How to prevent and recover from burnout

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If every day is a bad day, you may be facing trouble. Here are nine ways to prevent and recover from burnout….

Burnout is a stealth operator. I experienced it when I was in my mid-20s, working in stress-laden environment — my parents’ business, a struggling weekly newspaper.

Our family home was mortgaged to the business and while I no longer lived there, my four younger siblings did. I felt the weight of that responsibility as if it were a two-ton truck parked on my chest.

Making matters worse, we couldn’t afford to hire enough employees. To keep the business running, I typically worked a 50-hour week. I was a 22-year-old.

Anyway, the pressure, the working hours, my relationship with my difficult father for whom I had to run interference (his personality alienated a lot of people) all added up. One morning I woke up and couldn’t get out of bed. I was enervated. Staring into space. Incapable of doing anything.

I remember dragging myself to a seated position and calling my mother to let her know I couldn’t go in, even though it was a big day with some long-planned responsibilities for me. Fortunately, she was able to find someone who could fill in. I don’t remember much after that except for immediately reducing my hours. At least I had enough sense to do that.

In this time of Covid, more people are at an even greater risk of burning out than before. Why?

We fear a potentially devastating illness for ourselves or those we love. Some of us have fewer job opportunities. Parents, in particular, are faced with difficult choices about educating their children. Some of us must work from home.

In fact, the threat of burnout can be traced to five primary causes:

  1. Overwork.
  2. A lack of motivation or reward.
  3. Work that doesn’t suit our skills or interests.
  4. A work environment that is fear-based and highly political (hello Covid).
  5. Having to deal with too many emergencies, both at work and at home.

You may be on the road to burnout if every day is a bad day or if you’re exhausted all the time or if you feel that nothing you do makes a difference or is appreciated.

But understand that while burnout may result from too much stress, it is also fundamentally different from stress. Stress involves feeling overwhelmed by too much. Burnout is the opposite. It means feeling empty and mentally exhausted — as if you have to drag yourself everywhere.

Finally, be aware that burnout doesn’t happen overnight. Instead, it creeps up on you with little cat feet. Certain personality traits can contribute to burnout. These traits include perfectionism, pessimism and a high need for control.

If you are at risk for burnout, take immediate action. Here are nine practical steps you can take:

  1. Be clear about your boundaries: Sure, there may be temporary projects that require burning the midnight oil but as soon as they’re done, be sure to take time off to compensate. Then resume a normal working week. Learn to say ‘no.’ If you think that working more hours is the solution to your problems, check out this fascinating piece by blogger Chris Bailey who experimented with a 90-hour work week. [Spoiler: he was less productive for working this way.]
  2. Get plenty of sleep: We all need somewhere between seven and nine hours of sleep a night. Yet a third of us fail to manage to do that. If you’re shortchanging your shut-eye, you’re hurting your health and your creativity. Truth be told, you’re also hurting your own effectiveness. If we don’t get enough sleep we make more stupid mistakes and we take longer to accomplish tasks.
  3. Get more exercise: If you’re working so hard you have no time for exercise, you have a problem. At the very least, build some exercise into your day with walking or bike riding. My pilates class has gone by the wayside as a result of Covid but I’m still doing 30 minutes of stretches every morning. Plus, I’m walking on my treadmill 20,000+ steps per day.
  4. Eat better: When you’re working too hard it’s easy to get sucked into take-out pizza and burgers, which are fast and easy to eat without cutlery. Instead, take the time to eat proper meals — away from your desk. And make sure these meals include lots of fruit, vegetables and nuts or seeds.
  5. Start meditating: When I talk about meditation people sometimes roll their eyes at me. Would it help if I told you that Google has found that if their employees meditate they reduce their stress and improve their creativity? Yes, it can be hard to learn to meditate but if you accept that there’s no “perfect” way to do it and if you start with a really small amount of time (five minutes), you’ll be surprised by what it can do for you.
  6. Schedule time for relaxing: Most of us schedule what’s most important to us. If you’re toying with burnout, it’s time to start scheduling your relaxation. Yes, schedule time to read novels, time to go for walks with friends, time to lie in a hammock and daydream. If you don’t plan on doing these tasks, odds are high you never will.
  7. Talk to family and friends about your burnout: Holding your burnout as a secret is only going to make it more difficult to confront. Talk to others about what you’re feeling. The talk will remove some of the power of those feelings. As well, you’ll likely discover that some of your friends are courting burnout as well. Perhaps you can even deal with it together.
  8. Take daily breaks from technology: Our lives revolve around our laptops and phones these days. But our constant attention to email, social media and the internet serve to ramp up our anxiety. Slow down. Take a deep breath. And put down your technology for at least an hour every day. Then, see if you can raise the time to two hours or more.
  9. Allow time for creative activities: If your job is not interesting or rewarding enough, focus on some activities that are. Do you like drawing? Photography? Writing? Making music? It doesn’t matter what the creative project is; it matters that you allow time for it. Pursuing creative projects is especially valuable if your burnout is the result of having to do work that doesn’t particularly suit your skills or interests.

Burnout is a sign that something important in your life is not working. If you are already in total burnout mode, then take some immediate time off and get counselling. If you’re simply courting burnout, however, take the nine steps above to get your life onto a better track.

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Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my three-month accountability program called Get It Done. If you already know you want to apply, go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours.

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My video podcast last week addressed the value of having a writing model. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.
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Have you ever experienced burnout? How did you deal with it? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Sept. 30/20 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!