Three years ago, I burned out. I was working nearly full-time while attending night classes to complete my MBA in New York City. Around 6am, I’d get up to finish assignments, work until 3pm, and then go to class. I crammed in dinner before more homework at 10pm — and I know I slept at some point, but it certainly didn’t feel like it. I was “on” 24/7 and anxiety ridden to the point of panic attacks. My diet would have embarrassed an undergrad, with takeout containers overflowing from my fridge.
Burnout — when you physically or mentally fall apart due to stress and exhaustion — can affect anyone, and tends to sneak up on us like a sudden brain freeze after a massive spoonful of ice cream. Sure, at first we want to pile that spoon high with all the flavors — to be and do everything all at once — then the shock of pain hits. When we don’t say “no,” set healthy boundaries, get enough sleep, or take care of our minds and our bodies, we eventually wear down and wear out.
If you’re hiding and crying in bathroom stalls, having trouble sleeping at night, but falling asleep in public (been there, done that), or feeling constantly crushed, do yourself and everyone around you a favor: stop and reassess.
Can you change your schedule, quit something, or say no to a commitment? I felt like I couldn’t. FOMO (fear of missing out) is a big issue, especially in a busy city like New York. However, I argue it’s how we organize our time, prioritize our to-do lists and distribute our energy that is key to preventing burnout. Prioritizing health and rest is essential to maintaining peak performance. So how do I fight burnout on a daily basis? I’ve adopted a key technique: working in sprints.
What are Sprints?
No, I don’t mean the kind of sprints that require running shoes and spandex (although whatever works for you). Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines sprinting as “To run or go at top speed especially for a short distance,” which is exactly what I do when I work.
Just as alternating sprints and jogging workouts boosts your metabolism and burns more calories, short, intense sprints of work enhance productivity. In each sprint, I focus on one task alone, and do multiple sprints throughout the day. The minute that email, social media, or texts intrude, momentum is lost. So it’s key to have no distractions.
Just like any other task, sprints need to be based on priorities. For instance, big projects are easiest to work on when you have the most energy, which for me is in the morning. A daily workout is a must-have for me, and I like to catch up with family and friends each day too. Once you know your top priorities, you can build your sprint schedule.
A Day with Sprints
My day looks pretty different now that I work for IBM as a Client Executive to Apple. As a member of their salesforce, we aren’t required to come into an office every day. I have access to a mobile cubicle, but I’m typically working at my client’s site or from home.
Here’s my daily sprint routine:
5:30am — 7:00am Work out (or think about working out while checking email), check the news, social media, get ready
7:00am — 9:00am Respond to email, projects, calls with colleagues
9:00am — 10:00am Commute to South Bay: take work or personal calls, listen to podcasts, indulge in some car karaoke
10:00am — 4:00pm Work at client’s office: meetings, networking, prospecting, projects, etc.
4:00pm — 5:30pm Commute to SF: more calls, podcasts, meditate to manage traffic rage
5:30pm — 10:30pm Work, calls, dinner, events, relax, spend time with loved ones
During the large chunks of time, I split my work into intense sprints with short deadlines. The breaks — filled with podcasts, calls, walks, etc.—are distributed so that I have the necessary energy and creativity boost to sprint through each major task. Since I often work in the evening, these daily breaks also alleviate the stress I used to feel.
The Sprint ROI
Remote working combined with the sprint method has allowed me to create the best work-life integration possible. My anxiety level is significantly reduced, and I’m more productive. I’m still hustling with the same level of intensity, and often work the same number of hours as before, but in a healthier (and happier) way.
For those of you who don’t have as much flexibility to determine your hours, I still recommend splitting your day into sprints in some way. Break it up with standing or stretching breaks, walks, or alternate work activities. The key is to assess your daily routine, streamline it, and leverage necessary interruptions to activities. By building this natural sprint and break structure into your day, anyone can use the sprint method for a more productive, integrated work life.