To Avoid Burnout, Know Your Minimum Output Level
Having a long and consistent career requires doing just enough each day
It’s simple and inevitable: When you try to do too much in a short amount of time, you burn out. The only way to avoid that, to have a long and consistent career, is to do just enough each day.
But what is enough? To find out, let’s look to those who have it down to a formula.
When we think about the most productive people, it’s easy to assume they’re working 18-hour days and sacrificing their personal lives (and sleep) to get it all done. But that’s just not the case.
Take Stephen King, who publishes a book a year: In spite of his extraordinary output, he’s not sitting at a computer and writing all day long. In his memoir On Writing, King writes: “I like to get 10 pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words.”
That’s a good amount of writing, but it’s manageable, and if you’re a pro like King, it might take just a few hours. He writes that he has enough time in the day to go for a walk, read a lot of books that are not his own, spend time with his wife, and watch baseball.
King figured out what I call his Minimum Output Level (MOL), which is the specific measure of work you need to do consistently in order to reach your goal. You can calculate your MOL per day, week, or month, depending on the type of work you’re in.
On his MOL of 2,000 words a day, King writes, “That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book — something in which the reader can get happily lost if the tale is done well and stays fresh.” He took what he wanted to achieve — a finished book in three months — and worked backward.
To avoid burnout, figure out your own MOL and how much energy you should be exerting every day. Here’s how:
1. Set a realistic goal. Give it a time frame, such as “launch a side business in six months.”
2. Break down your goal into daily actions. Make these actions as concrete as possible. For instance, you might calculate that to start your side business, each day you will need to email five potential partners, work on your proposals for one hour, and gather research for 30 minutes. This is your MOL.
3. Give yourself some guidelines. Sticking to your MOL is simple, but not easy. If you’re like me, you’ll want to do more. But tell yourself that after you complete your daily actions, you will allow yourself to be satisfied with calling it quits. You won’t feel guilty if people around you seem to be working longer hours or creating more — it’s likely that what they’re doing isn’t sustainable.
What I’ve learned after studying personal productivity for 10 years is that every time you think you need to do more, you probably need to do less more effectively. If you think deeply about what you want, you’ll probably realize you don’t need to do all that much. There’s power in recognizing when it’s time to walk away.