How to Overcome Burnout and Get Back on Track
Burnout is real. And recovering from burnout is not always easy.
“Tell me everything that’s wrong and I will fix it for you.” That was my 10-year-old daughter trying to help me. I didn’t mean to, but I launched into a rambling list of everything I couldn’t fix, from the speaker on my computer that suddenly started playing static to the mountain of laundry in my bedroom that seemed to be growing instead of shrinking.
To her credit, she didn’t waver and instead pulled out a pad of paper and pen. “Can you start again, I want to write them down. I can do these for you.” I knew she couldn’t help with most of it, but the fact that she wanted to and even just the fact that she had listened to my minutes-long rant about what was wrong (none of which sounded all that terrible as I said it out loud) had actually helped.
Burnout is described as losing your passion, whether that be in your work, in your home, or in your relationships. What was once a bright light grows dim until it burns out. Typically, burnout happens after a long period of stress and fatigue from giving too much of yourself in some way.
Here are some signs of burnout:
- fading passion
- feeling numb
- little things make you angry
- feeling drained by everyone
- feeling cynical
- feeling never satisfied
- feeling unable to think straight
- decreased productivity
- self-medicating with alcohol or other things
- not laughing anymore
- resenting people who are enjoying their life
- not feeling refreshed after sleep or time off
When you are burning out, your energy turns to exhaustion and enthusiasm turns to frustration. You feel disillusioned and no longer in control. You might feel like your life is in shambles and you are going through the motions but on the verge of quitting everything. You might want to quit your job, but don’t know how you will pay your bills or what you will do next.
Burnout is a state of being out of sync with some aspect of your life. In your work life, it could result from a lack of control, feeling under-compensated or not appreciated, being overloaded with work, or not having a sense of community.
The worst thing about burnout is that you probably objectively feel like you should be able to get control of the situation, but you just can’t. In a lot of ways, recovering from burnout is a lot like trying to recover from depression. You can’t force yourself out of it by trying harder. You’ve been doing that and it hasn’t been working.
You probably can’t concentrate and even the simplest things feel like monumental tasks. It’s not your imagination: you’re not operating at full capacity because you are burnt out. You might not feel joy anymore and everything feels like a chore. You snap at people over trivial things. You probably also feel ashamed that you can’t get your act together.
There is no quick fix to recovering from burnout. It’s a long process back to the old you. But it’s not forever. It requires you to make some changes, but can be a chance to rediscover your light and passion. Below are some strategies to help you in recovering from burnout.
As tempting as it can be to go this road alone, if you don’t tell someone how you are feeling soon, you will end up in crisis. Tell a friend, family member, counselor, pastor, doctor, or anyone who you think will lend an empathetic ear. Just the act of sharing how you feel will begin you on a path to recovering from burnout.
Identify Sources of Stress
Just like the list I made with my daughter, you need to sit down and make a list of everything that is causing you stress, anxiety, worry, frustration, or helplessness. Then next to each item, identify an action you can take to reduce your stress. This is not a quick fix and should be a work in progress over a long period of time.
You’re not in the position to take on anything new when you are experiencing burnout. People might not understand, but that’s okay. Say no. Also, delegate as much as you can during the period while you recover. Be okay with it not being done perfectly. My son cleaned the house shortly after that list was made, and I tried not to complain that everything was put away in the wrong place.
I know the point of this article is how to cope when you are burning out but you can’t take a break. As a self-employed person, I get it. I don’t get sick days or personal days, don’t get vacation time. If I stop working, I don’t get paid. I can’t afford to take time off.
Start smaller. Think smaller. Start building more margin into your schedule. I made the mistake of taking five large projects in the same week, without any break in between. Recognize your limits and work within them. See if you can rearrange your schedule so that you alternate easier days with harder days. Put some buffer in your life.
As we start to burn out and lose our productivity, the tendency can be to start scrolling mindlessly. Try to turn off your electronics as much as possible to reduce overload. Staring at all the fun everyone else is having on Facebook isn’t going to help you right now.
Find a Support Network
Not having a support network can be a contributor to burnout. Having support helps you because 1) sharing your feelings helps to reduce stress, and 2) connecting with people reduces isolation. There are many options here. You might consider joining a professional organization for support related to your work, spending time with friends to vent and share ideas, or joining an online support group related to your specific problems.
Define Your Work Hours
As a self-employed person, my office is always accessible to me. Work often spills over into my personal life and I don’t keep clearly defined work hours. If this is you and you are burning out, try to define when you will work and when you will not, and then stick to it. This doesn’t mean you have to work 9-5. It just means that there will be times you are “off the clock.”
When you are burning out, everything feels like it takes monumental effort. Instead of feeling bad that you didn’t get something done, reward yourself for putting in an effort. One way to do this is by breaking down what needs to get done into 15 minutes chunks. Do three 15-minute intervals of steady work with brief breaks in between, and then spend the last 15 minutes gathering your thoughts and making sure you are still on track.
If you are at all in a position to take a break from what is causing you to burnout, then do so. Take a medical leave or take a vacation and get some rest and sleep. If this is not possible, like in my situation, find a way to slow down while you keep moving. If you can’t reduce your workload, find a way to redistribute it so that it doesn’t feel so mentally hard. Try not to look at the big picture if it overwhelms you. Focus on getting through one 15-minute period at a time.
You will have a tendency to focus on your negative feelings as you are burning out, which only makes the situation worse. Find something to temporarily take your mind off the situation such as going for a walk. It’s not a long-term solution, just a way to give yourself a reprieve.
Don’t Do Anything Drastic
When I am burning out, I have thoughts of throwing in the towel, running away, quitting things, etc. Try not to do anything drastic when you are in the thick of burning out. Tell yourself, “I can always do that tomorrow” and then focus on today. If the urge is too strong to do something drastic, try to make it something in a positive direction such as calling a helpline or applying for a new job.
Rediscover Your Passion
When you are burnt out, you no longer have passion for what you are doing. This might mean changing things in your life such as your job if you can’t reignite passion. It might mean redefining your role at home. Take some time to evaluate the direction you are heading and whether it is taking you somewhere you want to be. What do you want out of life?