I Was Completely Burned Out. Then, a 3-Word Setting on My iPhone Changed Everything

I had a problem. I was in danger of burnout.

It wasn’t a matter of not liking what I do, or no longer finding it sufficiently challenging, or even a matter of not making enough money.

All of those boxes were checked.  

But after several years of working diligently through the pandemic, building a small business, and having the satisfaction of reaching millions of people through my work, I’d never really had the chance to unplug completely for any significant amount of time. 

A day off here, a day off there, sure. Holiday visits with extended family? Yes, we did that. We even spent a week at the beach a couple of times. 

But, even on these trips, I’d always find myself pecking away on my laptop after my family went to bed at night–catching up on just one more thing that had to be done. 

Or else, checking my phone 10 times a day to see if things that needed to happen in my various work projects actually had happened.

To paraphrase Ronald Reagan: I wasn’t getting a vacation. I was just getting a change of scenery.

The paradox was puzzling

Come to think of it, “checking my phone 10 times a day” is a true understatement. I probably don’t want to admit the actual number. 

The point was, I saw warning signs, but I also faced a dilemma:

  • On the one hand, my family and I clearly needed time away, unplugged to the maximum possible extent.
  • On the other hand, I hadn’t yet built my business and my work to the point where it could run without me for days or weeks at a time.

The paradox was puzzling, but maybe not unfamiliar. More so, because I was confident that getting away would allow me to rest my mind and come back new approaches to my daily challenges.

But, it was precisely those daily challenges that made it seem like I couldn’t get away.

Then, early this summer I found the answer in an unexpected place, while staring at my iPhone after a long day’s work, as the battery percentage fell below 20 percent.

An alert flashed on the screen, giving me the option to turn on: “Low Power Mode.”

‘Low Power Mode’

How many times had I seen this warning appear over the years? How little thought had I given it?

Just swipe the screen, watch the battery icon turn from green to yellow, and move on.

But now, I laughed: “That’s what I need in my life,” I thought. “I don’t want to quit what I do. I don’t want my output to the world to go dark.” 

I just want to turn on “Low Power Mode.”

Over the next few weeks, I used “Low Power Mode” as the metaphor that guided all of my preparations.

I had already scheduled a trip away, but now I added a bit of buffer time before and after the actual travel, so that my calendar showed a full 21 days off in August and early September.

Then, I set out to pare down everything I did professionally each day, figure out what was truly the “Low Power Mode” version — the minimum requirements to keep things going — and find ways to schedule that bare minimum ahead of time.

Start with the minimum

Probably the biggest example had to do with the email newsletter I write five days a week, called Understandably.

Most days — every Monday through Friday, all year long — the newsletter includes both an original essay and a series of links to things going on that I think will help my readers understand the world.

More than 160,000 people subscribe to it, and it’s a big part of my work. But, the truth is that I never have three weeks worth of newsletters set and ready to go ahead of time. (I wish!)

So, necessity became the mother of invention.

I told my readers what I intended to do, and even asked for permission in a way. Instead of shutting down, I told them, I planned to pull back: a shorter newsletter, fewer up-to-the-minute components, and even reruns.

(This made a lot of sense, I realized, because my audience had grown to the point that the vast majority of my readers today weren’t around to have read some of the good work I did in the earlier days.)

Anyway, I went ahead, and “Low Power Mode,” as I explicitly called it, meant three things:

  1. First, I was able to create and schedule my three weeks of content ahead of time.
  2. Second, paradoxically, the percentage of readers who decided to upgrade free subscriptions to the paid, premium edition of my newsletter went up about 60 percent during the three weeks I was gone. (My theory on this is that the “low power mode” products were shorter, but still had the same number of exhortations to upgrade.)
  3. Finally, most importantly, I was able to take a nice, long, badly needed vacation. Just as I’d hoped, my subconscious seems to have worked on some of the biggest challenges I’ve been facing, so that I came back excited about new solutions.

Forget ‘quiet quitting’

A few weeks after I’ve returned, I still find myself thinking about the metaphor of Low Power Mode. I think it’s a powerful alternative to the two extremes we’ve seen so much written about during the last few years:

  • First, hustle culture, which it seems had everyone working nonstop, as hard as they could, trying to achieve and make money before the music stops. Heck, we even had people bragging about how little sleep they got for a while.
  • Second, the extreme other reaction: the great resignation or else, quiet quitting, with people deciding they’ve simply had enough and aren’t willing to participate any longer, almost no matter the cost.

But on your device, Low Power Mode means slowing down certain processes, not updating as often, and generally using less power so that you stretch things out until you plug in again.

Isn’t that what a lot of us want to do right now?

Not quit and go live on an island somewhere–but instead, find a way to step back temporarily. Do only what’s absolutely required to keep things going for a while, rest and rejuvenate, and then return stronger.

If borrowing the name of a setting on your iPhone makes it easier to accomplish, I think it’s well worth the label.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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