Future Of Work
11 minute read

Dial 996 for Fatigue: How to Prioritize Avoiding Burnout

There's nothing heroic about overwhelm. In a world where competition is fiercer than ever, the best of the best will win by protecting their ability to perform and deliver peak results, and that means avoiding burnout. This three-part framework can decrease stress while increasing productivity, creativity, and free time.

Ethan Brooks
Ethan Brooks is the North American Community Lead at Toptal. He works alongside the rest of the Community Team, and members of Toptal’s global network, to help foster growth in North America and deliver outstanding value to Toptalers around the world.

Certain positive traits unite top performers across all industries. They are often team players with can-do attitudes and a love for their profession which predisposes them to put in more time and outpace their lower-performing counterparts.

However, these traits carry a risk. In a world where opportunities abound, high performers often risk taking on too much. Collaborative by nature, they tend to prioritize the team over themselves, and their proclivity to work can lead to an unhealthy series of long days, all-nighters, and working weekends. Compounding the issue, some workplace cultures—whether explicitly or implicitly—are predisposed to overwork, adopting a 996 work style: 9 AM to 9 PM, six days a week.

The final destination—perhaps all too familiar to those reading this—is a state of utter exhaustion known as burnout.

Burnout is technically defined as “A psychological state of physical and emotional exhaustion thought to be a stress reaction to a reduced ability to meet the demands of one’s occupation.” While there are many potential causes of burnout, this version—brought on by prolonged periods of overwork—is especially difficult for high performers to manage because it arises from the very same traits that help them succeed to begin with.

As a member of the Community Team at Toptal, part of my job is to help look after the well being of the talent within our global network. Ours is a fast-paced team within a hyper-growth company responsible for helping to support and organize more than 600 events each year in countries around the world. We also run several professional growth initiatives, like the Toptal Speakers Network, TopVolunteer, and the Scholarships for Women program, all of which help Toptalers pursue goals outside client engagements. We do all of this and more with a core team of seven people.

This work offers a unique opportunity to observe how the best of the best deal with the challenges of the modern workplace. I’ve seen what works and what ends in disaster. Along the way, I’ve had conversations with high performers around the world, distilling the best approaches for avoiding burnout in pressure-cooker startups and sharing them with audiences of all kinds.

Burnout is not just a risk to the individual, but also to the teams they support. This risk is amplified in a remote environment, where it’s easier to overwork and harder to gauge the well being of teammates.

To help combat this, I offer the following system for pausing in the midst of overwhelm, recalibrating, and getting back on track. Not only will these principles help avert burnout for those on the brink, but if properly executed, they can rekindle one’s effectiveness and creativity while creating free time for other pursuits.

It starts with a three-part framework called The Three P’s (3P): Psychology, Priority, and Positive Constraints.

The Three P's framework
Combatting overwhelm starts with a three-part framework called The Three P's: Psychology, Priority, and Positive Constraints.

Psychology

One of the cornerstones of the remote work revolution was the realization that time spent in the office is not the same thing as time spent being productive. Contribution, the value of what you bring to the team, is more important than the number of hours you spend at your desk.

There’s an enormous upside to this mindset. However, despite the lip service this idea gets, in some workplace cultures, there remains a tacit conviction that hours worked is the most important metric. Ask any colleague how they’ve been recently, and chances are the answer will be one word: “Busy.”

Naturally, most people truly are busy at times throughout the week. But they are also hungry, happy, bored, and many other things which they choose not to mention. Words matter, and the problem with using “busy” as the go-to response is that it reveals and engrains a deeper psychology: that busy equals good, and if we’re not busy, we’re not doing our best. No one wants to let the team down, but overly busy teammates are an enormous risk to an organization and its goals.

The tech industry still struggles to accurately quantify the risks and damage caused by burnout among employees. But researchers in the healthcare space—where the stakes are naturally high—have shown the link between work burnout and mistakes made on the job. One study showed a connection between physician burnout and higher rates of patient mortality. Another showed that physicians experiencing burnout were twice as likely to make major medical errors, impacting patients, teams, and clinics in detrimental ways.

When someone becomes overworked and burns out, they don’t just go from being productive to unproductive. They go from being productive to anti-productive, making mistakes that can cost the team dearly and require additional time and resources to correct. It’s a long fall to the bottom, and the individual, the team, and other stakeholders suffer the entire way down.

Seen through this lens, thoughtless busyness of the type that eventually leads to burnout can be viewed as a form of professional neglect. By extension, avoiding overwhelm, and protecting one’s ability to perform at a high level becomes part of any professional’s duty.

Psychology is the foundation upon which all else is built, and the following principles will mean little if one still considers overwhelm heroic. By adopting the mindset that overcoming burnout is part of professional responsibility, stakeholders put themselves in a position to prioritize properly and ensure longevity for themselves and their organizations.

Priority

Technology is the force multiplier of the modern age; never before has one person been capable of doing so much. The downside of this is that both inside and outside of work, people are taking on far more than ever before.

“Thirty years ago low-paid, blue-collar workers were more likely to punch in a long day than their professional counterparts,” reports the Economist. “But nowadays professionals everywhere are twice as likely to work long hours as their less-educated peers. Few would think of sparing time for nine holes of golf, much less 18 […] And lunches now tend to be efficient affairs, devoured at one’s desk, with an eye on the email inbox. At some point, these workers may finally leave the office, but the regular blinking or chirping of their smartphones kindly serves to remind them that their work is never done.”

The ability to do more and multi-task has led to a widespread sense of time poverty and overwhelming workloads. The only way out is to reestablish a sense of priority and ruthlessly cull one’s to-do list. As 7 Habits author Stephen Covey wrote, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” This has been made more difficult in recent years due to a cultural shift in the way we think about prioritization.

Google Ngram Viewer is a tool which allows users to search for the occurrence of words and phrases over time across various literary corpora. Plug in a series of terms and you are instantly shown how often they appear in Google’s library of scanned books dating back several centuries. Similar to the above point about the cultural consequences of using words like “busy,” understanding word usage in this way offers insight into the way people thought about and understood the world over the years.

When it comes to the topic of priorities, an interesting insight emerges. While the word priority existed in common usage going back centuries, the concept of priorities (plural) is a relatively new phenomenon.

Google Books Ngram Viewer results for priority versus priorities
Running the words "priority" and "priorities" through Google Books Ngram Viewer reveals that the concept of "priorities" (plural) is a relatively new phenomenon compared with "priority" (singular).

Sit in any boardroom today, and you’ll hear talk of top priorities (plural). It seems that previous generations knew what we are only now relearning—there can only be one main thing. Being able to cut through the noise and identify the most important thing is key to reducing overwhelm while delivering value and impact.

One way to identify priorities is to use a line of self-questioning. The following can be used to help thin an inflated to-do list and reestablish the main thing.

If this was the only thing I completed today, would I be satisfied with my day’s work?

You will likely do more than one thing per day. But viewing your workload through this lens can help prioritize what gets the most attention first.

Is this task still important, or has the situation changed?

Projects evolve quickly. Just because you started something does not mean it’s important to keep doing it. Be sure you’re not carrying over tasks that are no longer relevant to you or your team.

Am I really the only person who can or should be doing this?

This is a delegation question. It’s often tempting to believe that if you want something done well, you have to do it yourself. This idea will hold you back. Someone else may not execute in exactly the same way you would, but you’d be surprised how people will often rise to the occasion when given responsibility and trust. Learn to recognize what only you can do, as well as the tasks that others may be better at. Then practice trusting your teammates to execute.

Which of these items, if accomplished, will save me time next week? Next month?

This is all about systems. Sometimes to-do lists are crammed with tiny, repetitive tasks. Learn to look one layer deeper to find the underlying projects which will eliminate repetition and save time in the future.

For example, if you open your inbox to find three clients asking you three versions of the same question, you could either answer each email or spend time turning the answer into an FAQ page. The FAQ might take longer than firing off email responses, but it will ultimately save time since the question is likely to surface with future clients.

When it comes to priority, systemic solutions that eliminate repetitive tasks are often more important than completing the small tasks they replace.

Is this the most important thing right now? Or am I using it to avoid something else?

This one question will do more to clear your schedule than all the others combined. So often the one thing we really need to do is the one we’d least like to do—the difficult conversation, the final decision. We’ll do anything to avoid these, even if it means filling our to-do lists with low-priority busywork. Eliminate the ten procrastinator-tasks, and focus on the one important thing.

Once you’ve identified what’s truly important, it’s important to follow through and eliminate the things that aren’t. This can be difficult, and it’s why the 3P Framework begins by establishing the right mindset. Clearing your to-do list is not selfish, and it’s not lazy; it’s a crucial step toward ensuring that you can perform at peak levels for the long term.

The last step of the process is to introduce positive constraints into our work. Building on the wisdom of a 20th-century humorist, we will restructure our day to get more done while creating space to decompress outside of work.

Positive Constraints

Humorist, historian, and author of more than fifty books, Cyril Northcote Parkinson, was talking about bureaucrats when he wrote that “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

Popularized by Tim Ferriss in The 4-Hour Workweek, Parkinson’s Law has gone on to spawn a number of corollaries including the Horstman Corollary—“Work contracts to fit the time given for its completion”—as well as the comedic Stock-Sanford Corollary to Parkinson’s Law: “If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.”

While Alibaba founder Jack Ma is noted for endorsing the controversial 996 culture (working 9 AM to 9 PM, six days a week), Parkinson and Horstman would prefer you didn’t.

Some companies are experimenting with decreasing work hours and finding success. Perpetual Guardian, a firm in New Zealand that handles wills and trusts, tested a four-day work-week and found that it actually increased productivity among their staff while boosting job satisfaction and creativity. Similar results were found in Gothenburg, Sweden when the city council led an experiment to try six-hour workdays at select institutions.

The idea behind Parkinson’s Law is simple. The more time you have to do something, the more time it will take. By forcibly limiting the time available for work, we can ensure our work gets done quickly, avoiding the long days, all-nighters, and working weekends which lead to burnout.

Set Boundaries with Your Calendar

One way to put Parkinson’s Law into practice is to restrict the amount of time available for certain non-essential tasks like email or Slack. These tasks are dangerous because they can easily balloon and take up hours that would have been better spent on the main priority.

Remember: Work has a magical ability to expand and contract to fit the time given for its completion. If you feel like you’re spending too much time in your inbox each day, try blocking out specific times to check and respond to messages, and don’t check these channels outside of those times.

Another effective method for implementing Parkinson’s Law is to use outside commitments to ensure time away from work. Schedule activities into your calendar that force you to be away from your desk and out of the office. This could be anything from a vacation to volunteering. For high performers who respond well to a sense of duty, the volunteer option can be particularly effective and rewarding.

Reap the Creative Rewards

Time away has another major benefit which appeals to the workhorse mentality of high performers: it can lead to creative breakthroughs.

In her award-winning online class, Learning How to Learn, Professor Barbara Oakley says that there are two modes of thinking that the brain can use to solve problems. The first is the focused mode of thinking, the kind we do when we’re at our desk, hard at work on a project. Focused thinking is ideal for problems we’re relatively familiar with, issues with defined solutions. But it becomes less useful in situations where the answer is undefined or requires creativity.

In those circumstances, we can benefit from utilizing the second mode of thinking: the diffuse mode. This takes place when our attention is elsewhere and our subconscious has a chance to bounce an idea around without constraints. The reason so many creative ideas suddenly appear in the shower or while we’re walking the dog is because those are situations in which our mind is free to explore without the boundaries that the focused mode of thinking imposes.

A walk by the lake doesn’t just give you room to decompress. It can help solve challenging problems in a way that brute-force time at the computer simply can’t. The closer you feel to the brink of burnout, the more important it is to schedule time away from the screen.

Wrapping Up

Those with exciting careers will likely dance with work burnout from time to time. That’s okay. The goal is not to never feel overwhelmed (the only way to do that is to aim low); the goal is to recognize when you’re feeling overwhelmed and take steps to solve the problem before it gets more serious.

It starts by developing the right mindset around work—you must believe that taking care of yourself is part of your professional duty. Then, be ruthless about identifying the most important tasks and goals, continually culling the extraneous to-dos which creep into your day. Finally, use Parkinson’s Law and the power of positive constraints to increase output in less time, reclaim a life outside of work, and identify new and creative solutions to your team’s biggest challenges.