3 Tips to Banish Productivity Burnout

When I tell someone I work at Evernote, I’m typically met with responses like, “You must be so organized!” and “You must be such a productive person!” But something I have come to realize is that everyone’s definition of “productivity” is different, and productivity itself is extremely personal. What makes someone feel productive differs from person to person, as does the impact of “being productive.”

From “quiet quitting” to “productivity burnout,” many people are finally discovering that there is a limit. Constantly trying to do it all, be the best, and accomplish the most… it’s exhausting.

Look at me, for example. I was sitting at my computer one Friday afternoon, looking back on my week and feeling proud of myself. I had accomplished six tasks! But then I saw the 17 tasks I had accomplished the week prior, and the comparison immediately made me feel bad. Taking those numbers at face value, it looked like I had slacked off. But as I started to review the actual tasks I’d completed, I realized that this week was full of big, important, time-consuming projects. My tasks might’ve all looked the same in a list, but that doesn’t mean they all required the same level of effort.

Productivity burnout happens when you compare your worth to the biggest task on your to-do list.

One thing I’ve had to learn is that my value is not based on my productivity. My worth doesn’t change, no matter how much or how little I accomplish in a week. As I have learned more about myself and what “being productive” means to me, I want to share some observations I have made about productivity and the burnout that follows.

Productivity boundaries

“Quiet quitting” is the not-so-radical idea that you should only do the job responsibilities you were hired for and are paid to do. Nothing more. Nothing less. According to Gallup, “quiet quitters make up at least 50% of the U.S. workforce,” and the concept is only becoming more popular as it spreads rapidly across social media. 

In comparison to the standard work ethic prized in corporate culture, where you’re expected to do everything anyone asks of you, no matter what, this newly popular concept of “acting your wage” can be a welcome relief. It feels like it’s lately being taken to mean refusing to do anything that falls even slightly outside the scope of the job, to the point of avoiding opportunities that could lead to more work. 

Neither of those extremes has ever felt right for me; while nobody enjoys being overworked, I absolutely thrive on getting the opportunity to take on something new (for example, writing this very blog post!). So I made up my own option. I have been working on building productivity boundaries in my life and work that allow me the flexibility to step out of my lane and do more than is expected of me when I want to. 

The Productivity Boundaries Scale I use to determine when I want to make that step looks like this: 

1 = UGH → 5 = OBSESSED. 

When a new task, idea, or project comes up, if my automatic reaction is to sigh or say, “ugh,” it doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t do it. It just means I know that completing that task will come at a high price. 

Anything that comes in as less than OBSESSED on the scale costs something: energy, joy, time, you name it. Productivity burnout is prevented not by refusing to do anything, but by determining whether that thing is worth the cost. 

Task balancing

Productivity burnout can also come from the mundane laundry list of tasks we have to complete each day. I’m not just talking about tasks like ‘send this email’ or ‘return that package.’ When you think about it, every single thing you do from the moment you wake up is actually a task. Brush your teeth. Take a shower. Pick out clothes to wear. Put on shoes. Make coffee. Task, task, task. And it all adds up. There’s a limit to how much personal energy you have to give each day. So how can you give your 100% on a project for work, when you have to give some percentage of your energy to brushing your teeth or making your coffee?

Looking at it this way can make just getting through the day seem overwhelming, but consider the fact that there are tasks that can recharge your battery. Going for a walk. Watching a funny movie. Eating your favorite lunch. Calling a loved one. 

Creating a ritual of task balancing can help you get through the day without ending up at 0%, or even being at risk of hitting zero before the day is even done. For example, maybe you have a presentation to finish by the end of your work day, but it’s going to be a really draining endeavor. Balance this battery-draining task with something that recharges you, like going for a walk at sunset or watching your favorite movie. Your time and energy aren’t unlimited, and you deserve being able to rest and recharge.

Routines into rituals

Now, let’s talk about routines. The word “routine” has gotten a bad rap as of late. It’s used so often to describe a mentally and physically difficult series of tasks that the word itself has started to take on a negative connotation. For example, the need to get back to work after a lovely vacation is something we’d consider as “getting back into the routine.” 

But what if it didn’t have to be a routine? I was recently introduced to the concept of creating personal rituals, and I believe it is such an impactful way to prevent productivity burnout. On paper, it may look and sound almost identical to a routine, but the word “ritual” has a deeper meaning. 

Creating a ritual can take the ordinary set of tasks you want to accomplish and turn them into an almost sacred act.

As an example, I have had a bedtime routine that I’ve tried to follow for a couple of years now, but I just can’t seem to get it to stick. Now, I’m working to change my mindset that it’s actually a bedtime ritual. The steps I want to take are the same, but for some reason, it just feels more desirable when I call it a ritual. 

Where a task is something that stands in my way, a ritual is something I actively want to take part in. Participating in a ritual is something I choose to do, whereas simply following the steps of a routine can feel forced – no different than crossing to-dos off your list at work. 

By taking the pressure off your routine tasks and adding a layer of personal investment, you can turn your routines from something that takes up more of your energy into something that fills you up. 

While there are many ways to prevent productivity burnout, these three are by far the most effective at helping me feel continuously rested and ready to move forward. And remember, what works for someone else might not work for you! 

To recap:

  1. Take time to identify what your productivity boundaries are, and create a Productivity Boundary Scale that makes sense to you.
  2. Plan your days using task balancing, adding recharging tasks or treats to your to-do list to balance out the hard stuff.
  3. Think about which of your daily routines you can turn into rituals.

My final piece of advice would be to think about how your personal definition of productivity makes you feel. Are you asking too much of yourself? Is it a struggle to keep up with all the lofty goals you set for yourself, with everything you want to accomplish? Do you berate yourself or feel bad when you get derailed, like getting sucked into TikTok instead reading like you initially intended to? Evaluate how each task and routine in your life affects you and make a plan for what you can do to counterbalance the weight of your to-dos. This will help curb productivity burnout and banish the guilt that comes from either doing too much or too little.  

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