Burnout Should Not Be The Price of Success

I hadn’t seen my buddy in 6 months.  As I looked across the table, I saw a once funny and outgoing guy barely able to finish his beer and just stared at the popcorn the waitress brought over.  He had bags under his darting eyes and yawned once every 2.5 minutes.

“Dude, I have never seen you like this.  What’s going on?” I asked.

“I’ve just been working non-stop.  Ever since I got promoted, I’ve added 100% to my workload for 18% more pay.  I travel 3.5 weeks out of every month.  I miss all the kid’s events.  My wife’s pissed I’m gone and I get about 4 hours of sleep a night.  There’s too many priorities right now.  I’m just burned out man.”

You see, my buddy is a project manager for a wind renewable energy company.  His previous position put him on the road about 25% of the time and he made a nice salary.  As with anyone who’s ambitious, he wanted to be more challenged.  He approached his boss, who made him an offer as well as a warning; be the global head of project delivery with both FTE and contract employees reporting to him.  He’d be on the road 100% of the time and have a lot more responsibilities.  The boss didn’t sugar-coat that it would be time consuming and tough.  Understanding the risks, he accepted.

Within three months of him taking the global role, project delivery increased and staff was reorganized so the right people were in the right positions.  More staff were added as were more projects.  Revenue is up.  Shareholders are happy.  On all fronts, he looked very successful.

But the cost of his success has been burnout.  I’m not talking about being tired and feeling that you’re overworked.  I’m talking lives off caffeine, lost a bunch of weight, family doesn’t like him right now, friends forgot his name and pasty skin from spending too much time in airports and planes burned out.

When we have a goal or idea we’re passionate about, or want a new and exciting challenge, we work hard to achieve it.  I’ve been there.  I spent hours and days working on it.  I was consumed.  But I also knew my limits and there came a point I had to say “Hold on buckeroo!”  I looked at what I was missing out on and had to prioritize what was important.  I still pursued my passion, but struck a balance with everything else.

Burnout should not be the price of success.  Sometimes you don’t recover and your health suffers.  Sometimes you lose relationships.  Sometimes it’s both.  Prioritize what’s important.

Hit It Hard and Hope For The Best

I played high school tennis with a coach who was a former pro.  His words were drilled into us and still ring in my head today: “Hitting a shot well is a requirement.  Hitting it hard is not.”  He taught the lessons of good form, hitting the ball with proper spin, and placing it where your opponent was not.  Hitting hard wasn’t something he preached as that approach lead balls going long or into the net.

Even though it’s been many (many, many) years since I last played, I picked up a racket over the weekend and played a set against a friend.  He hit the ball a lot harder than I did, but his shots went long at least 50% of the time.  I eventually won and as we laughed about our sub-par performance, he said “I just like hitting it hard and hoping for the best.”

That comment got me thinking; how many times have you heard “Let’s hit it hard, people!!”  It’s a battle cry to promote a sense of urgency and get things moving.  Some equate hitting it hard to being productive.  Hitting it hard equates to getting it done.

But is hitting it hard the right approach?  Are you getting the right things done?  Wouldn’t you rather be more prescriptive and tactical in completing tasks?  Could hitting it hard actually cause you more work by not looking where you ultimately want to go?  By going hard, are you also going long and missing the mark?

Next time someone says “Hit it hard,” think about what they want to ensure you’re doing the right work and not just blindly swinging.  Many projects just fire away without a definition of done or requirements defined.  That can cause work to go long or into the net and stop.  Doing work well, in a prescriptive and tactical manner, should be a requirement.

I Went Off the Grid, and the World Didn’t End!

Since the Fourth of July fell in the middle of the week this year, I decided to take a couple days off after the holiday and enjoy a long weekend.  I told my team if they needed me while I was away, I’d be available.

My family and I drove off to northern Minnesota to spend time with good friends at their cabin in the woods.  Cell service is barely available on a good day but knowing they have WiFi, I was confident I could stay connected.  Upon arriving we did our hellos and got the car unloaded.  After that we were about to sit down and chat when I noticed an email came in from a director with the subject “You Need to Review.”  Since the cell service was bad the message itself wouldn’t open on my phone, so couldn’t read it.

When I asked for the WiFi password so I could pull it up on my computer, the response was “It’s not working and we can’t get a tech out until Monday to fix it.  Sorry.”

Panic.  Fear.  Confusion.  Stress.  These feelings fell upon me within micro seconds.  No internet!!  No connection to the office!!  What the hell was I to do?  I would say it took 4 hours and some therapy from my wife before I accepted my fate.  I was off the grid.

But something happened.  I set my phone down and pretended not to see it (though my eyes intermittently looked at the screen to see if anything came through).  I started playing with my kids.  Then we went fishing.  More kid time.  A long hike through the woods.  I even read a whole book!  We had a blast!

I hadn’t received any emails between Wednesday afternoon and Sunday morning when we said our goodbyes and left for home.  Once out of the woods, emails flooded my phone’s inbox.  I started reading them, convinced something had gone completely wrong and it was my fault.  But instead, what I found was awesome.  When I didn’t respond after half a day, the emails indicated people met and worked out issues to keep progress moving.  Decisions were made.  They worked out their problems.  Status’ were sent without reminders.  Daily updates from key team members were also sent.  No one died!

Upon quickly catching up, I sat back for the three hour drive home happy in knowing I didn’t have any fires to fight later that night Monday (at least that I know of).  It shows me I can go off the grid and not have to worry.  Work will get done and the world will not end!

The Best Communication Doesn’t Always Require Words

As someone who’s been in the project portfolio management profession for 18 years, I can attest to the statistic that project managers spend 90% of their time communicating.  We’re talking, emailing, in meetings, on the phone, instant messaging and more throughout the day.  But when a team clicks, I’ve found that words aren’t always needed.

Take a group of bicycle riders.  When they’re riding in a line, or peloton, very rarely do you hear them talk.  Most often, you’ll see them use hand gestures.  For some that have been together for quite awhile, they just know based on small head gestures or about how long someone can hang out front.  Ultimately, they don’t require words.

Now think of a project team you’ve been on that really clicked.  They all start with the forming/storming/norming processes.  But when they start performing, there’s a chemistry that takes place where words aren’t always needed and non-verbals take over.

For example, one of the last projects I was on I worked very closely with an application development lead.  Her and I worked very well together.  We had a couple of challenging team members that needed constant supervision.  At first, her and I had to step away to talk quick when we had to address an issue, then come back to the person.  Over time, our body language and hand gestures took over and could address problems real-time instead of stepping out.

As teams and people work, verbal communication is necessary, but not always required.  The best communication doesn’t always require words when non-verbals can do the talking for you.