I have a one question triage process when I’m concerned that I or one of my teammates is headed towards burnout:

If you take the pace & quality of the last 2 months of your life and repeated it again and again, how long would you be able to sustain it?

Why 2 months? It’s long enough to be a representative sample of your pace and cut out the rush of a specific project deadline or medium sized stressful life event1. But it’s a small enough sample to check in regularly, and most people have a fairly clear sense of what their last 2 months have been like for them and can visualize what repeating it would look like.

When I ask myself or a teammate this question, it tends to elicit one of 3 responses:

”I can’t go on like this.” The current pace is unsustainable and we’re probably already well into the burnout phase where tasks are being dropped, personal needs are not being met, and everyday life has become overwhelming.

”I can make this work, but…” The most interesting result of this question to me is that it often makes it clear where a priority is being dropped. “I’m doing good, but I wish I was doing a better job making time for my kids”. “I’m getting by, but I feel like I only have time for the urgent and I haven’t had a chance to invest in myself”. “I can do this for a while longer, but I have to figure out a way to live in the moment in the evenings and leave my work at the office”. The act of visualizing a plausible future often causes people to hone in on what they’re missing.

”I love my life, and I can keep doing this forever.” If this is where you’re at, treasure it and check in regularly to make sure it’s still the case.

What next?

The question above is laser focused on triage. Exactly how to handle partial or complete burnout is situation dependent. But I try to hold to principles of optimizing for the long term and tying my time to my values. That means while it sometimes may make sense to live in an unsustainable place for a season, I’m always going to weigh that impact on myself, my family and my teammates against the longterm value and take it seriously2. And if my time spent doesn’t line up with my principles and values for a significant length of time, I know it’s time to implement a plan for change.

  1. For large life changes like job switches, family emergencies, society-changing pandemics etc it is probably better to assume that short term data is not representative, err on the side of scaling back as needed, and take stock of things on a regular basis. ↩︎

  2. A note on taking things on for a season; It’s only a season if it has a defined endpoint or offramp. If you and your spouse live in different cities to optimize for your career, or you’re working 70 hour work-weeks because your job demands it, and you don’t know when these things will end, you’re not in a season. This is your life. ↩︎