We’ve all been there. You just feel like nothing is clicking. You’re procrastinating, moving slower than usual, don’t get those brilliant lightbulb moments anymore. The energy and enthusiasm are missing… You think it must be that you’re finally bored, or lacking passion for what you do. Particularly around the start of the new year, everyone’s evaluating where they are and where they want to be. Do I need to make a big change? Leave my job? Switch careers altogether?! Before you jump to the conclusion that it’s burnout, it might be time to take a step back and ask yourself if something else is going on – namely, are you just tired?
There are things you can watch for to spot mental fatigue before it becomes a crisis, and really turns into burnout that’s harder to come back from without big changes:
- Quite obviously, a persistent feeling of physical or emotional tiredness
- Overwhelm with your to-do list, and more importantly, stalled progress on it
- Going through the motions versus working towards excellence
- Irritability and outsized reactions to small stresses or problems
- Inability to celebrate your “wins” (quickly moving onto the next…)
- A feeling that your work doesn’t matter
In today’s world, remote work is the norm, and there’s an unlimited world of tools and information at our disposal. Add on all of the task management tools, next day shipping, and grocery delivery services that make us feel like we’ve got our lives perfectly optimized such that we can always be productive, right? It can sometimes be hard not to put pressure on ourselves to constantly be firing on all cylinders, which for most of us means productivity every hour of the day.
This brings us to the concept of energy management, versus time management. You can actually increase your capacity to get things done by managing your energy, not your time. As cited in Harvard Business Review, “the core problem with working longer hours is that time is a finite resource. Energy is a different story.”
It’s all too easy to forget that rest – in all of its forms – is required for our bodies, or more importantly, for our minds to function at our best.
Get some sleep!
Sleep deprivation has been linked to depression, anxiety, memory loss, decreased problem-solving skills and more. Many assume that sleep deprivation is an extreme form of not sleeping, but even mild versions of this can impact your performance. Some might claim they’re part of the lucky few that don’t actually need that much sleep. Don’t fool yourself, it’s unlikely that you’re part of the “infinitesimal minority” that can run on less. So if you feel like you’re lacking creativity or motivation at work, maybe it’s time for a power nap!
Proper nutrition plays an important role in how productive we are, as well – eating right gives us the fuel we need throughout the day to stay focused on our tasks while avoiding burnout. There are an infinite number of perspectives on what this looks like, but a good place to start is the simplest of advice from Michael Pollan: “Eat [whole] food. Not too much.” If you can accomplish that, you’re way ahead of most.
Step away to stave off burnout…
It’s important for engineers to recognize that taking breaks isn’t a sign of weakness – in fact, many of the most successful people in the world make time for leisure activities outside of work. This can happen “during work,” as well. Whether it’s talking with friends over coffee or taking a walk around the block during lunchtime – these small breaks can actually help engineers get their creative juices flowing again and provide them with much needed perspective when they return to their desks.
Lastly, recognize that productivity and creativity are at odds
Adam Grant, well-known organizational psychologist, adeptly notes that a “stumbling block is that productivity and creativity demand opposite attention management strategies. Productivity is fueled by raising attentional filters to keep unrelated or distracting thoughts out. But creativity is fueled by lowering attentional filters to let those thoughts in.” Assuming that you view your work as at least part creativity, as much as it is about productivity, try not to just grind your way through the day to day. Take that walk, let your mind wander…
It’s easy for engineers (and everyone else!) to think that they lack passion or excitement for their job when feeling unmotivated – but oftentimes this is simply due to fatigue and lack of proper energy management. Take breaks and care for your body and mind to bring new perspectives to your work.