It is that common, it does happen to every guy, and it is a big deal. (I mean burnout. Not whatever you were thinking..)

by Ivan Mazour on July 19, 2014

For the past few weeks, the subject of burnout has been firmly on my mind. I watched a team member go through an acute burnout, and it made me realise that I should be more careful with my own balance. As I formulated my thoughts on the matter, I couldn’t help thinking back to this classic Friends episode.

I’ve always been both aware, and confused, about this whole burnout concept. The most prominent time that I experienced it was at Cambridge. I’ve written about it before, but a basic week there involved 40 hours of maths, and in reality it was more, especially in exam term. And on top of this, the lecturers went quickly. Really quickly. There was no time to ask questions, and most importantly there was no way you could catch up if you suddenly switched off for a few minutes during one. So for 3 to 4 hours a day you would be intensely focused, not letting your mind wander, constantly processing each step of the proof that was being presented at a crazy pace.

The other day I needed to arrange a simultaneous interpreter, someone who like in the UN would both listen and speak at the same time. The agency told me that by law they had to be given a break every 30 minutes. I inwardly laughed – 30 minutes was pretty wimpy – but I completely understood where they were coming from. Maintaining that level of intensity is truly draining.

exampleSo each term at Cambridge would start off well. The first day I would nail the lectures, understand everything, feel like I was totally in control. My lecture notes would be written up, and I would remember the salient points. When the first example sheet (homework) would come I’d be able to answer most of the questions and spot the relevant bit of the notes to look up for each one.

But four weeks into the eight week term, things would start to look very different. Although the pace would increase only slightly, what I would notice is that I was simply no longer able to keep up in lectures. I’d miss the logic behind steps. I’d be scrambling to work out what things meant while the lecturer would have already moved on. I’d have no recollection of the notes when I would come to doing the later example sheets.

Overall there was this rather strange paradox. There were six days of lectures – so those were full working days, and there was no choice about it. But for Sunday I had a choice. I could relax, try to recover, and miss out on the chance to catch up on some work, or I could do a working day, catch up, and be “better prepared” for the week ahead.

And the same paradox existed on a much bigger scale, with holidays. I could either relax and recover for a few months, preparing myself for the next term. Or I could revise the previous one, and get as far ahead as possible on the notes from the next one, to give myself more leeway.

In my first and second years there, I was young and I was unprepared. I literally burned out. By the end of the first term I was exhausted, and confused about why for the first time ever, maths wasn’t easy for me. My third year, however, came much later, after a gap. By this point I was older, wiser, more disciplined and more self aware.

The signs and symptoms of the impending burnout were easy to spot. Waking up in the morning was harder. The excitement just wasn’t there anymore. But the first thing I’d want to do as soon as I got up was mathematics. There was a fear of not doing it, and the instinct to do it as soon as possible after waking up, while I still had at least a semblance of energy. I’d be totally unable to process things at the pace that I knew I could, and that would in itself make me even more annoyed. I’d be unable to hold things in my head, or easily recall things I knew I’d learned. And overarchingly I’d feel totally out of control. I’d be on autopilot, sticking to a preprogrammed routine.

When I left Cambridge and started Ometria, I was on fire. I was a machine. On weekends I’d do online courses, physical classes, or hackathons. I finished CS50x, built a web app single-handedly, and won a hackathon, all while building a company. I was unstoppable. I’d found my calling in life.

I always wondered whether I was going to be able to keep up this pace forever. It’s been exactly two years now, and it’s interesting to be able to see. My days are intense. I get several hundred emails a day, which are just part of life and don’t really progress things. I manage a sizeable team. But on top of all this I also do a lot of ‘work’. Actual work – writing detailed documents, preparing algorithms, memorising talks. My days involve wearing many different hats, with the context switching overhead that this brings.

So I’ve been monitoring for the symptoms. First things first, every single day I jump out of bed, excited. That’s the one that is not going anywhere – ever. So that’s good.. But I’ve found quite often that I’m running my days on autopilot. Meeting after meeting, email after email, with almost no time to think strategically. To see the big picture. To understand where we are and what we should be doing.

I’ve found quite often that on a Sunday I’ll do a bit of work in the morning – maybe a document that needs peace, quiet and a few hours of concentration. But then for the rest of the day I’ll let my mind rest. I’ll play a computer game, or, much to the dismay of my fiancee, watch a Jason Statham movie. I’ll wait until Monday morning to plan the week, rather than using Sunday night as a chance to get ahead.

This has come naturally – it’s what my mind and body wants, and I’m letting it do it. Because the alternative is not something I’m willing to accept. I watched a friend and team member burn out recently. He had set himself the most intense pace I had ever seen. He’d be the first one in the office, even with a long commute. Staying in the office until at least 10pm every evening, he would get home and still spend time with his family. He kept this up for about a month. And then he literally called up and said it’s all got too much, I need two weeks off. I haven’t heard from him since. A lot of pieces needed to be picked up. A weaker team would have struggled. But we are Ometrians – we are always prepared to jump in and shoulder the burden.

I’ve learned a lot about burnout through the years. I feel like I have a system to keep it under control. First of all, awareness of the symptoms is vital. Without that, there is no chance of preventing it. We all have different levels of endurance, so it takes great self awareness to allow yourself to push all the way to the edge, and then back off in time.

Second, is a balance of recovery. One of the main symptoms of burnout is this feeling of being on autopilot, and of wanting to do work all the time. This is something that has taken me a long time to fine-tune. You absolutely cannot spend all day every day working. It leads to bad decision making, bad output, stress and ultimate burnout. But you also cannot simply drop things, especially when you have responsibilities to many people. That’s not an option either. I cannot just decide to not look at emails for a weekend – that’s just not acceptable for a tech CEO.

20140709_210956So what you need is the perfect balance. I’ve just spent a week on holiday. The moment I landed I had 45 emails. By the time the bags arrived I’d handled them. Over this week, I’ve kept entirely on top of what was happening in the office, I’ve overseen the things I am directly responsible for, such as PR and investor relations, but I have taken a huge amount of time out. No balls have been dropped. I’ve got a tan, managed to finally read Dune, and even watched the sun rise over the sea after a particularly late night – something I never allow myself during everyday life.

And how do I feel? Well I’m definitely not on autopilot. I’m totally in control, although currently there’s a lot less to be in control of – and that’s where I think the big win is. People who are go-getters are always try get to take on more. See how productive they can be. See how much they can do. Taking a holiday means you can drop anything not important, only manage the core group of responsibilities, and reset yourself to a baseline where you are totally in control. As soon as I return, I’ll no doubt pile my plate up again. But for the moment it’s all good.

ed253d05d6ce8e527da06b9f1a3c604eSo that’s the solution. Be totally aware of the symptoms, and as soon as you hit a feeling of being on autopilot, reset yourself – whether that’s with a one hour yoga class, a weekend away, or a fully blown holiday. Get back in control, gather your strength, and then prepare to push forward again.

Because, when it comes to burnout, the Rachel quote is slightly wrong. It is that common, it does happen to everyone, and it is a big deal.

Read my full story on the About Ivan Mazour page.

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Rajiv July 19, 2014 at 9:20 am

I don’t think I’ve ever seen this point made so well. It’s exactly why the terms at Cambridge are only 8 weeks. It’s pretty common to crumble around week 5.

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Ivan Mazour July 19, 2014 at 3:12 pm

Exactly. Doesn’t matter how well conditioned a person is mentally, five weeks into such intensity ability ends up reduced. For some people the reduced ability was still pretty epic though.. Hope the SFM example sheet image brought back some good memories!

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Evgeny Chernikov July 20, 2014 at 12:16 pm

It takes ordinary man more time to digest this post than author takes to write it. Ometria, no doubts, will change something in how this world works, however I always contemplated, how would the world look like if we could plug people like Ivan, high up into managing our countries.

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Ivan Mazour July 20, 2014 at 12:24 pm

You are very kind Evgeny. It actually did take quite a while to write though, and many years of thinking to pull all the thoughts together :)

You mention an interesting point. What kind of governments do we need to have to incentivise people to want to join, progress, and hopefully end up running our countries. Or do we need to look at those people, like Elon Musk, who simply go around government and management, and actually change the world without going through them – maybe that’s what we need to strive to do. Let’s just create something that’s so big, it changes the world and nothing can stop it.

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Evgeny Chernikov July 20, 2014 at 9:18 pm

I though you do that like every Saturday, while on trade mill)

I understand what you mean, about making it so big and changing it yourself. That’s philosophical thought, but anyway, every time I see another smart company raised say $1m, and think how much effort have been put into it and how effectively every cent is going to be used, and compare it with how government budgets are getting utilised. Imagine that resources charged with entrepreneurial drive. Personally, I admire Sochi 2014, but what if that project was managed with ‘tech start up’ determination and efficiency, how much more spectacular the result could be.

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Philip Wilkinson July 22, 2014 at 12:27 pm

A well-made point. We can’t maintain intense focus for a long length of time without the brain getting tired. There’s a ton of research in saying that it processes things better subconsciously so that actually doing something different (like reading a book, playing a game, taking a walk) really helps your mind organise and process things better.

We have a strange culture where not sitting at a computer screen for 8+ hours a day and “looking busy” is frowned upon – in most organisations – but that’s being busy and not being productive.

The best advice I ever heard was to divide your time into three segments:
i) Priority Days – only work on at most 3 very important things which require concentration and effort – and make a difference. Put all admin /requests into a pile
ii) Admin Days – this is when you address the admin pile and ONLY work on admin tasks
iii) Free Days – completely non work related things. Often it could be learning a new skill or trying something different, doing some sport, or chilling with friends.

Divide them into 1/3 each – seriously….

Guy who told me this said his productivity increased 2x and he worked harder on priority days, got more done – and felt clear headed. His free days made him feel great, well-rounded, and worked just as well in accomplishing things.

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Ivan Mazour July 22, 2014 at 12:58 pm

It will take a lot of discipline to split them into 1/3 each. I’m currently instituting an admin day on Wednesdays.. Next step a Priority day and a Free day. Then when I have one each, and the rest is still a bit haphazard, we can see whether it’s possible to add in one more of each. But I do really like your framework – it may be interesting to try and label a day, based on the first meeting/project booked for it, and then ensure that any other work was of a similar nature.

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Gulnaz Khusainova July 22, 2014 at 2:05 pm

Great read!
I was curious to know if you use any specific tools/services to manage your work (especially admin, day-to-day tasks, e-mails etc.) or any other “techniques” like priority/admin/free days.

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Ivan Mazour July 23, 2014 at 8:52 am

Thanks for reading, Gulnaz. I’ve recently switched to Any.Do for task management, having spent the last 5 years or so using 42tasks.com (which I built). I find that a simple task manager is much better than a complex one – the key for me is being able to note it down quickly when I think of it, and then have a list to run through whenever I have free time so I can tick off something that needs a similar amount of time to the time I have. I’ve not found it useful to try and manage my entire life through a project management system like Asana – it might be possible, but it’s not for me. With e-mails, I don’t move them out of the inbox into a task list, as that’s just a redundant action. Instead I keep four separate sections in my Gmail – one for important but non-urgent, one for important and urgent, one for “stuff to read at some point in the future” and one for unread, from which I then allocate to the other three sections. So between this and the task list, things always keep moving.

Strategic thinking is a whole other separate set of processes though – some mindmaps with MindMeister that I look at every quarter or so, and then a bunch of decision analysis processes similar to the ones I describe in my Key Decision Analysis post. There aren’t really any tools for that, so I tend to use either paper or Evernote.

How about you?

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Gulnaz Khusainova July 23, 2014 at 1:26 pm

Thanks for the answer!
I currently use Trello for work tasks (probably because we manage all the team tasks there, so it’s nice to have one platform for all tasks) and Wunderlist for personal/work tasks. But Any.do looks really nice and easy to use, so I gave it a try today :)

All e-mails I divide to “Answer in an hour” , “Answer today” , “Important” (which means “it’s important but not urgent”) and the rest of e-mail leave unread to check out later. I also like working on weekends and late evenings so Boomerang is really helpful to schedule all the e-mails so they will be sent later.

I like using visual boards and mindmaps but couldn’t find any proper and useful solutions, so just prefer to use paper and Google Docs (if I need to share and get a feedback) and after divide to tasks. But I will definitely check out your “Key Decision Analysis” post.

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Philip Wilkinson July 23, 2014 at 2:44 pm

Both good suggestions. It’s a fascinating topic.

I used Todoist to remember general tasks, evernote to store my OKR’s (google style), and I follow Inbox Zero:
things I can do there and then I will
things that need to me to do something get copied into a task
things that have information I need to keep – get forwarded to Evernote

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Ivan Mazour July 23, 2014 at 3:05 pm

But then do you not end up with a thousand different notes in Evernote, and no real chance of ever going through them all?

James July 24, 2014 at 9:59 pm

Ivan, totally agree Jason is the best for mind-numing freedom! Thanks for lifting the lid here.

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Ivan Mazour July 25, 2014 at 8:21 am

His ability to incapacitate half a dozen people is always entertaining – it’s always the same scene, in every single movie, and yet it’s always good to watch. Thanks for reading – hope all is well!

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Monty Munford July 28, 2014 at 10:41 am

Excellent piece and iterates everything that was happening to me/happened to me on holiday… the one exception that I went completely cold digital turkey for eight days, another kind-of strategy to handle the other 51 weeks of the year.

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Ivan Mazour July 28, 2014 at 10:42 am

How cold digital turkey was it? Are we talking no e-mails of any kind at all – or did you still sneak a peak every couple of days?

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Rohit August 8, 2014 at 9:29 am

An aspiring entrepreneur, hungry to learn and driven to succeed. Thanks already for the insights on this blog – I have a lot to learn still)

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Ivan Mazour August 8, 2014 at 10:41 am

Thanks for reading Rohit!

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Richard Lucas August 31, 2014 at 10:57 pm

three thoughts

– Sounds like Cambridge maths is harder than Cambridge economics

http://www.structuredprocrastination.com is a way to go. learned about this from Glenn http://glennf.com/vanity/whatidid.html

Hyrum Smith saved my sanity with this book. when collapsing from overload
http://www.amazon.com/Natural-Laws-Successful-Time-Management/dp/0446670642
key insight is that “time management is life management” because your life is measured in units of time.

I bought the tapes – remember them – and don’t regret the cost at all.

A daily “to do” list is all it takes – provided you reflect on your most important long term goals before doing the daily list.

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Ivan Mazour September 1, 2014 at 9:11 am

I love the concept of structured procrastination – fundamentally it’s about not trying to force your mind into a direction it doesn’t want to go in, and instead structuring life in such a way that you’re maximising productive output without messing up any deadlines..

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Philip Wilkinson July 23, 2014 at 3:50 pm

Not really – a bit. Just categorise them and put the most important ones in the shortcut list on the side. It’s not for to-do lists – it’s for reference material

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