The term “burnout” dates to 1974 , but judging from the media, and many people I know, it’s the official diagnosis of 2019. Well, semi-official: last month, in Geneva, the World Health Organisation announced it was recognising burnout for the first time – yet the next day, it emerged this wasn’t the case. (Let’s be fair to the WHO staff, though; they’re probably just very tired.) In a widely shared essay, the Buzzfeed writer Anne Helen Petersen described her own burnout, and the associated “task paralysis”, leaving her unable to complete basic chores. This kind of burnout isn’t a temporary crisis, she argued; for millennials, “It’s our base temperature.” And it won’t be solved by self-help: “You don’t fix it with a vacation, or an adult colouring book, or ‘anxiety baking’ – which helps explain why so many millennials increasingly identify with democratic socialism and are embracing unions: we are beginning to understand what ails us, and it’s not something an oxygen facial or a treadmill desk can fix.”
I agree, and thus hesitate to mention a self-help technique here. But while we try to overhaul society, we still have to tackle our to-do lists, and there’s one technique I’ve recently found more useful than any other, as well as better suited to this era of exhaustion and overwhelm: limiting work-in-progress, or WIP. It’s a simple notion, originating in the Japanese system of industrial scheduling known as “kanban”, adapted by Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry in their book Personal Kanban. You fix a small upper limit to the number of tasks you’ll be working on at any one time – say, three. Then, you add no further tasks to your plate until you’ve finished at least one. When there are only two tasks remaining in your WIP, you can bring in one more. And so on. The kanban system visualises this using Post-its on a whiteboard, arranged in columns: each task moves from the “to do” column to “doing” to “done”. If your WIP limit is three, there should never be more than three notes in “doing”. (You can add a “waiting” column, where you shunt tasks that are waiting on other people.)
The effects are extraordinary. By limiting WIP, you feel your finite capacity, so the counterproductive urge to start 15 tasks naturally subsides. Without trying, you find yourself breaking projects down into doable chunks (because if “write book” or “get new job” is one of your tasks, it’ll jam things up for months). Above all, this way of working brings a deeply satisfying sense of having a foothold on things. Benson and Barry write: “Linearly finishing one task before embarking on the next commitment becomes addictive, a pattern, and eventually a habit.”
The obvious objection is that you have too many demands on your time to limit WIP to three. But that’s a misunderstanding. You already can’t do more than a handful of things at once. If the world demands you do a hundred, that’s an impossible request. Your only options are to choose, consciously, which ones will have to wait – or choose unconsciously. And to be clear, none of this is a magic solution to burnout. Instead, it’s a repudiation of magic solutions, a liberatingly down-to-earth engagement with how things actually are.
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