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A Top-Down Toolkit to Understand and Prevent Burnout

June 27, 2017

We’ve written a lot about burnout over the past few months. Yet it continues to be a hot-button issue, one that many people—physicians, teachers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, athletes, and coaches—are frequently asking us about. This isn’t surprising. Data show that burnout (or what might be called “overtraining” in sports) impacts between 35-50 percent of professionals across diverse fields. Here are some resources—a toolkit, if you will—that can help both individuals and leaders with better understanding and combating burnout.


The Book

The entire purpose of Peak Performance was to help high-performing, highly-motivated individuals sustain their performance without burning out. We spent over two years researching and reporting on both the science of sustainable performance, and its application. Our hope is that the book provides a practical and evidence-based operating system that can be somewhat easily adopted. Here are some of the main themes, which in the book we explore in great detail:


  • Stress + rest = growth: Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As a matter of fact, being in challenging and uncomfortable situations is integral to growth—cognitive, emotional, and physical. Burnout doesn’t result from intense, “stressful” work. It results from intense, stressful work that isn’t followed by appropriate rest/recovery/reflection.

  • Minimalist to be a maximalist: People who are able to sustain elite-level performance tend to be very good at cutting trivial stuff from their lives. Per the above equation, “stress” adds up and is not domain/activity specific. Two young physicians could be dealing with similar stress in their practice. But if one is also trying to do a million things outside of work, he or she is more likely to suffer from burnout.

  • Routine: While there is no one “right” routine across a population, at an individual level routines are valuable. They serve a few important functions: minimize “stress” by making certain parts of life more predictable; inherently set boundaries between work and other pursuits; prime the body and mind to be present, “in the zone” at the right time, while helping both unwind at the right time, too. (Of course, though routines are powerful, you also need to be able to break from them occasionally.)

  • Purpose/Meaning: This was one of the most fascinating parts of the book. There’s emerging research (from fields as diverse as exercise science, neuroscience, and public health) that having a deeply-held purpose (or set of core values) and regularly reflecting on it helps people endure a greater perception of effort than they otherwise would. This holds true whether the task at hand is athletic, traditional workplace, or even janitorial. Unfortunately, in more and more fields—often thanks to technology, something that is otherwise helpful—workers are becoming further removed from their underlying purpose/motivation for going into their craft. This is a big problem and one that should be addressed.


For more: learn about and get the book here


Prior Newsletter: Burnout Results From Both How AND Why We Work

First thing's first. Certain structural elements need to be in place to prevent burnout. Without these, individuals may perform at a high level for a short period of time, but their efforts won't be sustainable over the long haul. 


  • Job allows for at least 7 hours of sleep, ideally more. Rare exceptions are OK, but they need to be just that: rare. Chronic lack of sleep has a straight line to burnout.

  • People are spending the majority of their time doing what they signed up to do, working at their full scope/potential. All jobs have grunt work. The problem is when grunt work—especially if you didn’t sign up to do grunt work—becomes an outsized part of the job. Two people can both work long hours. If one feels like she is maximizing her potential and the other does not, the former will be fine and the latter will burnout. This is a big issue in medicine. The more organizations can ensure clinicians are spending as much time as possible doing clinical care, the better, and the more their clinicians can be pushed to work long hours while still being satisfied.

  • Enough time for supportive practices, such as physical activity and meditation, both of which not only support mental health but also promote creative thinking and one’s ability to manage stress.


After these structural elements are met, it is important that one’s motivation comes predominantly from within. In other words, people who are doing something because they want to be doing it—because they enjoy the activity in and of itself—are significantly less prone to burnout than those who crave externals like fame, recognition, and rewards.


For more, read the old newsletter here


Prior Article: The United States of Burnout

If you want more background on the size, scope, and broad underlying causes of burnout, read this article that Brad wrote earlier this year. Too many try to address the problem before they’ve even properly defined it.


For more, read the article here



If you enjoyed this post and want to support our work, please consider buying our new book, Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success. It's available AmazonBarnes and Noble, and everywhere else books are sold.

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