One of the production lessons I learned at Google was that when calculating capacity for your service, you never want your server utilization to be at 100%. A common target was around 70-80%, with a trigger at 80-85% to automatically deploy more servers. The rationale makes a lot of sense: you need that wiggle room in case you have a traffic spike. If you are at 100% then that spike could potentially take your service down or at best things get really slow until the spike goes away and/or you scramble to provision more servers.

So, if we understand that about our service deployment, then why do we keep wanting employees to be at 100% capacity all the time? What exactly do you think will happen to people that are at max, even without a spike? And when the spike arrives, because it always does, what do you think happens to them?

Cadence is the answer

Burnout is actually a very simple phenomenon to understand, but very difficult to recover from. If you are always at max or close to max capacity, you don’t have time to rest your brain. You get into a state where being constantly preoccupied is supposed to be normal and when you find yourself with some wiggle room, you tend to scramble to get something else to do.

As someone that has had to deal with burnout, I can tell you that it took me years to get rid of this feeling that “I’m not busy enough” out of my system and I really only found myself “cured” once I got used to remote work (will talk about that in another post). Now, I’m not saying that remote work is the cure for burnout. The reason it helped me was because I felt OK taking breaks at any time I needed and over time adjusted myself to my natural work cadence.

Everyone has their own cadence and respecting it will mostly prevent burnout. But for that, you need an environment that allows you to operate in your cadence. Having the space to plan their time around how they work best will yield a very natural work/life balance. As a manager, I believe it is part of my job to identify the cadence of my reportees and work with them to make sure they get the amount of work they can handle based on it.

What if it’s not enough?

A key thing here is that cadence does not have to change as you progress in your career. For every level there is a set of expectations on output and behavior. You can exhibit the behavior with any cadence that you have. But It is up to you and your manager to figure out how to make sure the output works for you.

Now, this could mean that your natural cadence might not be enough for you to progress to the next level in that particular company or project and then you have the choice of staying at your current level, changing your cadence or looking for a different company/project. Changing your cadence is doable and I myself have changed it multiple times. But you should only change it if it still works for you or, in the worst case, if you don’t have a choice.

Burnout happens when you disrupt your natural cadence to a point where you always feel 100% preoccupied. If you are in this situation, it is important to take a step back to understand how you work best and reflect if your current job or project is conducive to it. If not, you have the options I described but, more importantly, you need the support of your manager to get through this. If they don’t understand your cadence, it is a strong signal that leaving the company or project are the best options, if you have that choice.