Burnout

Hi, I’m Andrew, and I’m a workaholic.

It all started when I was 16.

I was living in my mum’s living room. We didn’t have a kitchen, the hot water didn’t work and there were snails crawling on the carpets.

I figured that work was the way out of this. Work hard, make money, buy new house (without snails).

I started by googling “highest paying degree” and LSE Economics popped straight up – £45,000/year. More money than I could ever imagine.

So I worked out how to get into LSE.

Straight A*s at GCSE, great AS-Level scores, Oscar-winning personal statement etc.

And so I started working.

My reward of 11 A*s at GCSE was a sweet first victory and from here on I was addicted.

I continued to work extremely hard academically, scoring top of my year at LSE, and entrepreneurially, launching several businesses and ventures. And immediately after graduating I continued straight into Up Learn (a company I co-founded in my last year at university). This is when things started to get overwhelming.

The first few months working on Up Learn were like a time warp. I spent most of my time in a “flow state”, working at 110% productivity and loving every second of it. I was on a mission to change secondary education in the UK and deeply committed to it.

But as time passed, the workload bore down on me. I unnecessarily forewent holidays and social commitments to get our first course out on time, and ensure the company became successful. My only day off was Sunday – which I had to spend tutoring for 12+ hours to make sure I could support myself (unfunded start-up life – YAY!)

It was a lot. And I started to burn out.

I was able to push through with a series of £1000 bets: I gave my co-founder £1000 at the start of the week, Monday; if I met a set of productivity goals (e.g. finish 7 sections of the course), I’d get my £1000 back at the end…if not, I’d lose the full £1000.

High-stakes, especially when you’re otherwise broke – but f*ck me, it worked! With the risk of losing an entire grand hanging ominously over my head, every second of my day was meticulously prioritised and outrageously productive. The stress wasn’t even stress, it was eustress, and it kept me going up until May 2017.

The company had now raised a load of money from investors and we were hiring a team of people to replace me!

I was free 🙂

On my first day of freedom, May 28th 2017, I got a Thai massage, a haircut, a beard trim, I bought clothes, had a shower – it was great.

Day 2 of freedom I started a new company (lol…) called VIP Health.

Day 3 I realised I was broke so started tutoring several new students privately, all of whom had done no revision and had exams coming up in the next 4 weeks.

Day 4, I realised I’d been sucked back into workaholism…

And then 5 weeks later, things started to go awry at Up Learn and I had to return to try and fix things (I’d only left because I thought post-fundraise I wouldn’t be needed anymore).

Flash forward to September 2017: I was now working at Up Learn again (full-time), in my spare time I was trying to keep VIP Health running (because I hate letting people down)…and then I took a teaching position at LSE which was meant to be a 2-hour commitment each week but spiralled into 2 days of weekly hell.

At the time, I thought I was juggling things quite well and even believed my life was balanced because of the 6 hours of weekly leisure time I’d scheduled into my calendar:

But looking back on it^, I was working 14 hours a day, things were a mess…and in mid-October I finally burnt out completely.

Burnout (though ill-defined) is a real thing, with symptoms including:

  • Depression
  • Cynicism
  • Resentment towards your workplace
  • Depersonalisation (feeling disconnected from your company)
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Reduced performance ability
  • Reduced motivation

And the burnt-out months that followed were nightmarish.

I felt like my brain had melted into a thick sludge of helpless neurones: I couldn’t think clearly, I couldn’t articulate myself, I couldn’t complete basic tasks. I was tired all the time, I hated everything to do with work, I just wanted to quit…but at the same time I was convinced I could will myself through it (as I had so many times in the past).

In February it got really bad so I agreed on a £3000 bet with my co-founder, which I’d only get back if I hit my productivity goals for the week.

I didn’t hit them.

My dad’s funeral was on the Tuesday – and that shifted my perspective like a lorry hitting a cyclist.

Life’s too short to be unhappy. So I stopped working that week and spent two days in a cottage in Woking, where I completely reprioritised my life.

On Sunday, I grinned as 23:59 turned to midnight and I lost my £3000, and on Monday I started living.

The weeks that followed have been the happiest of my life.

I’ve been to Paris, Israel, Belgium and now I live in Spain. I’ve reconnected with my passions (writing, learning, gaming, art etc.). And I was able to find a way to neatly exit work without triggering the apocalypse.

But already I can see myself getting sucked back into it.

Workaholism.

In the last two weeks I’ve started two new companies (the Up Learn Summer School and Open Door Visuals) and everywhere I look I see new goals to get obsessed with.

But I can’t let myself get sucked back into the loop, I need to learn from my mistakes.

So I’ve devised a series of decision-making heuristics and lifehacks to keep me on the happy rails and away from any binge-working:

1) Reprioritising my goals

I’ve always had goals but never included “airy-fairy” stuff like “improving my happiness” or “building more meaningful relationships”.

Why?

Because these goals are harder to measure, and also harder to work towards (compared to more concrete goals like lose Xkg per week or earn £Y per month)

But these “airy-fairy” goals are ultimately the most important.

So each week, when I sit down to perform my weekly review, I now qualitatively evaluate whether I’ve taken steps to improve my happiness and think about how my relationships are developing. I then write out the actions/tasks I need to complete to progress these goals further, and allocate these tasks across the week (just as I would with any other responsibilities).

But what’s been more helpful than simply writing out and reviewing these new “airy-fairy” goals is prioritising them – specifically, prioritising them above other goals (like saving £20,000 this year or learning Spanish).

This prioritisation creates a useful mental heuristic: knowing the order of my goals, when a conflict emerges between two goals (e.g. to work an extra 6 hours or go out for dinner with my girlfriend), I use the order to prioritise (i.e. I go out for dinner with my girlfriend because my happiness/relationships are more important than entrepreneurial success).

I’m now prioritising my life much more effectively towards happiness.


2) Stopping apocalyptic thinking

The world is not going to end because I didn’t send out that email. To be honest, the world doesn’t give a f*ck about my email.

It’s so easy to acopaltypicise when you’re running a business because its success is extremely close to your heart:

Recently I’ve been trying to fight this type of thinking. When I feel under pressure to compromise my health or happiness to complete a task, I just write out the worst case scenario to remind myself it really doesn’t matter if the task isn’t completed: I’ll still be alive, I’ll still be happy, this urgent end-of-world task is just not worth the stress. And then I write out what I’m going to do when I do resume work – otherwise I’ll spend my leisure time thinking about how to fix whatever problem I was trying to solve instead of being present.

This has really helped me disconnect from work and be more present in my life. Just last week I was able to take 5 full days off work in the middle of a marketing push to go to a music festival in Belgium. It was totally worth it and when I got back everything was…fine.


3) Two-factor authentication

Saying no to exciting opportunities is hard – especially for us myopic, short-sighted humans.

Our present selves love to say “yes” to everything because it gives us a cost-free buzz: we anticipate the fun/rewards we’ll have/receive, increasing our present utility, and then leave it to our poor future self to actually manage the commitments.

Sometimes we need someone else to challenge and authenticate the decisions made by our present self.

I now have my girlfriend double-check my commitments, as an objective viewer, to make sure I don’t screw myself over in the future. Instead of blindly agreeing to everything, I’m forced to think more deeply about whether this commitment is really something that a) I can manage and b) is going to improve my life.


4) Automatic Mac shut down

I added a bit of code to my Mac to automatically shut it down (and prevent it from turning back on for the next hour) at 2am everyday. This ensures I don’t ever compromise on sleep and also helps me work more productively up until 2am (because I know I won’t be able to keep going after 2am).

You can do this yourself here.


5) Accurately estimating time required

Historically, there’ve been many times in my life where I’ve gotten something done in a fraction of the time normally required. (E.g. studying my A-Levels in 6 weeks to a 97% average)

Unfortunately, this has also led to quite a nasty downward time estimation bias.

I look at tasks, I think about how quickly I could get them done at max productivity, and then use that to form my estimate of the time required.

For instance, when teaching at LSE, I assumed I would need perhaps 2 hours to prepare for my 2 hour class. Great. A 4-hour weekly time commitment – no problema.

But turns out that on a Monday morning, when your brain is dead, that 2 hours of prep time is actually 8 hours of prep time. So now you’ve got a 10-hour weekly time commitment – big problema.

And then there all those hidden time-suckers you just don’t think about when you rush into things: walking to campus to teach (0.5 hours), the weekly teachers’ meetings (2 hours), the office hours (1.5 hours), dealing with student emails (1 hour), arguing with the lecturer on the best way to teach things (1 hour), being exhausted after teaching (3 hours).

Boom – now you’ve got a 19-hour weekly time commitment, half my work week gone.

To get better at estimating the time requirements of new commitments, I am now spending much more time looking into the details of opportunities before signing up (by walking through the full activity from start to finish – literally if possible, or mentally) and using extreme time estimates (e.g. 4x expected time required) when dealing with unknown/new opportunities (because if you haven’t done a job before there are just bound to be a bunch of hidden time-suckers awaiting you). I then compare my final time estimate in hours against the opportunity cost of time to see if it’s something I should pursue.


The above tips have already served me well and will, I hope, keep me away overworking in the future. There’s just so much to life and I don’t want to let my work get in the way of it.


Subscribe for new posts!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *