To Cure Burnout, Embrace Seasonality

Here is a  brief excerpt from a brilliant article wriiten by Cal Newport and featured in The New York Times. To read the complete article, check out others, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

Credit: Tim Enthoven

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For most of human existence, the pace and intensity of productivity varied widely from season to season. During the roughly 300,000 years that Homo sapiens wandered the earth in bands of hunters and gatherers, nature dictated the rhythms of their daily activities.

After the development of agriculture around 10,000 B.C., the relationship between work and the seasons became even more structured, with predictably busy planting and harvesting seasons interleaved with predictably quiet winters.

It was the Industrial Revolution that ruptured this natural work cycle. In a mill or a factory, unlike on a hunting ground or a farm field, the relationship between effort and reward is constant: The more hours you run your factory, the more products you produce. This led to a conception of work as something that should occur at the fullest possible intensity, without variation, throughout the year.

When knowledge work arose as a major economic sector in the 20th century — the term “knowledge work” itself was coined in 1959 — it borrowed this approach from manufacturing, which was the dominant economic force of the time. Office buildings became virtual factories, with members of this growing class of workers metaphorically clocking in for eight-hour shifts, week after week, month after month, attempting to transform their mental capacities into valuable output with the same regularity as an assembly-line worker churning out automobiles.

In recent years, I’ve come to believe that the decision to treat the pacing of cognitive jobs like manufacturing jobs was a mistake. We seemed to have forgotten that life in the mills and factories was miserable. The unrelenting pace of those jobs eventually required the formation of labor unions and regulatory innovations, like the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which introduced a mandated workweek and overtime pay — all of which emphasized the artificiality of forcing our efforts into such an unvarying and demanding rhythm. And yet, as more of us shifted into the comparable comfort of office buildings, we carried over the same flawed model forged on the factory floor.

The problem with the virtual factory, however, goes beyond the fact that it makes us unhappy. It’s also ineffective. The process of producing value with the human brain — the foundational activity of many knowledge sector roles — cannot be forced into a regular, unvarying schedule. Intense periods of cognition must be followed by quieter periods of mental rejuvenation. Energized creative breakthroughs must be supported by the slower incubation of new ideas.

Studying the habits of successful creative people who worked outside a traditional office environment, we find they gravitated toward more varied schedules. Georgia O’Keeffe, for example, unlocked her famed productivity only after she began fleeing the city each summer to find quiet inspiration painting at Lake George in upstate New York. Lin Manuel Miranda spread the development of “In the Heights” over more than five years, as he found repeatedly returning to the play proved more conducive to creativity than trying to grind it out in one intense push. Marie Curie paused her pioneering research on the subject of radiation to take her family on an extended vacation. When she returned, she went back to her work, which eventually won her two Nobel Prizes.

For these well-known figures, taking time off or varying the pace of their efforts was not just about relaxation or escape but also about improving the quality of their output over time. Seasonal variation wasn’t a perk of their schedules but quite literally a more natural way to work. It’s no surprise, then, that so many modern knowledge workers feel burned out or frustrated with their professional routines. We’re forcing efforts best served by a looser rhythm into an unnatural and busy uniformity.

Our current era — in which the disruptions of the coronavirus pandemic have opened the door to exploring more radical ways of organizing knowledge work, such as fully remote positions and four-day workweeks — is the perfect time to push back against the virtual factory model and embrace seasonality.

Some jobs, of course, can’t support long breaks from intensity. If you’re the host of a weekly podcast, you cannot easily take breaks from releasing new episodes. In this case, smaller-scale variations in effort can still make a difference. If episodes publish on Fridays, maybe the following Mondays are kept clear of appointments beyond unstructured brainstorming sessions. This allows a slower start each week to better balance out a more harried end. At first, this might feel as though you’re wasting time on Mondays, but what you’re gaining in exchange is a more sustainable pace that sidesteps burnout and keeps quality high.

Maybe you won’t convince your boss of the value of seasonality. But not every strategy of this type requires buy-in at the organizational level. There are also more surreptitious ways to gain some of the benefits of this approach.

In 2022 the concept of quiet quitting — refusing to put in more than the bare minimum in your job — gained traction online. But it eventually lost steam as its adherents realized their employers didn’t share their enthusiasm for the idea. Hidden in this debate, however, was a pragmatic observation: You have more control over your workload than you might at first imagine. Saying “no” more often and systematically avoiding optional tasks can significantly reduce your sense of busyness. While permanent quiet quitting will almost certainly be noticed and frowned upon, temporarily keeping your head down and sidestepping more commitments than usual probably will not.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Cal Newport is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University and the author of the forthcoming book Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout, from which this essay is adapted.

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