Dealing with Burnout
In a group discussion at work a few days ago, one of my teammates asked the question, “how do you deal with burnout?”
I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately. I feel like I’ve been approaching burnout myself.
It’s been a very busy summer. With a lot of change for all of us on the team. And a lot going on personally as well.
I think we all experience burnout in some shape or form that’s unique to us at one point or another.
Frankly, I haven’t been writing a lot lately because I’ve simply felt too overwhelmed to mess with it. So, I figure what better way to get back into writing than to address this very thing.
Am I Burned Out?
How do I know I’m getting burned out?
I begin to notice a few things just aren’t quite right. It usually looks like some combination of the following, in no particular order:
I’m more irritable. Things that I might normally let go just irritate me more.
I feel tight, and tense constantly. I especially feel this in my back, shoulders, and hands.
My sleep quality is trash. Even when I can sleep, it seems shallow, less deep. I tend to wake up two or three times in the night.
I wake up thinking about upcoming meetings or conversations.
When I get home, I just feel thoroughly exhausted. I would rather just go to bed than do… anything.
Activities that I enjoy just seem like a chore. I have no intrinsic motivation.
I feel emotionally numb most of the time, with random outbursts of emotion. Crazy stuff like crying at a commercial with a puppy or something inane like that.
Instead of using leisure time working on productive things (e.g. this newsletter) I struggle to bring myself to do anything more than drink beer and watch Netflix. And no, that’s not bad once in a while. But there is a limit…
I struggle to focus and make decisions.
Loss of connection to the sense of meaning in my work or other pursuits.
I’ve been experiencing all of these to some degree or another over the last few months.
Certainly, there has been a lot going on that is out of my control. But there are some things that I am in control of that I haven’t been perfectly consistent on or disciplined about.
There are a few cornerstone habits, or disciplines, in my life that I know if I am inconsistent with, everything else is thrown off.
These disciplines are:
I’m sure if you’ve read any other article on this topic, this list isn’t a surprise.
Just open up another tab, right now, and search “burnout.” I guarantee the top results will talk about sleep, exercise, diet, and probably something related to the spiritual, or social connection at a minimum.
But the fact is, when I’m feeling burned out and I do a little reflection, I don’t have to go too far back to notice that I haven’t been consistent with maintaining one of these disciplines. Or all of them.
So for me, the key to managing stress and staving off the onset of burnout is maintaining these habits. And reestablishing them when they get out of wack.
It comes down to fundamentals.
Exercise releases a lot of feel-good chemicals.1
Many of us have been there. In the middle of a workout, it seems like torture. But afterward, we feel amazing!
I like to do this after work. When I’ve had a hard day, I have to get out of my mind and into my body.
There’s nothing like a hard workout to help me do that.
It helps me release all of the tension that has built up from a desk job. And that workout creates a boundary that forces me to separate work time from personal time.
Aside from that, it gives me the strength to do the activities I enjoy. And just being able to walk up the stairs without losing my breath gives me confidence.
The problem is that I might start the week off great. I work out for an hour Monday evening.
Then, by the time Tuesday comes around, or whatever the next day is in my training schedule, It seems impossible just to get my sneakers on.
When I eat like trash, I feel like trash.
When I’m stressed out, I tend to gravitate towards fried food, sweats, and more beer.
When I go to lunch and I have the choice between the salad or a chicken parmesan sub… I’m probably going for the sub. It just feels better…
… for about an hour.
Then I’m bloated and want to take a nap for the rest of the afternoon.
And forget working out when I get home.
This is the most challenging one for me.
It’s very difficult to maintain a consistent bedtime, and usually, that translates to sleeping later, which throws my whole morning routine off, and then I get to work already feeling behind and stressed.
This is probably the one discipline that If I could fix and be consistent with, it would change all the rest.
For me, this looks like studying and praying every morning. And meditating (often through journaling). Keeping a daily connection with God.
I need the help.
Even if you’re not religious, you may recognize the value in some sort of practice that puts you in a position to think about your life. To reflect and evaluate.
All of these disciplines are interconnected.
If I’m sleeping well, I can get up in time to study, pray and journal.
When I’ve studied, prayed, and journaled, I’ve had space to think, process whatever is going on, and look at things from a bigger perspective. Even with some gratitude.
Once that’s in place, I’m much calmer throughout the day. More present. I’m thinking about my actions, my words. I’m responding instead of reacting.
Since I’ve shown up from that more calm, peaceful, present place, I have less to be anxious or worry about. So I sleep better.
That gives me the energy to exercise at the end of the day. When I exercise, I crave water and healthier food. It’s just that much easier to eat well. Because I’ve eaten well, my mood and emotions are better regulated. Which in turn helps how kind, present and sharp I can be throughout the day.
Which helps me sleep.
And on, and on…
These disciplines form a framework around which the other parts of my life hang. And when any or all of them falter, the whole thing gets out of wack.
No Silver Bullet
None of these disciplines is a silver bullet.
Going for a run will not take away the need for that hard conversation you keep putting off.
They don’t automatically take away the stressful environment you’re in, or the tasks that you have to keep up with.
But, again these practices form a foundation from which you can be well equipped to handle and cope with your everyday stressors. And perhaps even find creative solutions to your problems.
What’s Stopping Us?
So I just told you that if you’re at the edge of burning out, you should sleep more, exercise, eat better, and meditate.
I’m just as much telling myself this.
I know what to do.
We know that none of this is new. The habits needed to cope with stress and burnout seem to be well known.
So if we know these are the things that are good for us, why don’t we just do them?
There is something innate to human nature that resists anything beneficial for us. Anything that doesn’t result in instant gratification. Even when we know that it will be good for us in the long term.
In The War of Art,2 Steven Pressfield talks at length about this. Mostly, within the context of creative work. But it applies all the same to any worthwhile endeavor.
He personifies it as Resistance. As though it were an entity. Except, this entity has no motive. It’s simply a force of nature. Not too unlike the Law of Entropy.3
So recognizing that there is an innate pull within us to avoid what’s good for us, how can we counteract that pull? How do we establish the disciplines that are necessary to start coping with burnout?
I’ll address that in Part II of this series on dealing with burnout.
But for now…
I’m going to bed.
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