Burnout is horrible. You’re going at 100 miles an hour for so long that your tires begin to wear out and before you know it, you’re knocked down onto the ground, confused, and unmotivated.
As the Mayo Clinic puts it, “Job burnout is a special type of work-related stress — a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.”
For me, I burned out twice in 2018. The first time, I had been coming back home from school and working hour nonstop (with a quick break for dinner) from around 2:30 till 10:00 at night before collapsing onto my bed in a heap of exhaustion. I had pushed myself too far. And it shouldn’t have surprised me that my downfall was that quick. In fact, many of the entrepreneurs I had interviewed had told me that if they learned anything about themselves in the long, arduous process of entrepreneurship, it was that self care mattered.
I should’ve seen the second time coming. It took me around two-and-a-half weeks to recover from burnout session one, but afterwards, I felt invincible again, so I fell into the same patterns. Spurred by the relentless push to produce more, to get better grades, and to achieve in competitions, I was spreading myself too thin and my efforts were becoming diluted. Even then, I was still pushing an unrealistic work schedule. The second time was a wakeup call.
It taught me how to better deal with burning out and gave me some handy lessons in case I sensed it around the corner.
Let’s start with some preventative measures.
1. Keep Your Schedule Open
A lot of the times, we’re tempted to stuff our schedules as full as we can in order to create the semblance of productivity or “busyness.” The problem with this practice is that your life basically becomes a never ending sprint to a finish line that’s far in the future, and you push yourself to do more and more with less and less time. Paradoxically, the more time you schedule, the less creative you become.
When you take breaks and put extra time in your schedule as a buffer or just to slow down and enjoy life, you drastically improve your outcomes. In fact, a study at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign confirms this, explaining that brief diversions from a task can help you improve your ability to focus for longer periods of time and keep up motivation.
My personal experience has reflected this idea pretty well. After my disastrous second burnout in late 2018, I decided to take a step back and spend more time taking breaks from work. An added benefit to this was that I was forced to prioritize what mattered the most to me because I had less overall time. I cut back on the unnecessary. I reduced my workload. And after using this strategy more often, I felt a lot happier.
Strategy: Reduce your commitments and cut out all the unnecessary things from your life. If it doesn’t put a huge whole in your life to remove something, then take it out.
2. Sleep and Exercise
Sleep and exercise are crucial to a healthy life. In fact, before I start explaining why they are so crucial, please go to your local bookstore or library and get the book “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker.
As Walker wonderfully puts it, “The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep.” And it’s true! Sleep has a myriad of benefits from helping us to consolidate our memories, recover our muscles after a workout, and create new connections between ideas that allow us to become smarter. If there was a magic pill that could do all the things that sleep promises, it would be an instant cash cow. The key to sleep isn’t only to do it more, but to do it in higher quality chunks. The American Sleep Association has a great article on this.
My personal experience with sleep deprivation early on in my junior year helped me realize how important sleep was. At the beginning of the year, I was sleeping 6-7.5 hours every night – and that may not seem that bad – but it was a world of difference from a full night’s sleep of 8 to 9 hours. My mood was volatile. I was cranky. Sometimes I would just feel unbearably sad. The consequences caught up to me in November. I couldn’t handle my workload anymore because I lost all my efficiency and my brain power wasn’t strong enough to power me through the day. Not ideal.
What I later found out was that even though sleeping more meant cutting out an extra hour or two from my day that I could have spent working, it was well worth it because it improved my mood and helped me become more efficient.
Exercise is just as important. In fact, a study done in 2004 showed that exercise helped people with depression become happier and improved their other treatment outcomes. The key to exercise is that there isn’t just one right way to do it. I used to a do a lot of cardio, but I was miserable. Once I started lifting weights and following the world of bodybuilding and powerlifting, I found exercises that I truly enjoyed and made me excited to go to the gym. Of course, you should still have a good balance of cardio and weight training, but the trick is to do what you love.
Strategy: Try to sleep 8-9 hours per night and follow a good sleep hygiene ritual. When finding time to exercise, aim for 30 minutes to an hour everyday of something that you enjoy whether that’s powerlifting, gymnastics, running, or basketball.
Now if you’re in the camp of people who have already burnt out, don’t fret, here are some solutions!
3. Change your perspective
This can sound corny and downright annoying to some, but when in the throes of burnout related depression, they key may lie in your perspective.
In the winter of 2018, I was a week into burning out and feeling depressed. I was scheduled for an annual checkup with the doctor, and she could tell I wasn’t feeling well. In the moment, she said something that forced me to reconsider what my life was about.
“You have two choices in your life. You can be happy about where you are or you can’t.”
Before then, I had never been told something like this in such a binary way. Like lightning, her words struck me and forced me to question my goals in life. Up until then, I had always assumed I would be happy once I achieved the next milestone, the next follower account, the next award. But I wasn’t. In fact, I was stuck in the relentless loop of “what’s next” rather than taking some time to step back and enjoy what I was doing.
After the checkup, I went home with a goal to catch myself whenever I was in the process of negative self talk or over ambition. It worked. Within a week or two, my sadness began to alleviate and I felt more at peace with whatever came my way.
Strategy: It might sound ridiculous, but try it. Keep a journal where you can vent your frustrations and list out the things that you love in your life. Focus on gratitude. Learn meditation through an app like Headspace or Insight Timer where you can practice dealing with unwanted thoughts.
4 . Be Selfish
That’s right. I’m telling you to do something that most other people would recoil in horror at. Prioritize yourself. Be selfish. When you’ve burnt out, the last of your worries should be pleasing others or spending your time on someone else’s obligations.
If somebody asks for a favor and you’re just not feeling up to it, say no. Take a break from your job if you need to. Watch some movies. Do some self care.
One of the best ways to get out of a burnt out state can be to take some time off for yourself to recover from the relentless fast-paced work world.
Strategy: Take some time off from your normal obligations to do some self care. Say no to things that don’t have an immediate impact on you.
5. Find a Hobby That You Love
Sometimes, all it may take to get you out of a rut is to find something to get you fired up and passionate about. For me, it was drawing.
When I burnt out, the only things that existed in full in my life were work and school related. Many weekends were spent at competitions instead of with my friends. So when I burnt out, I didn’t quite have an outlet or a passion project. I was stuck.
However, when I rediscovered my childhood passion of pencil still life and portrait sketching, it gave me something to be passionate about. It was one of the first things I was truly excited to do in a while.
Finding a hobby you love can help you break out of periods where the negative momentum pushed you lower and lower every day. It can also help give you a new, enjoyable activity post-burnout that you can cultivate.
At the end of the day, burnout is a complex beast. In our modern world, it can be easy to get caught up in the fast pace and feel like you never have some time for yourself. However, if you follow some of these steps, maybe life can feel a little bit more manageable.
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Also, check out our other blog posts like Time Blocking!