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Harman CEO: 5 Ways to Avoid Burnout


The Fortune 500 Insiders Network is an online community where top executives from the Fortune 500 share ideas and offer leadership advice with Fortune’s global audience. Dinesh Paliwal, chairman, president, and CEO of Harman, has answered the question: How do you prevent burnout?

I equate employee burnout to automotive care (no surprise there). It’s well documented that stop-and-go traffic wears more on a vehicle than consistent-speed highway driving. No matter our driving habits, we all know we must regularly maintain our car’s vitals—oil, tires, brakes, etc. Similarly, our brains and bodies perform best with a mindful focus on tasks and a routine maintenance of healthy habits.

I wasn’t surprised that a study conducted by found that 42% of survey respondents reported leaving a job because it was too stressful. We are in an age of very high expectations for performance, which can lead to anxiety around a need to continually outperform.

Technology has enabled an environment where information is constantly fed to us on a real-time basis. You can’t slow the feed of information, nor would you want to, but you can control and organize your consumption. I feel burnout comes as a result of consistent over-simulation. So how do you throttle it all in a way that still drives productivity and the motivation and stamina to win?

These are a few of my best practices for staying sharp, alert, and in control of my day:

Instill healthy habits
I don’t like to get too caught up in habits because too much structure can stifle creativity. But there are a few habits that make us more productive and are healthy to work into every workweek, if not every day. I love to start the day with a workout—even just a run on the treadmill while catching up on the morning headlines. By waking up early and getting the body moving, you’re already starting out with a win.

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Practice mindfulness
Be present. We all have an ever-growing list of tasks and activities, and so we debate the merits of multitasking vs. focusing on one thing at a time. Most executives are hard pressed to multitask because there will always be more than one crucial situation to deal with. I find multitasking with the pyramid-priority approach very helpful. It allows me to treat one eye as a wide-angle lens and the other as a telephoto lens. This way, I’m able to focus on tackling critical problems one at a time. Multitasking without priority and focus more often than not creates more work in the long run and leads to a sense of overload.

If you are in a meeting, for example, and constantly responding to emails about other topics, you are not making any progress toward accomplishing the goal at hand, and will likely have to repeat the process. We’ve all had times when it’s go-go-go, and start to feel the control slipping. Own your time and give it your attention. Mix up your meetings and pace—just like you would your workouts—to help with focus, maximize your day, and avoid that hamster-wheel sensation that, while good exercise for rodents, leads to burnout in humans.

One of my former bosses once shared his formula for success: He kept 20% of his time away from the computer, phones, and emails, and instead used that window of time to reflect on decisions already made, upcoming decisions, and organizational strengths. It has served me well.

Stay organized
A cluttered mind leads to burnout. Free yourself of that by staying organized, with a clear path for goals and objectives. Before I leave the house each day, I like to write a list that details my main goals and the tasks I need to accomplish for the day.


Celebrate wins
Who doesn’t like to celebrate? It is important to reflect and reward yourself and the team for significant accomplishments. Because we must remain grounded and tenacious for the next battle, we shouldn’t celebrate every little win, but taking time to appreciate the hard work and outcome inspires people and instills a hunger to outdo your past performance. Moreover, once it becomes an organizational habit, you have a high performance and highly motivated team.

Protect sacred time
The business world never stops, and we are in an age of a 24-hour work cycle. But you must set aside sacred family and friend time. Maybe it’s as simple as keeping your phone away from the dinner table, or blocking time on your work calendar to go to a concert or baseball game. Whatever it is, prioritizing those who are closest to you will recharge you mentally and enrich those relationships.

Burnout can be a career killer. It can wrongly cast negative feelings toward a career or workplace, when the issue at hand might go deeper than that. In many cases, the root cause of burnout is in our own practices. Everyone should get a tune up. Do some self-reflecting and mental maintenance to help recalibrate your mind so you can enjoy the ride a bit more.