I lived for many years in denial of this fact. It has only been very recently that I've begun to really understand the nature of my condition. There's any number of fancy ways to dress it up, but the bottom line is, I'm addicted to getting things done.
I started this month with a very tight work schedule: an impending deadline, lots of tasks to accomplish, and barely any buffer time. I even went so far as to restructure the way my team interacts so as to minimize time spent distracted from getting these tasks done. And here I am, several work days before the end of the month, with nothing left to do.
And I'm going insane.
It isn't all bad, of course. The things I finished really needed to be done, and this was the last chance to get them done. On paper, it was a successful month; and I'm not exactly unhappy that I managed to burn through my backlog before time ran out.
The problem, though, is pacing. Now that I've spent two and a half weeks at breakneck speed, doing everything within reach to hit a deadline, I'm left bored. Moreover, this is not a sustainable lifestyle. Feast-or-famine is unhealthy. I'm fortunate in that, following this particular mad dash, I still feel like doing more work; in the past, it hasn't always been so.
Burnout is almost inevitable when one's level of absorption with work stays too high for too long. I think it's a testament to the quality of my job that I'm not thoroughly burned out. But gambling on burnout never happening is a bad idea. Eventually, inexorably, everyone runs out of energy.
This is a fascinatingly difficult problem. I set myself this aggressive schedule on purpose - because I was genuinely concerned as to whether or not I would get everything done on time. I couldn't very well have gambled on taking it more slowly and risked missing the deadline.
I think the key balancing factor is learning to actually unwind during slow periods. My natural impulse is to take on more and more projects until I'm overloaded; because, for better or worse, I thrive under pressure. And yet, year after year, I find myself stumbling through a cycle of acquiring projects and then being forced to back down from them as burnout becomes a serious issue.
What I'm trying to teach myself is to actually take a break. It's OK that I spend a few days not working on anything. It's OK that my schedule isn't slammed for the next six weeks straight. It's OK to spend a day cruising the internet and just chilling out instead of frantically scrambling for more busywork.
I say these things... not because I really believe them yet, but because I hope that by repeating them to myself often enough, I can fix my perspective.
I'd like to close with a request to people who lead and manage teams: give ample feedback to your workers. For me, the biggest drive to do stupid deeds of heroic busyness lies in not knowing when enough is enough. If someone would come along periodically and say, "Hey, you did a ton of great work, go take the damn day off and relax", it'd be a lot easier to break the cycle of obsession and burnout.
(In all fairness to my current team and leadership, they're pretty good about doing this. I know how important it is to do this sort of stuff because I've seen firsthand how much difference it can make.)