How GTD helped with my burnout

In the beginning of 2017, I landed myself with a burnout. A real, proper clinical burnout. In Swedish it goes under the name “exhaustion syndrome”. Luckily, I had a good system for handling my tasks that could support me through this challenging time.

This is how I changed my task management workflow to accomodate my recovery. I’ll end with some key takeaways for you if you’ll ever find yourself in the same boat. Hopefully my insights can be useful for you no matter of your current situation.

My brain stopped functioning cognitively

In English, burnout seems an inadeqate term for the condition I had. I wrote about it in my year in review post A better term seems to be HPA-axis dysfunction – a dysfunction of the body’s stress management system and sleep/wake cycle resulting in extreme fatigue.

For this post, what you need to know is that this condition disrupts your cognitive abilities. Those things called executive functioning. You lose your short term memory and attention span.

Things like deciding what to do, remembering what you are going to do and staying on task until it’s done become extremely difficult, borderline impossible.

In fact, sometimes the reason young people with exhaustion syndrome see their doctor is because they think they are getting early alzheimers, dementia or ADHD. They don’t see their stress, but their brain is shutting down in response to it.

During my first weeks after the break down, I was not even able to read. My eyes would not coordinate and I could not focus enough to be able to string letters together in my head to shape sentences.

Sounds like interfering with your ability to work? You bet.

Now just because I was officially sent on sick leave and not expected to work, the clock didn’t suddenly stop ticking. Things still needed to be remembered and get done. I needed to recover somehow, and I needed support during my recovery.

Determine what absolutely has to get done – and ditch everything else

Luckily, I had my productivity system to fall back on. I have never been as grateful for the habit of writing everything down as I did then. I have followed a GTD-based system for over a decade and I had everything I needed to do, and everything I thought I needed to do, outside my head in this system.

I went through my todo list and project list and triaged every item. Hard.

Then almost everything was pushed to Someday Maybe. In OmniFocus, if I didn’t remove them completely they were simply put On Hold.

Since I was in between gigs at my crash point, I didn’t have any client projects I needed to abandon mid-project. I had some future things I had to turn down but everyone was very understanding.

Most of my GTD projects that I had written down were based on my own ambitions and internal deadlines. Wishes, wants, goals.

They all had to go.

The only things I could not remove was my responsibility as a parent, and some financial business things.

It felt good to have a place to put all these future projects. I knew that I will get to them when I can. They will be waiting for me when I have the ability to work on them. Instead of “Can’t do” it became “Will do someday later”.

I also added one huge parent project – “Recover my energy”.

Clean the slate of all inputs and inboxes

Another thing I did was to remove and reduce all inputs. My brain had had too much stimuli under too long time.

I now had an attention problem, so I removed everything that would fight for it.

I also removed anything that would prompt me to want to do things, because that would only make me feel sad and frustrated about my current inabilities.

Perhaps you have already done so, but a great beginning is turning off all notifications of all the apps. Yes, the little red badges on the app icons too.

Unsubscribe podcasts

I unsubscribed to almost all podcasts in my player. All of the business, entrepreneurial and webrelated ones. No actionable tips, no strategies. I kept only two that were more of a conversational/inspirational nature that I like to listen to while cooking.

Since I had no processing power to retain any information anyway, seeing unplayed episodes pile up would become a huge emotional backlog I didn’t want to have.

Remove RSS feeds

Yes I still read RSS, using Feedly on my iPad. Similarly to the podcasts, I removed all business related, web development related and productivity related things. I kept a food blog that I have followed for years, again because it gave me inspiration.

Unsubscribe newsletters

Same goes for the email newsletters. I unsubscribed almost all of them.

I figured that when I feel strong enough again, I will see which ones I’ll miss and re-subscribe then. If I don’t miss them, well then they didn’t bring me that much value anyway so I’m better off without them.

Keep only what you can’t remove

The only inboxes left was email, my task management inbox and my notebook. That’s managable enough.

In a slightly different scenario, I might have needed to declare email hiatus and put up an autoresponder. Luckily, my email load was not big so I could handle keeping it around.

Tweak the workflow to support my new reality

At the time of my burnout, I was using OmniFocus. I’m a loong time OmniFocus user, so there hade been lots and lots of tweaking over the years. I now sat down to see how I could change things for my new, lesser able, me.

Redefine my GTD contexts

After a while I was capable of gathering my thoughts enough to focus, but only for short amounts of time. I needed an easy way to pick what to do during those small windows of focusability.

Starting to add task estimates – which OmniFocus totally supports – would be too much of a cognitive load. To estimate is to think. So I used contexts for sorting.

Originally, David Allen talks about contexts as places where you can do things. And many people start off with those kind of contexts: @phone, @desktop, @home etc. I have gone through stages with both less granular and more granular contexts.

I now used them to refer to my mental states.

I took an inventory of exactly what types of tasks I still needed to do on a regular basis and I gathered the contexts into those categories.

I ended up with

  • focus/output – things that requires clear head and good attention
  • input – this also requires a bit of focus, but not as demanding as output
  • communication – here goes email, calls etc
  • at home – chores around the house
  • administration – this was my label of any admin and/or routine tasks. Things that were not so demanding of my attention span.
  • in town – errands, obviously

Begin using reminders and start times on tasks

I could no longer trust my brain to remember even small things. I had never had a reason to use start times and reminders before but now I did.

Need to remember something in the morning to bring with the kids to pre-shool? Set a timed reminder 10 minutes before we need to leave. Perfect.

Claritfy and reduce all reviews to the bare minimum

I put all of my reviews down in writing – my weekly review, monthly review, quarterly review etc. I already had it written in a rough list for memory’s sake.

Now I created them like a detailed checklist, with instructions for each steps. Down to the level of “Open this app, log in to this place with this user account”.

I did it to reduce the brain power needed for each of them. I didn’t have to think or remember – it was right there in front of me!

It really helps now when I want to change and tweak something, because otherwise it’s easy to fall into an old habit and realise later that you forgot that new thing you wanted to incorporate.

Also, writing it down makes it very obvious if you are overcomplicating it and need to simplify.

My new weekly review became very simple

  • Go through inboxes
  • Go through the active project list
  • Ask: Do I absolutely have to do it this week?
    • If yes: Flag it in OmniFocus, set a due time and reminder if necessary
    • Defer everything else
  • Check the calendar and make sure I didn’t miss anything. Add to OF as needed.

I did not check my Someday’s or any future projects. I did not to a “brain dump” and examine every part of my life to look for new projects or actions.

Only check for burning fires. No planning for the future. Keep everything afloat.

I changed quite a few of my habits in order to come back to health. But something I didn’t change was doing my weekly review (or the other reviews). Keeping it around gave me peace of mind. I was a structure in my week to hold on to.

Things didn’t fall apart around me even though I did.


Reducing my inputs was an eyeopener. I had not been aware of just how much I had bombarded my brain with continuous information. No wonder it got tired!

I am not a social media person but if you are, I seriously recommend deleting the apps from your phone. Seriously. It’s a flood of stimuli that never ends.

Now that I feel stronger I have been very mindful of what I am letting back into my life and attention.

I know that the brain gets measurable damage by long term stress, and it’s unclear to which degree the damage is permanent. So perhaps I will never regain all of my previous abilities.

But spending time in a very restricted place certainly makes me very appreciative and aware of all the things I used to take for granted.

And since some of my symptoms were similar to ADHD, I got a new understanding for the struggle that people with real ADHD diagnoses go through.

It was also interesting to see how little of a system actually was needed for things to continue to function. It’s so easy to overthink and overcomplicate it.

I think this is the most common mistake for newbies. We think that the System will save us and we come up with all sorts of elaborate Workflows and Setups. In the end, it still comes down to us doing the work.

If things become so complicated that we have trouble to remember the workflow in the first place – well then we won’t be as likely to do that review on a regular basis.

I scaled everything down to the bare necessities. I have scaled things back up again now, but I feel confident in knowing what is crucial and what are optional extras.

I am also very appreciative and grateful for having a system in the first place. Everything in my life didn’t descend into complete chaos, even though I was basically not functioning.

And if there’s any tips I can give you then it is this:

  • Be extremely picky about what you allow into your life.
  • Have a system to handle your inputs, goals and todos.
  • Write it down. Don’t keep it in your head.

Having reduced cognitive ability forces you to really prioritise. There is no option. If you only have 45 minutes of energy this day, what will you do with it?

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