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I have been with my current employer for about nine months. Due to what I believe are project planning issues that occurred prior to my employment here, the project I joined in-progress, which was scheduled for completion by last October, is still ongoing with no sign of ending. The project is important to the company, and I realize it is my job to help bring it to completion. Honestly, though, I'm tired of the project (as is everyone involved, I think), and try as I might to be professional, I think my "burn-out" is making me less productive than I would like. How can I alleviate this burn-out when there is no light at the end of the tunnel?

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Maybe by reframing your situation - this is not burn-out by any definition I know. :) Have you tried a holiday, preferably without any interference from the project? –  Owe Jessen Apr 10 '12 at 23:31
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What you subscribe sounds to me like you lost your motivation and the confidence in the project. Even though this might sound like nitpicking, with regard to the future of this site the tag burn-out should be reserved to the medical condition. I found the following paper burnoutintervention.eu/fileadmin/user_upload/… which might be of interest to you and as a reference for further discussions of this topic. –  Owe Jessen Apr 11 '12 at 9:51

4 Answers 4

up vote 18 down vote accepted

It might be time for a rebirth, or a "come to Jesus" meeting, as a CTO I worked for would say.

The facts

  • The project is behind schedule
  • The project still needs to be completed

You suspect...

  • Others are burned out too
  • The project planning was/is mismanaged.

What can be done?

The project is already behind and everyone is still chugging away with no change. This is a classic scenario for bad decisions to be made (imagine a basketball game where you are down by a lot — it's easy to just start throwing up three pointers which have no more chance of success than they did before), and since the project is behind you know something went wrong somewhere.

The time that you are behind is a sunk cost and as much as everyone feels the urgency to keep their heads down, with no time for planning, recuperation, or organization — those things are still the best way to make the project a success going forward. Otherwise, you will surely experience diminishing returns as the way you are working is not sustainable.

So, I would bring the facts, your suspicions, and a proposal to your manager. Tell your manager you think this is the best way to make the project successful. The team needs to get together and have a meeting to discuss the following things:

  • What is left to be done
  • Is anything off-track beyond saving
  • Does any realignment of strategy or planning need to happen on the remaining work?
  • Pick a new deadline. How long realistically will the remaining work take? Re-estimate it however your group works, with an emphasis on worst-case. Remember Hofstadter's Law:

    It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law

  • Are the current daily and weekly processes and work schedules going to be effective and sustainable for the time remaining?

  • Can any general team-health efforts (brainstorming meetings, book clubs, team lunches, encouraging/scheduling vacations for individual team members) increase the ability of the team to execute against the newly-planned deadline?

As you or your manager bring up these issues, if your suspicions are correct, other team members will begin to express their concerns as well. You're going to have to figure out what's gone wrong and it's easier to do that all at once. Hopefully you can all walk away with a renewed sense of purpose, productivity, and sustainability. That's the best way I know to fight project burn-out.

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Burnout is not a mental dilemma. If you find a task that is engaging, interesting or relevant then you will have the mental capacity and intelligence to solve it as you have always done in the past.

Burnout is not a physical dilemma. Unless your project work involves pushups you are not going to be physically burned out. Stress may have adverse physical effects upon you though.

Burnout IS an emotional dilemma! It generally comes with becoming emotionally invested in an endeavor or activity that is starting to feel fruitless and full of failure. It is a crush on morale that wreaks havoc upon your will power to continue.

The good thing is that you have intrinsically accepted the tasks and you have taken ownership of the responsibilities that were laid upon you. It is that ownership though that has emotionally invested yourself into this project so when the project is failing you will take it hard emotionally.

The true challenge is to try and turn the Rational Argument into Emotional Reasoning where you can begin to neutralize the emotional block that is hindering you. The Rational Argument of course is:

I did the best I could under the circumstances, yet forces outside of my control have caused my project to fail. I should feel proud and learn from this.

Easier said than done, and to some of us this transference of rational argument to emotional argument comes naturally. There are a number of activities that you can perform to make this easier.

Humility exercises (Eg. After a meal in a restaurant try burping as loud as you can!). Examples like this one can help make you respond easier to embarassing situations. It also helps you willingly be okay with being judged or criticized by others.

What this does is it actually helps reduce your need to feel accepted in the eyes of others. It devalues emotional investment in favor of rational thought. This coupled with reinforcement of the rational thought will help turn it into an accepted emotional argument.

You will find that you feel good about your role and you will have increased intellectual curiosity in how things play out on a large scale, and you will have less emotional investment in the success of the project.

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Disconnecting my emotions from my project doesn't help me if I have to continue to work on it; I want to be emotionally invested. I want to work on something that matters. Emotional detachment is not a valid career proposition for me. –  NickC Apr 11 '12 at 2:31

I like @NickC's answer if the project has truly become a death march. However, nothing in what you wrote tells me that this is anything other than an ordinary long-running project. (I've been through a few death marches and usually if you discuss them, the person will be much more detailed and clearly upset and angry, I don't see that in what you wrote.)

So I want to come at the problem from a different perspective. All large projects of any kind have moments when it appears you are not making progress and everything seems to be going to hell in handbasket. All of them. This applies to writing a novel or creating a large painting or training a dressage horse or doing a manpower study of naval aviation maintenance (to pick a few, not-so-random examples) as well as programming. It is the nature of large, complex projects to have dark periods.

In my experience (which covers a lot of fields and a lot of large projects, as you may have noticed), it is a good sign when you reach the dark place. It usually comes right before a breakthrough that makes all the disparate pieces start to fall in place.

The critical thing is to keep working when the universe is telling you to give up. Persistance has solved far more problems than raw ability.

Another thing that helps you see the light at the end of the tunnel is to look for smaller goals along the way rather than the final end date. So celebrate that module A is done as a sign of success even though modules b, c, and d aren't even designed yet. Take pride in the small accomplishments.

For your own personal use, make a list of all the tasks you personally still have to do on the project and tackle them one at a time. You will feel like you are making progress as you see those tasks get checked off.

Don't worry about being "in the flow state" or motivated, just pick something and start. Sure you might accomplish less in a given 4 hour period if you are not in a flow state, but remember persistence is the key. You will accomplish more by plugging away even when you don't feel like it than when you wait for that mysterious state of excitement and flow to happen. Most successful artists and writers that I know work at it on a schedule every day whether they are in the mood to work or not. Programming is the same, you need to work at it every day whether you are interested in your particular task or not. Persistence is the key to success. Oddly, flow seems to come easier when you persist even when you aren't in the mood.

It seems an odd recommendation but I suggest you get a hold of a book called The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. It talks alot about being creatively stuck and how to get out of that state.

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I am running my own app development company and am mostly under the influence of my own stress and requirements to finish projects on time.

I find that once I get to working I tend to overwork quite a lot. When I work on something, I don't like to stop until I am finished which can make me end up working 12 hour shifts without a break and almost without nutrients except for coffee (if that even counts). The work gets down but it really wears me out mentally and physically.

As a result, I often hold off on starting my work day and spend extra time in bed because I know what type of unhealthy work marathon awaits. I think this is the main cause for laziness, burnout and stress - the notion that something has to get finished no matter what and the constant stress while it is still in process. It makes us procrastinate because the act of working turns into something seriously unhealthy and undesirable.

A work-life balance change might fix this problem. I have successfully gotten more productive and less inclined to procrastinate and stressing out/turning into an awful person by adhering to the following:

  • I work to live, not live to work
  • The sole purpose of my work is to maintain my lifestyle
  • My lifestyle is what brings me meaning and happiness
  • Working doesn't make me stressed because it is not what I live for

I now view my work as a necessary evil that lets me do what I love; spend time with friends, my girlfriend, eat great food, exercise, travel, meet new people and celebrate life. I can always look forward to what comes after work which therefore makes me inclined to starting earlier and finishing sooner. I have become much more productive and in a fraction of the time. Because I don't make my work seem so incredibly important it has become fun again. It is no longer a matter of life and death since all I can do is my best.

This might sound hippy and all but it worked for me. I think the main cause of stress, depression and work-related illness (even laziness or procrastination) comes from unhealthy priorities. You can have many jobs but only one life. If you work for someone else, do your best every single day and that's where it ends. Don't let your employer's priorities affect your own life goals. Your goals are always more important.

Likewise, if you work for yourself, don't forget why you chose to become an entrepreneur and be free to make your own path in the first place. Don't loose track of where you're trying to go and what made you take the leap when you quit your job. I'm sure it wasn't to replace one work-related stress/illness with another.

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