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Until recently, burnout was something other people suffered from. I had seen burnout in others before. I had read about it. But it wasn’t until October of last year that I experienced it.

“You’re just tired” I told myself, “Man up and get on with it — you’ll be fine”.

But I wasn’t fine. Frantic dreams (when I could get to sleep), mood swings, anxiety and anger at the smallest slights made me a particularly unpleasant person to be around and, well, to be.

I crashed into the Christmas holidays, but three weeks off seemed to do the trick. As the time to return to work drew near, I made my plans for the next few weeks, set my goals, and told myself “that won’t happen again”.

But it did happen again. Worse this time.

More quickly. 
More insidiously. 
Darker.

It got to the point where I really worried that something was very wrong, and I had to take notice of the signs that I was overdoing it. Feeling this twice within the same 6 months? To prevent history from repeating itself (again), the question had to be asked — how did I get here?

I love coaching — it is my life’s work. I love the consulting work that I do — it is mentally challenging and I can make a real difference. I love my fiancée (we were planning a wedding through all of this, and both have two jobs) and I take pride in exercising and keeping fit. And because I love all of these things, I managed to trick myself into thinking what every A-Type person does; that we can do it all.

 

Are you present, or are you just there?

 

Whilst away on a recent holiday, I read the second most pivotal book I’ve ever been lucky enough to get my hands on — “The Power of Full Engagement” by Jim Loehr & Tony Schwartz. In it, they discuss the four pillars of energy management and discuss why it is energy, not time, that is our most precious resource.

Their point is this:

Time management makes sure you show up to an event. Energy management makes sure you are engaged with that event.

This resonated with me. The book seemed to be written for me. After all, what I and the people I coach really seek is not really more hours in a day. What we really want is a way to be more present and engaged with our work and with our friends and family, and to not be so tired all the time. A way to not drag ourselves through each of our many chosen responsibilities. A way to be productive, to achieve, and to be happy, all at once! Mr. Loehr and Mr. Schwartz make the compelling case for working smarter, not harder, as a way to achieve this.

 

I’ll work smarter tomorrow

 

We’ve all heard this advice. We’ve most likely given it. But how often do we take it? After all, it is so easy for life to beckon us back to our old habits with a looming deadline, or a great new sales opportunity to chase, or maybe just another opportunity to achieve something more. We think to ourselves “I’ll just get this done, and then I’ll work smarter”. So why is it so easy to do this?

In my opinion, a lot of it comes down to ego, and identity.

Ego, because in our culture 18 hour days and 3 hours’ sleep are badges of honour. We feel better, stronger, superior to our cohorts because no-one works harder than us. We’ll sleep when we’re dead. We don’t have time to bleed.

Identity because we’ve always been the go-to in the company. We’ve always been the one who will gladly shoulder additional responsibility. We are known as the one who can do it all. And we like that. That’s who we are. If we change it, who will we end up becoming?

But at some point, we have to draw a line in the sand. We have to hold ourselves accountable to working in a different way. Never mind that you will be more productive, and that the work you produce will be of a higher quality. Never mind that you will enjoy the health benefits that come from not over-working. If you really want to excel in your chosen field, and still have someone to meet at home at the end of the day (and who still wants to meet you), then working smarter, not harder, needs to become a priority and a daily practice.

 

Progress, not perfection

 

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you become a couch potato and do nothing. I’m not suggesting that you should not make the most of those great opportunities that come your way. In my opinion, one should always give maximum effort to whatever they love. But Tim Ferris said it best:

"Massive action, without clearly defined objectives, is a form of laziness"

Put another way, rushing headlong into everything all at once isn’t big or clever or heroic — it is stupid and lazy and costly to our success, our loved ones, and our health.

Some people who come to me for coaching think that one session will fix them. Most of my coachees know that this is not the case. As the saying goes, improvement comes down to small changes, consistently done. Reading the books I’m going to recommend later on won’t do anything but give you the tools you need to make a change. It will come down to trying, every day, to improve your work habits, and make energy management a priority.

As an example, a big weakness of mine has always been knowing when enough is enough (watch this space for a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu story — spoiler alert; I push myself too hard and I lose). So my focus has been to put the pen down, step away from the keyboard, and to take a break. What really helped me to achieve this is working in segments of 1.5–2 hours, then taking a 20 minute break (thanks to Mr. Loehr and Mr. Schwartz for this). I even put my phone on flight mode. It’s amazing what you can get done in two uninterrupted hours. I’ll stick to it for a few days, but like everyone else, I am human, and the ego and the sense of identity creep back from time to time, but that’s ok. We are aiming for progress here, not perfection.

 

So what now?

 

If anything I’ve said resonates with you, there are a few places you can turn to to start your journey to greater energy efficiency. Below are three great books that have helped me and that I know will do the same for you:

  1. “The Power of Full Engagement”, Jim Loehr & Tony Schwartz
  2. “Ego is the Enemy”, Ryan Holiday
  3. “Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done”, Jon Acuff

Read them now, thank me later. Or, try setting a timer for 90 minutes, putting your phone on flight mode (unless you’re waiting for an important call, that is), and turning off your email. I promise you just two things; the world won’t end, and you’ll get loads more done.

James is a Mindset Coach and founder of Next Level Personal & Executive Coaching. He works with individuals who want to make the most of what life has to offer, both personally and professionally, by helping them to build a high performance mindset. These individuals gain greater clarity of the direction their lives are taking, insight into their personal unhelpful habits (and strategies to overcome them), and a series of methods to help them make better choices to get back control of their daily lives.