How to deal with burnout

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Burnout is a sense of cumulative emotional fatigue that can render you feeling frustrated and emotionally exhausted beyond your own ability to continue your work. Any time we have a set of goals we’re working toward, are sustaining a concerted long-term effort toward any achievement that requires daily self discipline or pushing ourselves to do things that we may not feel like doing in that moment, there is the risk of acquiring burnout.

Burnout is a similar sensation to becoming sick to death of a certain type of food. If you were to, say, eat tuna three times a day without introducing much variety, you’d very soon get to a point where you were really dragging every time the tin of tuna came out. You may keep forcing yourself to eat the tuna if you had good reason for doing so, but you’d be pushing yourself ever closer to hating tuna for the rest of your life. It wouldn’t be long before you found yourself unable to face another tin of tuna. You’d rather eat just about anything else.

The effects of burnout may disable you to continue your work for a period of time. This often leads to feelings of guilt and failure. For some the appearance of burnout is a death knoll for their current set of ambitions, as it can set into action the progression from exhaustion, to feelings of failure, to a desire to throw in the towel, which can seem unrecoverable.

Burnout generally occurs when we are not properly supporting our emotional needs while working towards our goals. The old moniker ‘all work and no play makes Billy a dull boy’ has a basis in this idea. Not building free time into your working life creates a breeding ground for lost motivation, depression and burnout; dullness.

As humans we have a need to work but we also need to rest. We are much more satisfied when we’re focused on doing productive things, but we also have a deep need to be able to occasionally goof off and not be weighed down with responsibility. Residing permanently on the side of either hard work or of frivolous play is not tending to the balance of our overall needs as human beings, and our emotions will respond accordingly.

The obvious problem with burnout, aside from its general unpleasantness, is that it can be a major obstacle. It is something that, if not dealt with appropriately and in a timely manner, can cause you to reject your goals and completely fall off your path. The tendency for many people is to read burnout as a personal failure, and it can be a serious blow to self image and self esteem.

Avoidance is the best policy with burnout. Generally burnout can be avoided by making your emotional needs a priority as you work.

Pay attention to your inner dialogue. If you find yourself feeling negative about certain tasks or having to push yourself a little harder to get something done, have an awareness of it. Dig a bit deeper and try to find the cause of your negative feeling so that you can address it. Remember that ignoring emotional needs does not make them go away and always be proactive in supporting yours.

Build in regular time for rest, recharging and changing the pace. If you work at home, you will most likely need to get out of the house regularly to decompress. Remind yourself often that life is not all about work, it can also be about having fun, doing pleasant things and taking care of yourself.

I suggest having a way to check in with your emotions every day (such as yoga) as well as setting aside time every week for a refreshing change of pace (go catch a movie, hang out at the park, go swimming).

I take off a week off every two months. This allows me to change my focus temporarily to doing other things I enjoy, which is very helpful in keeping me motivated and charged up to do my work. During this time I usually do the bare minimum in terms of housework (as I get burned out in this area too) and suspend all of my other work completely. Instead I focus on leisure activities, other hobbies that I don’t usually have time for, and playing with my kids.

If you do come to a point where you realise you’re experiencing burnout, all is not lost. This is your neglected emotional personality making herself heard. You have been ignoring this part of yourself for too long, but you have the choice to stop and listen now. Give yourself the space to pay attention to your needs, and offer yourself some nurturing in whatever ways make sense to you. 

Interacting with other motivated and upbeat people can be a huge help if you’re experiencing burnout. They will help remind you of why you began down this path to begin with. Generally, face-to-face interactions are most effective, but you may also find that reading articles, watching videos or perhaps having a phone or internet conversation are good temporary helps too.

When you do take time off, make it a priority not to dabble in your work at all. Take a clean break to ensure you’re completely focused on recharging. This will probably require a little planning, especially if you have clients who expect to hear from you.

Make sure you keep everyone in the loop so that you don’t damage your business in the process of taking time out. Consider sending out emails to let your clients know you’re taking a few days off, and when they can expect your return. People appreciate this thoughtfulness and transparency and will repay your respect with increased loyalty.

After having some down time, you may feel reluctant to come back and pick up where you left off, especially if you left feeling beaten down. This is made easier if you have the reassurance that you will not push yourself to that extent again, and that you will take better care of your emotional self in the future.

If you take some time off work, it’s vital to plan for your return. Set a date that you will come back to your work, and ensure that you have put a structure in place that will allow you regular time off to recharge once you do.

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