Working Sustainably

Recently, Hiro Kennelly shared his experience of starting in the DAOverse. It was a familiar tale of finding his passion, putting his whole soul into it, and finding himself empty at the end.

Hiro’s tale is familiar to almost everyone; 9 of 10 people have experienced burnout in their lives, and 1 in 4 are suffering through it now. It’s the sinking feeling of the mountain of tasks looming behind you as you desperately try to finish the one in front of you. It’s the realization that no matter how much you do, you can never feel productive or creative. Put more simply: it’s the feeling of being trapped by your work.

I’ve felt the same way as Hiro 10 years ago, when I was working at my own startup. I stopped seeing my friends, I gained 30lbs, and I only slept a few hours a night. When my company went bankrupt, despite having let my team down, I felt relieved. I felt relieved that my dream was dead.

It took a long time for me to find myself, and only when I did could I look back and understand what I had been dealing with. The problem wasn’t the work, it was how I dealt with it - I was working unsustainably.

I spent the next decade refining techniques for individuals and teams to work sustainably to great effect. I’ve taken teams who were losing people monthly and turned them into resilient teams who loved working together every day. I’ve helped individuals who were on the brink of despair reset themselves and rediscover their passion. How? Read, and ye shall be rewarded.

Know Where You’re Going

The first step to working sustainably can feel like a philosophical challenge, especially if you’re young. That being said, it’s the single most important determinant for whether or not you’ll be able to keep working at what you’re doing, day-in and day-out.

Whether you’re working for the money, the experience, or because it’s the change you want to see in the world, taking the time to articulate the “why” will allow you to make the right decisions in your day-to-day. For instance, if you’re in it for the money, maximize your reward and minimize your time commitment. If you’re in it for experience, ensure you’re learning every day. If you’re in it for impact, ensure everything that’s on your plate is a step towards your dream.

The great thing about DAOs is that they give you the freedom to choose any of these “whys” and sometimes more than one. Take advantage of that, but always keep your goal in mind. I have a mantra of sustainable work: “Think long-term, act today.”

Tactic: Regular Reflection

Very few people leave time in their lives for reflection, to their own detriment. Reflection is vital for working sustainably — it’s the first step towards improvement.  I like to reflect in regular cycles: daily, weekly, and seasonally:

  • Daily reflections can take the form of a short walk or a journal. Think about what you feel and why you feel that way. Ask yourself how you can capture the good feelings and avoid the bad.
  • Weekly reflections can be similar to the dailies, but with a bit more emphasis on planning the next week. What went well this week, and how can you make more room for it next week? What needs to change, and what is your next action towards that change?
  • Seasonal reflections are something I do in a notebook, away from my normal haunts. I give my mind plenty of room, and try to think more deeply and creatively, with tools like mind maps.

Book Recommendation: The Bhagavad Gita

This (ancient) book won’t help you define where you’re going, but it will make the case for the importance of figuring it out. It’s a story about an ancient prince who loses the will to fight on the eve of war. His charioteer (literally God) convinces him that to fight this particular war is his divine purpose as a warrior and leader.

Regardless of whether or not you’re interested by the synopsis above, this is a must-read for literally anyone and everyone. It can be read in a few hours, and it just might inspire you. I recommend the translation by Barbara Stoler Miller.

Accept Your Limitations

The DAOverse is an exceptional place with (what seems like) limitless opportunity. Many new contributors find themselves committing to multiple exciting projects, and quickly find themselves overwhelmed.

We all have a limited capacity. For some, it’s 40 hours a week, and for others, it could be 20 or 80. Whatever your limit is, going beyond is unsustainable, and needs to be avoided at all costs. To go beyond your limits for weeks in a row is exactly what leads to burnout.

Accepting your limitations can be freeing in some ways. It forces you to prioritize your effort, which allows you to do your best work. Would you rather do 8 things badly, or 2 things really well? Accepting your limitations opens the door to the latter.

Tactic: Balance Your Consumption and Creation

Ever had the feeling that you needed to get something done, but you couldn’t make it happen no matter how much you stared at your screen? How about feeling disgusted with yourself after binging on a TV show or snack?

These feelings are red flags for me - they tell me I’m out of balance. Humans can’t continually work (i.e. create) without first taking care of their needs (i.e. consume). Your physical needs (hunger, sleep, etc) obviously need to be maintained, but your mental needs (security, inspiration, etc) also need to be satisfied for you to do your best work.

On the other hand, consuming too much can be just as bad. One of your limitations is the balance you need to strike between consumption and creation.

The next time you find yourself procrastinating, carve out some time to seek inspiration by taking a walk, reading a book, or watching a show. The next time you find yourself binging, take some time to write, draw, or do a small work task. These small actions, over time, will turn into an instinct, and help you stay in tune with your limits.

Tactic: Create a Weekly Time Budget

If you’ve ever found yourself thinking about one project while working on another, you might benefit from a weekly time budget. People will often look at their time on a daily basis, but if you look at it on a weekly basis, you might find you have more time than you think.

To set up a time budget, follow these steps:

  1. Draw out a typical week for yourself: 7 days, blocked out by hour
  2. Make a list of all the projects you have going on in your life
  3. Carve our time for each project during the week by filling in the drawing you made in Step 1
  4. Put the drawing on the wall, and use it as a guide as you go through your week

Having a time budget not only forces you to make tough decisions up front (i.e. do you REALLY have time for another project?), it also allows you to focus on the project at hand when working, because you know you’ll have time for that other project later.

Here’s another article on the topic: Create a weekly time budget

Book Recommendation: How to Live on 24 Hours a Day

Another short read, this “book” is more of a pamphlet on the importance of treating your time as a resource. From the author’s point of view, time is even more precious than money, as everyone gets only 24 hours in a day, and it cannot be saved or given to others.

The best part? It’s available for free on Project Gutenberg!

Cultivate Good Habits

If you’ve figured out where you’re going, and you’ve accepted your limitations, all that’s left to do is to put in the time to work towards your goal. Here’s the catch: effort towards something isn’t enough, you need to ensure that your effort is constructive and productive. That’s where good habits come into play.

You could spend 10,000 hours playing the piano, but if you aren’t challenging yourself, you’ll never achieve mastery. It’s not just the playing of the piano you have to do, you have to decide WHAT to play. What does that mean for your goal? Sitting in front of the computer won’t be enough, you need to ensure you’re working effectively to achieve your goal.

How do you become effective? Cultivate good habits, discard bad ones. Bruce Lee said, “It’s not the daily increase, but the daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.” If you’ve built time for reflection into your life, you have the opportunity to critically review your days, weeks, and seasons, and potentially figure out ways to improve.

Are you losing a few hours a day to social media? Experiment with site blockers or try the rubber band technique. Not even sure where your time is going? Try a time diary or tracker. Whatever your habits are, try to recognize them and cultivate them to your benefit.

Tactic: Habit Tracker

Something that has worked very well for me is to create a monthly checklist of habits for myself. I’m the kind of person who gives to others without a second thought, so having a checklist ensures that I’m at least aware when I’m taking from myself.

Here’s a sample you can customize for yourself: Habit Tracker. Print it, put it on the wall beside your bed, and fill it in before you go to bed each night. When you deviate from good habits, you’ll have a record. The habit of checking in with yourself nightly and physically checking off things you’ve achieved will help you build out your own habit framework.

Book Recommendation: Getting Things Done

The single best book I can recommend to anyone trying to cultivate good professional habits is Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. In it, the author lays out a framework for quickly triaging incoming work and carving out time to tackle tasks (if you have a time budget, you’re ahead of the game!)

The process itself is pretty heavy and opinionated, but the philosophy works extremely well for asynchronous work, which is table stakes for most DAOs.

Follow Your Feelings

Earlier, I shared my first mantra for working sustainably: “Think long-term, act today.” Here’s the second: “The means is the end.”

Working sustainably isn’t about optimizing every second of every day, it really comes down to enjoying what you’re doing. If you enjoy how you’re spending your days, then you can continue to do what you’re doing indefinitely. On the other hand, if you don’t, it’s just a matter of time before you have to stop.

A lot of people believe that the end justifies the means, but that kind of thinking has absolutely no place when it comes to sustainability. The end never justifies the means, but the means do dictate the kind of end you get. If you sell out your ideals to reach your goals, your success is built on shaky foundations, and could come tumbling down around you.

It’s much better for you to think about improving your day-to-day (aka the means towards your goal) than trying to figure out shortcuts to your goals. In fact, you can think of the journey itself as the goal. The means is the end.

That’s why it’s so important to listen to your feelings as you’re on the trail. Your feelings are your guide towards setting yourself up for sustainability, and ultimately avoiding burnout. If you are stressed, or uneasy, or unhappy, follow that feeling. You will find that it leads you to something you need to confront on your journey towards sustainability.

Good luck, and feel free to reach out if you ever need any help.

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