Focus: How To Burn Brightly Without Burning Out

I mentioned in a previous article that I believe work is the opposite of depression. But what about people who are depressed because of their work? It’s not uncommon for people burned out from their work over long periods to suffer from depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. Because we strain ourselves so hard over our work, we become paralyzed by the thought of pushing any further. Either way, our depression results from the fact that we are no longer doing work that stimulates us the way that we enjoy.

Why do we get burned out from our work? It’s certainly not because we are lazy, like older generations like to accuse people. On the contrary, most of us enter the video games industry because we are so passionate about our ideas we want to work hard to build them. We are so eager to make an impact we are often willing to work twice as hard for twice as long. Working long hours isn’t necessarily bad (except when your supervisor expects it from you). For many of us, it’s because this work is our play. Yet most people who work in the games industry still leave after a few years because they are burned out and tired of the stress.

When we think of burnout, we often confuse it with exhaustion. For example, someone burns out because they work hard on something for a long time and are too tired to work on it anymore. While this is a source of burnout, it is much more complicated. A key distinction is that exhaustion is short-term. Once you have been able to rest and relax, you are no longer exhausted and ready to get back to work. However, burnout is a more severe long-term effect. As a result, most people who feel burned out cannot recover by reducing their workload or taking a vacation. If the solution were this simple, the issue wouldn’t be as prevalent today.

What is burnout? I like to describe it as doing work without focus. I mean focusing your time, skills, on effort into a single action. It’s easiest to break burnout down into three pillars.

  • Three Pillars of Burnout
    • Exhaustion
    • Sense of Ineffectiveness
    • Cynicism

If we feel just one of these things towards our work, we lose focus. If we continue to work without regaining focus, we lose even more focus. This cycle continues until the work becomes so unfocused that it’s impossible to continue working further. We can operate at 100% of our mental capacity when focused. The more unfocused we become, the more that percentage drops.

To better understand how to combat burnout, we can look at the inverse of these three pillars. Someone who is burned out and unfocused is viewed as exhausted, feeling ineffective, and cynical towards their work. By this logic, someone who is not burned out and 100% focused on their work has:

  • the capacity and energy to do the job
  • the knowledge and understanding of maximizing their effectiveness
  • a sense of joy or want to do the work.

While someone may not appear burned out until it’s too late, there are several signs that someone is operating outside their focus that can be spotted long before they burn out. It doesn’t matter how they are operating today. If they are working outside their focus, it’s just a matter of time until they burn out. In order to ensure that you or someone on your team doesn’t burn out, it’s crucial to be proactive about helping to keep everyone within their focus. Managing a team is not about assigning tasks, allocating hours, and approving vacation time. It’s about making sure the right people are in the right seats.

How do we make sure the right people are in the right seats? People can only operate within their focus if all three pillars of burnout are correctly resolved. To do this, let’s look at each pillar individually.

Exhaustion vs. Capacity

In most industries, no worker is ever doing just one thing. In small businesses, it’s common for individuals to wear many hats. Even in large teams, everyone has to coordinate with several people and manage a high volume of tasks. Therefore, it’s essential to understand how each job an individual has fits into the rest of their workload. When some tasks are added, it can be a convenient step added to the rest of their overall pipeline at little to no expense. However, when other jobs get added, they may throw a real wrench in the worker’s pipeline, creating extra hidden tasks. 

Some tasks are harder for some people than others. What might take one individual 5 minutes may take another individual an entire day. There’s nothing wrong with this. Assuming everyone was hired because they possess a valuable skill set, there’s likely another task that the first person does better than the second, which they can do instead. It’s important to consider how this task fits into someone’s skill set because this can drastically impact your estimations when trying to understand their total workload.

Especially if someone has to learn how to do something for the first time, it’s important to bake in time for research, testing, and iteration. If you assume that learning a new skill will take the same amount of time as using an existing skill, you will always push your team towards exhaustion. Regardless of if you meet the deadline or not!

You can’t forget about your team’s personal lives either. Not only do you need to consider how many hours an individual spends working on a task, but you also need to understand the total amount of hours they’re working within a day or week. It’s essential to guarantee that everyone consistently has time to spend with their loved ones or relax. In game design, we express, “if you do not give your players downtime, they will seek it somewhere else!” The same applies to our developers. If you or your team have to work long hours to complete your tasks, burnout is inevitable.

It’s not enough to just look at hours in a day or week. It’s also essential to understand how many weeks you or a team member have spent working on a single task/project. Your discretion is required, but depending on the scale of the task, there are only so many consecutive weeks an individual can work on the same thing before they begin to lose the capacity for it. Even if your initial schedule considers this, there can be several reasons someone may work on a task much longer than they intended to. Overscoping may cause the workload to grow beyond the initial estimation. Excessive bugs may prevent a job from being completed despite the deadline. Maybe the individual has trouble moving on from the task because they’re not satisfied with the results. No matter the reason, it’s essential to keep things moving along and let the worker move on to another task. Perhaps you just need to accept the current state or cut it altogether. Maybe you can find some time to revisit it later. In some instances, it may even be better to reassign the task to someone else to continue without concern of burnout.

Sense of Ineffectiveness vs. Knowledge and Understanding

Even if you are very skilled in your work, you may find specific jobs where it’s hard to feel adequate. Sometimes, you aren’t the most experienced or qualified individual for the position. More likely, though, this is because the job itself is too ambiguous or vague. To remain effective, you must avoid ambiguous work. Most of the time, you can solve this by taking time to define the expectations of your task further. If you’re worried about this taking up too much time, it’s crucial to understand how much time this will save.

When someone gives you a task that is too vague or doesn’t have a clear objective, this will likely lead to you doing a ton of unnecessary work (aka churn without progress). To solve this, use constraints to define your work. In my previous article, you can learn more about using constraints to combat ambiguity. The objective is to focus less on what you’re supposed to do and prioritize taking note of what you are not supposed to do.

Prioritizing your tasks is also an essential step to maximizing your efficiency. It’s not enough to keep a to-do list. Frequently sorting your to-do list will guarantee that you are constantly working on the most critical task. You can use tools (I use excel) to automate this sorting process for you. Rather than letting new important jobs sit at the bottom of your ever-growing to-do list, they pop up precisely in the order they need to be to ensure you complete them on time. As an additional (but optional) note, you can sort based on more than one value. For example, I usually rank my to-do list with two values: Priority and Complexity. With this practice, I can guarantee that that task at the top of my to-do list is the most important and easiest one! For many of us, it helps to start with the more manageable tasks and then work your way up to the immense task instead of tackling it head-on. The best part about sorting your to-do list is that it’s relatively common to complete some tasks that collaterally resolve other jobs. This will save you the trouble of doing unnecessary work! 

You’ve probably the phrase “Work smart, not hard!”. However, this is particularly important when we’re trying to stay effective. If you spend extra time understanding your expected work better, you’ll often find ways to simplify or automate the process. This is particularly important if it’s a task you will have to do repeatedly. Even if it may take a lot longer to complete the task the first time, it can save you hours, if not weeks, in the future iterations of this job. Especially in game development, there is almost always an opportunity to find or build tools that will save you time and allow your creativity to shine!

The sunken cost fallacy is also a common cause for churn without progress. This is when you have committed a ton of time and resources into a project that isn’t yielding the expected results or contributing towards any other goals, yet you continue to push it to completion anyway. Since you don’t want to lose the resources you’ve already spent, you continue to spend even more of your resources in a futile hope to reclaim what you lost. Sometimes the resources aren’t even a concern, and you’ve just grown attached to your work due to the amount of effort you’ve put into it. Just because something was hard work doesn’t inherently make it important. Detach the history of your work from your future tasks, and it will become clear that you may need to cut this goal from your project to focus on more important things. Don’t lose the battle with burnout over a hill that isn’t worth dying on!

Finally, don’t move the goal line! This is one of the most common mistakes I think I’ve seen in my experience. When we fail to meet a deadline (or even worse, we’re on track to meet the deadline too soon!), we often get tempted to update the deadline to reflect our new estimations quickly. While this is very important early in a project, it can be detrimental in the late stages. Moving the goal line eliminates our team’s sense of completion and ultimately undermines our sense of effectiveness. It’s often better to cut down your milestone than let the deadline slip. If you or your team don’t have a reliable expectation of their work, they can’t gain a sense of their effectiveness and often become cynical.

Cynicism vs. Want to do the work

In a work environment, cynicism is often the result of conflict, tension, or apathy. There are only really two ways to resolve these in most cases: clarity or change.

Often, a team can get cynical because of too much ambiguity. Ambiguous projects can be incredibly stressful and lead to the following:

  • Feature Creep
    • New tasks and features are implemented/requested outside of the initial design and expectations.
  • Team Anxiety or Confusion
    • Afraid of acting because you’re not confident in the outcome
    • Unsure of direction and next steps
  • Conflict and resentment
    • No clear ownership of responsibility leads to people directing blame towards others.
  • Indecision
    • Failure to act due to an inability to decide

As discussed earlier, it’s vital to use constraints to provide clarity and reduce stress. Clarifying the overall project is essential but may not be relevant enough to resolve an individual’s cynicism.

If an individual outlier is more cynical than the rest of the team, it’s likely because they don’t fully understand the purpose of their work. This is most notably the case when someone describes their work as “busy work,” which implies that they are doing this job for no reason beyond keeping them busy. Yet, in most instances, especially in small teams, no one is ever actually assigned nonsensical tasks. Instead, this individual is more likely unclear how this task is relevant. To better define the relevance of a job, I like to identify two things: the output and its need. 

In this case, output refers to tangible deliverables or results of this work. What does the output look like? Who is using it? How does it fit into the larger pipeline? Once we establish what the output is, we then want to clarify why we need it. What happens if the work does not get done? What quality or detail does the output need to be to fulfill its purpose correctly? It’s incredible how frequently answering these questions can make workers recognize that they’re overthinking a task or putting in more work than necessary! This newfound clarity will almost always help eliminate an individual’s cynical perspective of a task (or better yet, it will validate their cynicism and allow the task to get cut.)

It’s not always enough to clarify the purpose of the task. When this fails, the next step is to clarify you or the worker. Does this task fit into their skill set? Is completing these objectives fulfilling their ambitions? Do the values of the project align with the values of the individual? An important question I like to consider is whether or not you are looking forward to starting a task or looking forward to finishing a task. If you dread an upcoming job, you are already cynical towards it and on track to burn out.

Sometimes, your cynicism is directed towards an individual instead of a task. This is especially common if you are not happy with your manager, team lead, or senior developer. While it may be uncomfortable, you can also seek clarity with them. Professionally express your concerns, open a dialogue for clarification, and establish trust. Take time to learn and understand the other person’s values and ambitions, and use those to keep them honest. Sometimes the cynicism can result from annoying micromanagement or inflated ego. Establishing clarity with the other person can help both of you recognize if this behavior is warranted or not.

If none of this clarity has solved your cynicism, there is likely only one option left: change. Unfortunately, sometimes clarity may make you even more cynical. This is when it becomes clear that the path you are on will inevitably lead to burnout. Even if it may be temporarily uncomfortable or stressful, your long-term health will thank you if you decide to change what you are currently doing. This change may take many different forms, entirely dependent on what you feel cynical towards. This change may mean you need to be reassigned to a new task or team. This change may even tell you to find a new company or discipline. No matter how severe this change may seem now, it is negligible compared to the inevitable alternative, changing out of the industry altogether when you’re too burned out to work any further.

Conclusion

Burnout is the long-term result of someone who is overworked and consistently stressed out. For many of us, we’re so passionate about rising to the top, feeling important, or enacting change that we are willing to accept any task and as many work hours as it takes if we believe it will help us reach this goal. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, it’s important to temper our passion with practicality and make decisions that look beyond the next few hours, days, or weeks. Burning bright doesn’t mean burning the candle at both ends. Burning bright means making sure you are keeping track of how much oil you’ll need to get where you’re trying to go!

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