Burnout, taking a day off, and the 4 day week

While I was away, Keith posted here and on his personal blog about the dangers of burnout, and the benefits of recharging. I was paying close attention; it had been a while since I’d felt like I was in any position to think about my productivity and effectiveness, but I knew it was overdue.

I’m not really counting this last year as a normal year, I’m just happy to have made it through relatively unscathed. In cold professional stats, I’ve made more contacts, improved my software, and been more involved with the online ISV community. I feel much more comfortable with the situation I’m in right now than I was with my situation 16 months ago. Even though that might sound like a successful year, it felt quite different behind the scenes.

I’ve been up and down on an almost weekly basis. Sometimes I’ve been able to dig into something and bury myself in work, but other times I’ve struggled to get anywhere near a PC except to answer emails and read web sites. The personal situation (flooding & displacement, see last week), combined with a crazy desire to keep up and move everything forward, really took its toll on me. I can think of at least a few times when I would have considered myself burnt out, and even when you know it’s happening, it’s hard to dig yourself out and get back on track.

So, when Keith suggested taking a day off each week, I knew he had a good point. It acknowledges that burnout is a problem that’s easier to prevent than to fix, and taking one day a week when you force yourself to step back from everything and recharge seems like a sensible first step. When you first start working from home, or are just thinking about it, the idea of always being at home is appealing. It doesn’t take long to realize that actually, you’re now always at work. It doesn’t matter what day or time it is, or what else you might be doing, you’re still in the office, and there’s a part of you that just won’t switch off. Even if all you do is check your email and process support & enquiries, at the end of that day your brain will still feel like you worked.

Yesterday was my first attempt at taking a full day off. I picked Saturday because it felt like it would be easier for me, Sunday always feels like a good day to get a little done and ease back into the week... I think it would stress me out having to keep it clear. It’s obviously too early to say how it’s helping me focus, but it feels good to have started.

As for the 4 day week, I’m just hoping that’s not what Keith meant by taking a day off, because having 3 regular clear days each week seems a million miles away from here.

Not quite

Actually, I didn't mean a 4 day week at all... more like a 6 day week. My Sundays are set aside for just about anything else besides "working".,

Day off from GTD

I haven't read the full GTD book yet, so I'm not sure what it recommends. In the beginning though, he does mention that the GTD list needs to include personal and biz stuff. Do you follow the GTD method? Do you plan to take a day off from GTD?

I know if I do adopt GTD, I would need to take a day off from it each week. Even if simple things like gardening or reading a book were on my list, the last thing I want is a list to tell me what to do every day of the week. I need some freedom for impulsiveness.

My Todo...

I don't use GTD, but my ongoing Todo list - combined from dotProject and Basecamp by the way - is only things that have a deadline or need to be done for business, personal, whatever. I purposely don't list "fun" things like "whomp the storm troopers in Battlefront", "chase the cat", or "sleep until 10am and then watch the Sunday morning political shows." ;)

I make a point of trying not to look at my list on Sundays...

I'm glad!

Thanks for clearing that up, Keith. I thought you probably meant a 6 day week, but when I started seeing 4 day week links everywhere I had to make sure ;).

I don't follow GTD, but if I did I'm pretty sure I'd have to take a day off that too. I do make a lot of lists though, so maybe I should avoid making lists or elaborate plans on the day off too, just relax completely... I think my wife would be happy about that.

Bob's the GTD goto-guy, maybe he's got an opinion on taking a day off the method?


This article summarizes nicely how I've been feeling lately, although I don't have the luxury of looking back just yet as I'm right in the middle of a Beta and trying to start making money. But I can definitely empathize with the dramamtic ups and downs of mood and productivity. Lately it seems like I've written more lines of forum text than lines of code by a long shot (like right now...), and although it's good to take part in the community, it's definitely not helping my project!

One big problem I have is that I tend to work late into the night, so if I don't work any during the day, I feel like I had the "day off." It's almost like my week is broken into 14 shifts -- 7 day and 7 night. If I take off an entire 24 hours in a row, it feels to me like I've skipped two "shifts" of potential productivity. Argh, this is bad. I wonder how we can reprogram our brains to remain entrepreneurial, but at the same time, be realisitic about what one person can do each day?

Brian Moeskau
MyHomePoint.com - Powering the Modern Family

Not easy

I've cut down on night time work almost completely. I remember getting off the computer to go to bed, then thinking about what I was going to do the next morning, then getting up and starting work again... It's like the whole week blended into one long day.

Since I stopped working at night, I have found it a bit easier to get right down to work in the mornings. It cuts down on wasted time and makes me feel better about what I get done in the day.

I totally recommend the day off thing though, even though I just started, I felt like I got started more quickly on Monday morning than usual.

If you want to change the way you work, you're probably going to have to do it in small steps. One day off is a good start, cutting back on some of the night shifts might help too. You'll need to convince yourself that you're still doing the best you can for the business, and that keeping yourself sane and healthy is just as important to the business as that extra bug fix or feature.

What Would Pavlov Do?

My biggest issue with switching my routine away from working at night is one of very strong conditioning. Daytime is simply not productive for me because I cannot mentally focus, even worse at home. Emails and IMs disrupt things, errands and chores usually come up unexpectedly, etc. Yes, these things are manageable, if you're willing to commit.

But the flip side for me is that working at night takes no effort whatsoever. I have a ritual that is pretty well ingrained: hang out with the wife until 10, put on some coffee, turn on the two lamps and one strand of Christmas lights in my office, fire up iTunes, and it's off to work I go for the next 8-10 hours. No distractions, full concentration. I.e., I've conditioned my brain through behavior to associate coffee, mood-lighting and music with productivity. I've tried doing the same routine in the morning, but somehow, my subconscious can always tell the difference and is not fooled.

Brian Moeskau
MyHomePoint.com - Powering the Modern Family


When do you sleep?

Or is your entire life schedule 12 hours off?

Not much

I tend to sleep about 4-6 hours, usually starting in the early AM until 10 or 11. That holds for a week or two, but then I usually have to crash for a day or so every now and then. My wife doesn't really approve.

Brian Moeskau
MyHomePoint.com - Powering the Modern Family

Mellow but dangerous!

That night shift regime sounds very mellow and I can see how you'd get more work done, but I'm not surprised your wife doesn't approve.

You might just need to persevere more with recreating the environment in the mornings. Close your email & im clients as long as you can, I usually check in every couple of hours. Put any errands or chores off as long as you can, try to fit them in as you would have done if you were going out to work every day. And get a good nights sleep :).

It probably won't work right away, but I'm sure you can train yourself to work during the day if you commit to it and stop staying up at night... I'm sure your wife (and your body & brain) will thank you for it.

You'll probably still miss your night time regime, I have nights when I feel like that would really work for me too, but eventually we need to find a way to make our businesses work without completely sacrificing the other parts of our lives. Of course, you did say you're still in beta, so you might just decide to keep on burning for a few more months yet. Anything that might slow you down before a launch can be hard to justify to yourself.