You've spent countless hours on something you used to feel so passionate about. Roadblocks appear, challenges arise, or a competitor steps in your space. No matter the issue, project burnout is a very real thing that everybody working in a creative or management position will feel during their career. It would make my day to be able to tell you that there's a cure to it. An easy breathing routine you can do in a few minutes, maybe? Unfortunately, like many other issues, it's a state of mind that you need to overcome, and while it can't be cured, you can certainly avoid it when you see it coming.
What is Burnout?
Before we can discuss the ways to identify clear signs of being burned out, we need to talk about what burnout really means first. The first clarifying point I want to make is that burnout is not stress. You can be stressed as a result of burnout, but the two feelings are mutually exclusive and do not always occur together. Burnout is trudging through your day with no energy toward what you want to do, or simply feeling drained. It's a feeling that no amount of weekends off, sleep, or caffeinated beverages seems to fix.
There are three research identified symptoms of burnout that are usually pretty good indicators that you need to make some sort of change:
- You're exhausted. You always have no energy, poor memory, and you feel sick pretty frequently.
- You feel alone. You argue about things with little to no provocation, you have a negative outlook, and you just feel isolated.
- Lower levels of performance. You find timelines hard to reach, you engage less with your team, and you're not able to concentrate for long periods of time.
It's important to remember though that everyone has bad days. Feeling like this for a short period of time or feeling this way as a result of hearing bad news is totally normal, but if this is everyday life for you, you're suffering from burnout.
So, how do I fix it?
If you or your team are feeling burned out there could be a number of causes to your problem. I'll discuss some of the most common ones, even issues we've faced at MelonDev before, and I continue to fight with personally. Some of these methods are as easy as policy changes within your companies, others may require you to take an active role in stepping back and giving yourself time to consider your work as a whole.
Define a plan, and stick to it.
When there are constant moving pieces, you'll feel like every step you take reveals another 5 steps that still need to be done. When things continue to come up, work keeps rising, and days keep going by, you'll never see the light at the end of the tunnel. Dividing your projects into tasks, stages, and milestones is extremely important, no matter how many last-minute ideas you come up with.
There are hundreds of task tracking apps out there with varying bells and whistles. As an individual, something as simple as Apple's Reminders app on your phone may do the trick, whereas teams may choose to use tools like Asana or Basecamp like we switched to back in March.
Streamline New Work Requests
No matter how organized you are with tasks, if you feel like you're being asked to do things from 20 different places at once, that will be another cause of burnout. Private Message, here, Email, there, Twitter DM over there. It adds up quick and will cause things to be missed. If your go-to management method is daily meetings, make that the only place you assign new work. If you frequently email asking for things, try to summarize everything into a single email, and consolidate it to either the morning or evening so your team members know what to work on for the day, or when they begin working the next day.
If you're an individual, try to only give out your work email and ask your managers to use it. If they have an internal communication app like Slack, try to get them on board with a proper task management system so everyone can be on the same page, and there isn't any nagging across multiple platforms or a constant stream of new work to do.
Prioritize and Conquer
If you're on a team as a developer, artist, modeler, or anything else, it shouldn't be up to you to prioritize your work. Your manager should be letting you know what should be done first, next, or last. If this falls on to you, not only will you be dealing with the work that needs to be completed, but you're also being asked to decide what matters most in the grand scheme of the project. This isn't a job that should fall to you.
If you're an individual or freelancer, ask your client to organize their list of requests in order of when they want them. It's much easier to focus when you have a clear roadmap of what to handle and in what order, without getting concerned about something being saved until the end.
Document. Document. Document.
We recently discussed the importance of Game Design and Documenting in another blog post, but documentation goes beyond just gaming. It's important to have a solid big-picture goal to work off of so you can ensure your work aligns with what's wanted from you. If you're making things up as you go, or constantly jumping into and out of meetings, things will be forgotten or constant revisions will be required to reach what could have been written down. Skipping this step could end up leading to one of those "endless working" feelings of dread, or missed deadlines. That's no good for anybody.
If you're not doing all 4 of the above, you've just found your core problem. Your working life will improve significantly (as will that of your team members) if you integrate these methods, and everyone will know exactly what they should be doing at any given time.
If you're doing the above and still facing burnout issues, don't fear, there are still some additional steps you can try. As I said, there's no permanent fix to burnout, and it will always creep up on you. If any of the following apply to you, try changing things up.
Still a problem? Do any of these apply to you?
Do you work with clients? If so, can they message your team members directly?
Your clients may have the most perfect picture of their end result. The best image of their game, website, logo, or even news article. They see the end result.. but they may not see the path to get there. But, neither do your developers, artists, or creatives.
It's important to ensure you have a Project Manager in place for your clients and team members. Your PM should be the primary connection between your client and your team. This will ensure that your team members have a consistent task flow of organized work, your client gets the questions they may have answered, and everybody stays in the loop.
Do you have weekly meetings or stand-ups?
The best way to ensure your team members are feeling appreciated is to ensure they have a place to discuss everything they accomplished. Whether you do this as a group or one-on-one, both will ensure they feel appreciated and that they can have a dialogue about their concerns.
Do you provide perks or incentives for great work?
While it may seem like a cliche concept, everybody loves to be prided for doing a job well. At MelonDev, we use Bonusly, which lets team members recognize the work they've done and appreciate each other. (They can also redeem this recognition for some sweet gift cards and prizes!)
Do you ever give/take the opportunity to "turn off"?
While it may seem that the simple solution to moving forward is to just work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week - this is never true. Select hours throughout the day where your work inbox doesn't buzz in your pocket, make an effort to step away in the evening and give your team members time to themselves. Many applications that are designed for virtual work environments will include scheduled Do Not Disturb systems. If yours does, use it.
You'll Work Through It
Burnout will affect everybody that is hard-working, self-driven, and extremely talented. What I talked about today is not a magic formula, but it will certainly help you get on the right path, and if you're a freelancer, it'll give you some things to look out for when finding new companies to work with. Together, we can all make work a little bit less stressful for all.
If you need assistance putting any of what we discussed into practice, contact us. We'd love to help.