You must stop to succeed

11 tactics to beat burnout

When I need to get something done, I really love getting up early.

I'm happiest working in the warm silence of my home office at 5.30am, before the house starts to come to life.

Just me, the dog, and a clear head. It's my perfect setting for peak productivity.

It's addictive.

But if I start work at dawn every day, it doesn't end well.

No matter how fit you are, pulling 12-hour plus days for long periods of time ends in burnout.

And if you start early, it's tough to clock off at 3pm. Even if you can manage it, the rest of the world might not want you to be unavailable in the afternoons!

I don't know a single successful person that worked hard who didn't end up in a bad way at some point.

Your mind is telling you that to succeed, you have to put in a continuous super-human effort.

And its true that success rarely comes without putting in a great deal of work.

But I've learned that the most successful people are careful with their time, and often do less hours that their peers.  

I used to always start work early. I often finished late. Working in the news business, someone had to be on call on the weekends, and that was often me.

I travelled long distances to industry conferences. I stayed up late to finish off shows in the edit. I tried to set an example by taking full responsibility for all of my company's outcomes.

And looking at others who run content businesses, I don't think I was unique in that.

When things get tough, creators often look to double down, to put in an extra shift.

When work went quiet, I tried even harder.  I would push to win more work, to produce more successful content, to shift momentum towards a more positive trajectory.

That led to a state of semi-permanent exhaustion. I suffered physically and emotionally.

And looking back, I now realise that many of my worst decisions, most badly handled conversations and weakest ideas occurred when I was running on empty.

I crashed pretty hard a few times.  And I was lucky to receive remarkable support from my family, friends and colleagues.

Each time it happened, they suggested I take things a bit easier, give myself a break, try adapting my routine.

At first, I didn't really understand, and couldn't adapt well.

But the more times I burned out, the more I realised I needed to change my approach if I was to prosper.

The truth is that successful lives are marathons, not just sprints.

You have to pace yourself. Look after yourself. Put your own health and wellbeing first.

And the best way to do that? Develop a set of rules that ensure you are getting the time and space you need to.

Here are mine.  I've not always been able to stick to them. But when I do, life feels so much easier.

  1. Work-free weekends - After busy weeks, I was so exhausted that I only started to feel human again by Sunday afternoon. Taking two concurrent days out of work provides the space required for you to recover. Make weekends sacred.
  2. After-dinner wind downs - no work after your evening meal gives your brain the time it needs to get ready to sleep. Some people have a specific wind down routine
  3. Phone-free bedrooms - checking data or making calls when you should be asleep isn't great for your wellbeing. Keep night time for sleeping.
  4. Stretch every day - I have found doing 20 minutes of Yoga with Adriene each day has been transformative. The combination of physical and mental relaxation is efficient, and acts as a brilliant stress offsetting regime for me.
  5. Slow down Fridays - try ensuring you have little or nothing in the diary on Fridays - especially after lunch. This will allow you to wind down into your weekend, rather than collapsing into it. Also, if you are travelling during the week, try to get home on a Thursday, not a Friday.
  6. Walk between meetings - in pedestrian-friendly cities like London or New York, it is a great idea to walk rather than jump on public transport. A little light exercise, plus time away from a screen creates a refreshing interlude in which to regenerate.  
  7. Mandatory gaps in your day - lunch always used to be an hour's break. But often now it is eaten at our desks. Ensuring you have regular time out in your day is vital if you are to stay healthy and positive. Back to back calls rarely end well. Put a number of 'executive time' blocks into each day to ensure you balance your time. It will increase your productivity.
  8. Scheduled vacations - use up all your holiday time, every year. Book it well in advance. If you don't, you won't regenerate. You also risk drifting away from those closest to you.  
  9. Exercise - ensure you sweat for 30 minutes 3 times each week.  it makes you feel great after you get used to it. And has huge physical health benefits too. Book it in!
  10. Giving back - each month, schedule at least two sessions where you actively give back. This may be mentoring a junior colleague, or volunteering for an NGO. It will put things in perspective and help remind you of how lucky you are.
  11. Book in some fun - there is nothing like having a blast away from work to refresh yourself. Whether that's mountain bike riding, seeing old friends, having a date night or even cooking a special meal, put a dose of fun in the diary each fortnight.  

Whilst I used to find a strange sense of pleasure working when the rest of the world wasn't, over time I adjusted my approach to prioritise staying healthy.

My brilliant colleague Caspar Norman used to say to me - "You always have your best ideas in the shower, or while you're walking the dog. Go home!"

I realised that if I was flat out, I didn't have a moment to let ideas breathe.  I wasn't able to subconciously ruminate on tricky problems.

I was riding an adrenaline surge rather than going with the flow.

The reality I didn't want to accept was that when I stopped, the world carried on just fine without me.

And work was there when I came back - ready for me to jump right back in.

Being busy doesn't mean you are being productive.

If you don't look after yourself, you eventually burn out. And when you're burned out, you can't help anyone else.

Helping yourself become resilient is vital if you want to help others.

And giving yourself the space for great ideas to appear is key.

Caspar was right. I always had my breakthrough ideas when I wasn't at my desk.

So, develop a set of rules to ensure you stay well. It will help you, your business and your collaborators.

Get busy stopping.

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Sam Barcroft

Sam Barcroft

Creative entrepreneur and strategist with over 30 years experience of building media businesses
Herefordshire