Published on September 30, 2019

Mental Bandwidth

I’m excited to be working on a project, so I’ve been putting in a few extra hours here and there to make sure the prototypes and sketches I was producing were perfect, and I’d taken on a bit more than I could chew. I hit a brick wall.

Burnout came hard with all the typical symptoms. I was exhausted, having difficulty focusing, getting anxious, emotionally detached, and struggling with bunch of other mega-sad-face emotions.

I did what every reasonable person would do – reduced the number of hours I was working by changing expectations. This meant I would be able to focus on doing a great job with the time I had, and wasn’t stretching myself too thin. My clients were gracious and understanding.

The burden of extra hours had gone, so I figured I would feel great. But the symptoms didn’t disappear, I still felt burned out. I was chatting with my manager in our weekly one-to-one when I realized it might not be the number of hours I’ve been working, instead it was the number of responsibilities I had taken on in the project.

In addition to sketching, prototyping, planning research, conducting user interviews, etc., I’ve been working on other strategic and planning portions, and documenting parts of the project. It wasn’t the time that mattered, it was the context switching combined with trying to squeeze too much into every day of work.

Time isn’t just a resource you can play Tetris with, you have to choose which tasks you can do and how many is reasonable. Take care with the number of responsibilities you accept on a project, and don’t just think about how long each will take you. Think about your mental bandwidth and what you can handle in the worst case scenario.

If you take on too many different tasks, you’re going to be in a bad place. At best, you’ll be spreading yourself too thin and struggle to do great work without working extra hours. At worst, you’re going to get burned out…hard.

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