The #1 Strategy Top Performers Use to Avoid Career Burnout

and how young professionals can apply it to avoid burning out early in their careers

In today’s ultra-competitive work environment, the pressure to always be “on” is pushing people past their breaking points. We are working longer hours, checking our phones hundreds of times per day, and going non-stop, all day, every day. It’s no wonder why feeling overwhelmed at work is no longer out of the norm. In fact, one study found that 51% of white collar workers believe they’ve reached a breaking point – they’ve burned out and something needs to change.

Man crying from feeling the effects of burnout in his career

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Coming out of college, I was pumped to jump into “the working world”. I grew up watching my dad build a successful business and I wanted to follow in his footsteps.

But within 18 months, I was feeling burned out.

I was working long hours and putting in all this time – but for what? What purpose was I fulfilling? I was simply going to work…just to work. I knew there had to be something more but I had no idea what it was.

Let me just pause here for a second: for anyone who has been in their careers for 20+ years, you’re probably rolling your eyes, thinking:

This f*cking guy – burned out in 18 months? He has no idea what burnout feels like. Talk to me in 20 years, kid.

Look, I get it. The longer you are in your career, the more ammo you have to feel the pressure of burnout.

But technology has changed the game for young professionals everywhere.

With constant access to information, we came into a workplace that was no longer the traditional 9-5, but rather a 24/7 environment with the pressure to be constantly plugged in at all times of the day.

And it’s not just work that has forced young professionals to their tipping point.

It’s:

Work + navigating the dating world + paying off student loan debt + increased social pressures to succeed (i.e. social media) + everything else you deal with in your 20’s.

That’s what leads to career burnouts at such young ages.

So while a mid-life crisis can be reserved for your 40s and 50s, young professionals are hitting a similar point called a quarter-life crisis.

While I think this can be a good thing (see my Thrive Global article on that here), it can also be easily circumnavigated by taking some preventative steps well before a crisis hits.

One of the most effective tools to avoid burnout that I have used in my own life and with my coaching students is something that some the world’s top performers consider their secret sauce – and that is leveraging the power of interval training.

Leverage the Power of Interval Training

Growing up playing sports, I was blindly accustomed to (and you probably were too) the concept of interval training.

Leading up to the start of baseball season in high school, we had a tough workout schedule: weight training 3 days a week, cardiovascular training (i.e. sprinting up stadium stairs) another 3 days a week, and then practice 1-3 hours a night.

Our schedule was brutal, no doubt, but there was a rhythm to everything.

Our coaches would purposefully make us sprint our asses off, but then take breaks in between the workouts. They would run us silly in the mornings, but afternoon practice was relatively easy, focusing on strategy and ball work.

And Sunday was our off day. We were specifically told to not do anything physical.

Little did I know at the time, this is exactly how top performers train.

Picture of Interval Training

Interval training summed up nicely

They sprint, then take purposeful breaks.

Because it would be silly for athletes to train 24/7, 365.

Their bodies would never have time to recover and they would eventually burn themselves out.

Of course, this makes complete sense when it comes to athletics, but then when we turn to others areas of our life, like our careers or our work – we completely ignore this philosophy.

But, just like our physical bodies, our cognitive bandwidth has a finite end. If it’s constantly being used, those cognitive “muscles” can (and will) snap.

So when I read stats like the average U.S. employee who receives paid vacation has only taken about half (54%) of those days in the past 12 months, it blows my mind.

At the same time, I get it.

We are afraid that if we “turn off”, we will be replaced. We will miss something that could affect our performance, or we will be perceived in a different way around the office.

In a world where it’s harder than ever to turn off, how can you achieve high productivity without burning out?

The answer: deliberate breaks.

Deliberate Breaks

In the 1980s and 1990s, NASA conducted an experiment to figure out how they could prevent airline pilots from falling asleep mid-flight.

Yes, you read that right.

Pilots on long haul flights (over 7 hours) were falling asleep continuously in what are called “micro-naps”.

Pilot Napping while flying the plane

Micro-naps only last a few seconds but can be extremely dangerous, especially since a majority of these naps were towards the end of the flight.

Just what you want when a pilot is landing your plane, right?

In this experiment, NASA divided pilots into two different groups: Group 1 (the rest group) was required to take a 40-minute nap halfway through the flight, and Group 2 (the no rest group) was required to fly the entire length of the flight without rest.

What they found was that the pilots who took a quick catnap outperformed the no rest Group 2 on all measures. They were more alert, more focused, and had far superior reaction times.

This proves that short breaks are absolutely critical if you want to not only boost your performance but also prevent burning yourself out in the process.

Interval Strategies That Work

While taking naps may not be feasible at work (unless you work for a fancy tech company where it’s encouraged), you can still apply this same concept to prevent burnout and achieve higher levels of productivity — at the same time.

In the recently released book, Peak Performance, authors Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness lay out several different techniques that top performers use in interval training.

In each of the different techniques, there is a common theme: take breaks.

If you want to achieve higher performance while preventing burnout, do not work more than 2 hours without some kind of break.

This strategy was taken from the behavioral work of K. Anders Ericsson, who found through his work, top performers (no matter their profession) are unable to sustain intense concentration for more than 2 hours.

He found that, generally, blocks of time from 60-90 minutes are optimal.

This can be 52 minutes on with 8 minutes off, or 75 minutes on with 15 minutes off, whatever you prefer, as long as you don’t go more than 90 minutes straight without some sort of break.

This theory parallels a method I apply in my own work, called The Pomodoro Method.

Pomodoro (tomato) technique is a study method that helps avoiding procrastination using a kitchen timer

The Pomodoro Method, a term coined by Francesco Cirillo, is a time management method that came from a tomato-shaped timer he used to track his work as a university student.

When faced with any large task or series of tasks, his goal was to break the work down into short, timed intervals (called “Pomodoros”) spaced out with short breaks.

In a Pomodoro, you have 25 minutes of deep and focused work, followed by 5 minutes of cognitive rest.

Pomodoro Cycle to enhance your productivity

Repeat this 4 times in a row, and not only will you be more productive in that 2-hour time block, but you also won’t feel burned out at the end.

While this technique may seem simple at first, it’s easier said than done. It takes patience and some practice since we are so used to living in a distracted world.

Applying the Sprinter's Mindset to Your Career

Productivity tips aside, your career is a marathon (not a sprint). You will spend over 80,000 hours working in your career from the time you graduate college to the time you retire.

That’s a long freaking time.

Even though your career is a marathon, it’s a good idea to view it as multiple short sprints if you want to prevent burnout.

Whether you break your career sprints into hours, months, or years, make sure you take purposeful breaks accordingly.

Take Stefan Sagmeister for example, in one of my favorite Ted Talks ever, he describes how he closes down his New York design studio every 7 years to take one year off.

In his mind, he would rather travel now (every 7 years) and extend his retirement by a few years, as opposed to waiting until he’s 65 when he’s old and frail.

He sprints for 7 years, then takes a career break.

This clearly works for him but isn’t the only way to take purposeful breaks.

One strategy that I apply to my work rhythm is taking off one day per month.

It’s a simple solution that fits into my schedule and helps me maximize my productivity and minimize my burnout.

Essentially, it allows me to get the rest and recovery I need consistently so I can be sharp during my “on” days.

There is no “one size fits all” model here though.

Test different things out. If you can, take a day off every month, try taking a week off, or even test taking half days on Fridays if that works better.

Find what works for you and do that.

But, it's not always about performance...

While improving your productivity and taking breaks is key to preventing burnout, sometimes it’s not the right solution.

If you hate what you are doing for work, no amount of productivity (or breaks) will prevent you from burnout.

So much of your success in your career is predicated on you nailing your career goals, and ensuring you are in the right environment for success.

While I won’t go into the importance or process of getting crystal clear on your career goals, I have included several tools that can help you through that process in a comprehensive toolkit I built called The Success Toolkit.

Inside, there are productivity tools and clarity guides to help you take your career to that next level (and make sure you are doing work that you love).

Download a copy of the toolkit here, absolutely free:

The Success Toolkit

Grab a Copy of The Success Toolkit.

Five jam packed tools to help you get to the next level in your career. All for free. Just tell me where to send it and it's yours.

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