trip: get off the freeway BEFORE we’re too tired to drive and in jeopardy of crashing. For most of us, it’s not that we don’t know when we’re done, or close. It really comes down to trust and permission: trust that a fresher version of ourselves will be able to do the work better and permission to NOT be the beast of burden we whip until it collapses. (Many of us would never treat a beloved animal or friend the way we treat ourselves.)
So when you feel yourself getting warm or toasty, get your foot off the accelerator, and coast into a rest stop (recovery block). Don’t wait until you can’t think, can’t move, or become fatigued, burnt out, or even ill. Avoid the crash that comes from pushing too far. Stop before you have to.
What if I don’t have much time autonomy?
All of these tips will be more challenging if you work in an environment where you don’t have as much autonomy over your time.
Sometimes that lack of autonomy is due to external factors
Like your boss assigns your projects and makes the deadlines, or is constantly over your shoulder “making sure you’re working.” Sometimes you’re working on a project that’s team-based and you’ve got to accommodate your teammates’ schedules as well as your own.
In those cases, it’s important to find ways to manage your time that still address those external factors. You might not be able to schedule that Friday off when you’ve finished your part of a project because your team is still on deadline. But you can probably arrange to take at least one day off during the next week, once the project is completed. And you can encourage your teammates to do the same.
You might also be able to have a conversation with your boss about the importance of recovery and how it affects your productivity, as well as the rest of the team. The smart boss is going to recognize that they get more and better work from the team when they build in rest, recovery, and intentional transition and often just need to be reminded and shown the better team performance/results when they do support R&R.
Other times, those time constraints are self-imposed
Here’s an example: we don’t let ourselves wind down at 4pm because we’re supposed to be “on” and doing things right up until 5pm (or later). In those situations, when you’re still “on the clock” but need a break, or need to wind down from an intense afternoon, you could:
Switch to easier, admin tasks instead of starting another intense block of work. For instance, cleaning your office or submitting travel reports usually “count” as work but don’t go into over-burn. Pro tip: get away from screens and devices as much as possible.
Use the time for a day-end status check with your teammates on that big project you’re all working on. Pro tip: suggest going on a short walk if the weather allows since it’ll likely recharge both/all of you.
Write up a short status report for your boss, letting them know what you worked on today, how it went, and what obstacles you’ve encountered.
No matter your work setting, you can exercise some control over how you spend your time. You can build in recovery periods to prevent project fatigue, both during and after an intense project, to help you get ready to start finishing the next one.
If it’s hard to imagine making the time for the tips above, imagine how hard it’s going to be to make time for a full burnout, or coasting on energetic fumes until you can recharge. (Tweet this.)