How to Overcome Burnout: Balance Focus and Variety

Me and my cousin, Actress Laura Avnaim, in our upcoming Mini Habits for Weight Loss video course! (Spring 2018)

Real work requires deep focus.

But variety keeps us interested.

I’m the type of guy to badger people about the importance of focusing, but lately, I’ve realized the importance of variety. They say variety is the spice of life, but I’m thinking it’s the spice of everything.

How I Got Burnt Out (and How I Came Back)

See how happy I look in the picture at the top of this article? Here’s another one. Does that guy look like he’s burnt out?

Just last month, I looked and felt the opposite of this in regards to this project. 

I have been working on this new course for more than a year. But from Dec 2017-Jan 2018, I didn’t touch it. To explain how I got burnt out and how I realized the obvious solution, let me tell you a little bit about what we’re doing.

Your Brain Loves Novelty

These above snapshots are from my Mini Habits for Weight Loss Video Course (coming soon!). The video course is largely based on the information in my bestselling book, Mini Habits for Weight Loss. In making a video course, I am not one to create six hours of slides or a talking head. I like to be creative with how I teach, and Udemy told me that our previous video course, Mini Habit Mastery, was more associated with the word “fun” in student feedback than any of their other courses!

In our upcoming course, we will present the information in about ten different ways, including…

  • Skits
  • “Spoofmercials”
  • Slides
  • Demonstrations
  • Real life examples
  • Discussion (pictures above)
  • Video lecture
  • Illustrations
  • Studies brought to life
  • Cooking

Now think of a person who orders a video course. They see the first video and naturally assume, “Okay, this whole course is going to be slides” or “This whole course is going to be a long video lecture.” But when they watch our course, they won’t know what we’re going to do next. Soon into the course, they’ll know that it’s going to be presented in a varied and interesting way the whole way through.

But here’s the problem: As I was making the course fun, I failed to make making the course fun.

Day after day was the same thing. I made slides or wrote parts of the course. I gave myself very few creative outlets (I intended to do that afterwards). After 10 months of forced focus, I simply burnt out. I was mentally exhausted, sick of the project, and discouraged.

Saved By the Move!

I recently moved out of Seattle and came to LA to shoot some the course with my cousin, Actress Laura Avnaim, and we’ve been having a blast. I’m completely invigorated and can’t seem to work on the course enough these days! I can work on the “boring stuff” I couldn’t do before.

While you can force yourself to focus for a limited amount of time, you will reach a “breaking point” where you’ll need some kind of variety. At least, that’s how I am. I’m sure there are some workbot humans out there who can do the same thing in the same place in the same way, infinitely (but they’re probably a rare breed).

I want to bring this to your attention because both focus and variety are hugely important for productivity. If you’ve been in a slump, try to figure out if you’re missing one or both. Here are some tips to improve each.

How to Create Variety and Conquer Burnout

We act out studies. Studies have rats. So…

For me, simply moving to a new city was a huge creative spark (moving is like a Variety IV). Working with Laura and with new equipment was another spark. 

But I don’t want to pretend I was helpless in Seattle. I could have introduced variety into making slides. There will be times when we’re more or less “stuck” in a particular situation or environment for a time, and in those cases, you have to get creative. Here’s what you can do for those times.

One of the best ways to increase variety is to introduce challenges.

To give you an example, I’m going to pick something mundane that you’ve done 1,000 times—brushing your teeth. (I hope you’ve done it way more than that.) Is there anything less exciting than brushing your teeth? Maybe Ben Stein’s voice. You can make your brushing experience a little bit more interesting by starting from a completely different side, by trying to get spots you think you’ve consistently missed over the last 6 years, and by trying to brush with perfect technique with your other hand. Look, it’s not going to be exciting even if you do this, but it will be different and it will be a more interesting experience for you. It’s variety, and it will spice up your toothpaste.

Another great way to increase variety is to ask “what if?”

One of the regular segments Laura and I do in our video courses is called the “Coffee Break Wrap-Up.” This is the recap discussion we have after each module. We always make it fun, but in the end, it’s basically just us talking to each other.

While I hate to spoil the surprise, I’m going to do it for the sake of this lesson. Today, we were filming, and I asked, “What if we spoke an entire coffee break wrap up in a made up language and had subtitles? It’s an absurd idea, but we both loved it and plan on doing it. Not only will it surprise and (hopefully) delight our students, but it makes us even more excited about the course as a whole. When you ask “what if?”, you can break down the monotonous status quo in favor of some amazing variety.

CASE STUDY: The most popular YouTubers know the value of novelty. They use all sorts of insane jump cuts, zooming, effects, and stunts to keep viewers hooked. It’s not always that the content is good, it’s that the human brain loves novelty and can never get enough of it. Pewdiepie is the most subscribed YouTuber with 60 million followers, and he has mastered this skill. Just look at the intro in his latest video and you’ll see what I mean.

How to Improve Your Focus and Work Efficiently

My face might not always look this stupid. I had a grape in my mouth.

While variety is a creative skill, focusing is a disciplinary skill. I’ve written many articles about focusing. So I won’t get into too much detail, but I will briefly say how the process generally works (explained in detail here).

  1. You choose ONE project or type of activity to work on right now (“I will clean”)
  2. You clarify the specific first step or action (“I will sweep the crumbs under the rug in the kitchen because I’m sneaky”)
  3. You commit to that task until its completion, refocusing when distracted, and “reclarifying” your next steps as needed

How simple! Yes, but simple things can sometimes be the most difficult to execute, and focusing is a prime example of that! Sometimes it’s easy to focus because you get into the flow of your work. Other times it’s excruciatingly difficult to focus for even a minute, and that’s where I find variety helps so much.

You could say that focusing is like broccoli. You know you should eat it, but you don’t love the taste (I love the taste of broccoli, but I’ve heard stories). In that case, variety is cheese. Sorry, I didn’t know you were lactose intolerant. (This is why food analogies are the worst.) Okay, variety is cheese with added lactase enzymes! What? You’re allergic to casein? Nevermind.

That mess was supposed to convey that variety enhances your ability to focus by making the object of your focus more appealing and novel to you. Because of the nearly infinite number of subtle variations you can employ in most situations, this strategy is inexhaustible!

Give it a try. If you’re burnt out, add variety to renew your spirits. If you’re flailing in distractions, employ the three Cs of focusing. With variety and focus, you will accomplish much!

And stay tuned for more updates on the Mini Habits for Weight Loss Video Course (title not finalized)!

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