10 Ways to Combat Project Burnout

Have you ever been on a project where you can’t seem to catch up? You’re limited on time but there is too much to do? Or you’re struggling to make progress on a hard or nebulous problem? If so, you may be on the road to burnout.

The most burned out I’ve ever been was during a period in Graduate School when I was trying to balance teaching a class, mentoring new students, and writing a research paper. I had very little capacity left. My burnout showed up in a number of small ways, like forgetting to respond to emails, missing grading deadlines for my class, and writer’s block on my paper. A series of cumulative, consistent mistakes lead to more mistakes — creating frustrations that limited my ability to do my job well. It had become unsustainable.

During that period, and in my subsequent professional career, I’ve learned a few things that help me navigate and alleviate burnout.

1. Identify Pain Points

Before anything else, take the time to identify where the pain points — the stressors — are in your project. On a software project, this could be things like a complex deployment process, slow progress, or complicated relationships on the team.

Identifying the problem(s) will help you give voice to your stressors, which will make it easier to communicate about them later.

2. Limit Your Exposure

This works for the class of problems that spawn from chaotic environments and outside stress. There is stress in every project, but when others’ stress seeps into your everyday life, it’s time to limit your exposure.

Stress about deadlines, coworkers’ interpersonal squabbles, and pressure from higher-ups all fall squarely into this category. When you encounter these, limit your exposure (where possible). This can be achieved by limiting your participation in group chats, focusing on actionable work, and making incremental progress.

3. Time Block

It is highly likely — and in some cases inevitable — that you will be tasked with work outside of your primary responsibility, such as meetings or one-time initiatives. These responsibilities can easily eat into your time and ability to accomplish your primary work. As a result, you become more pressured to produce, and stress mounts.

Time blocking can help address this in two ways. First, it gives you a concrete amount of time/effort before you return to your normal expectations. Second, it provides you with a way to communicate these efforts and how much time may be needed to complete them fully.

4. Limit Your Responsibilities

If you are experiencing burnout, it’s very likely that you are over committed. To address it:

  • Set boundaries around areas of responsibility. Know what you need to own.
  • Work to shed existing responsibilities beyond your capacity. This can be difficult to manage, but working beyond your capacity will only make burnout worse.
  • Clearly communicate your capabilities to clarify others’ responsibilities and prevent future issues.

5. Elevate Your Concerns

It can be very easy to suffer in silence, with the perceived notion that everyone else is having the same stress. It’s crucial to elevate your stressors and communicate with your project managers and leadership that the current process, as it is, may not be sustainable. This is your opportunity to offer suggestions and re-work the overall process. If nothing else, communicating will bring awareness.

6. Advocate for Yourself

In conjunction with elevating your concerns, it’s important to advocate for yourself. Even if you clearly communicate your responsibilities, it’s possible for your areas of responsibility to grow beyond your capacity.

When this happens, you need to advocate for yourself. This can be in the form of requesting more help, breaking down stories, or taking time off to recuperate. Project managers can help with this, but you are the only one who knows the extent of your stress or burnout.

7. Focus Your Energy on Enjoyable Aspects

Find the work that you enjoy and focus on it. Every job will have work that you enjoy or that drives you. Focus on this when possible, and use it to recognize success in the project. Not all work will be enjoyable, but emphasizing the fun helps deal with the stress.

8. Create a Hard Boundary Between Work & Downtime

Don’t let work intrude on your time to relax and recharge. Commit to limiting work email/messaging (particularly with clients) that happens outside of normal hours. This varies from job to job, but creating space for yourself will pay dividends.

Now that you have some space, find hobbies or activities that help you recharge and fulfill creative needs not found in work. Everyone is different, but if my job is programming all day, I need something a little different outside of work to recharge. Find that passion, whether it’s food, crafts, or something as simple as walking your dog. Don’t let the burnout extinguish your enjoyment elsewhere in life.

9. Move Forward; Don’t Dwell

It’s easy to look back and dwell on the issues from the project, the decisions that could have been made differently, and the new perspectives we have with hindsight — all of which lead to more stress and burnout. It’s important to have this perspective, but don’t dwell on the negatives.

You need to acknowledge what has happened, plan for the future, and execute going forward. If changes need to be made, decide what’s in scope, then move on. Trying to fix old mistakes while making new progress is a recipe for disaster resulting in only partially done work.

10. Seek Help

Finally, it’s important to acknowledge that we cannot solve every issue ourselves. This has been alluded to throughout, but sometimes we need to rely on others for help and support. A useful way to achieve this is through therapy. If you are feeling overwhelmed, finding someone to talk with can make all the difference.

How cope with my graduate school burnout? I identified the pain of having too many responsibilities within a given time. Then I reached out to my advisor for guidance and clarification. Together we decided it was best for me to step back from full-time research for the semester, limiting my hours to half-time. I was able to time-block class prep, grading, and research better. Additionally, I prioritized office hours and working with my students, as this was my favorite aspect of my job. Finally, I sought outside help. I relied more on my TA to answer small homework questions, and I found a therapist to talk to. Using a combo of the above tips, I was able to make it out of burnout.

Burnout is not something that can be fixed in an instant; it is a process of re-orienting expectations to a manageable place. I hope my experience will come in handy when you’re feeling overwhelmed.