For the past few months, I haven’t felt like writing. I haven’t felt like working on anything really. It has been impossible to motivate myself. The resistence has kicked my ass. I’ve been burned out. I actually started writing this post in July and put it down until now. Why did I allow this to happen? There are several reasons, none of them good.
What causes burnout?
Burnout is a form of depression caused by stress due to work. It is usually associated with working too much. A stereo typical scenario might involve an employee that spends too many straight hours working on a project. Because of this, he fails to maintain the proper work-life balance and gets worn out. He is unable to show passion for his work and the quality suffers. The traditional solution is to take more frequent vacations and learn to balance work and life more efficiently.
Even though this scenario seems plausible, even typical, it is not what happens to me. I do not think that work-life balance has much to do with getting burned out. There are plenty of people who dedicate their every waking moment to work without experiencing it. We celebrate them. There is a long list of celebrities from sports stars to CEOs that admit to spending a dozen hours a day working. They keep it up for months or even years. How do they avoid burning out? What makes them different than the rest of us?
I believe that the primary cause of burnout is not that you work too many hours. It is that you don’t make enough meaningful progress. It happens to me for following reasons:
My goals seem unreachable
I am constantly in the middle of some big project. I’ll get excited about something, start working on it, and eventually fizzle out. To fight against this tendency, I organize. I set goals and make plans to achieve them. I decide at the beginning of each week what I intend to accomplish. Unfortunately, I usually end up biting off more than I can chew. In theory, I will get better at breaking big tasks into small tasks and prioritizing them. In practice, I get stuck. For whatever reason, I can’t accomplish the task. Maybe I don’t know how or where to even start. When weeks go by without much progress, I get discouraged. Doubt creeps in and the easiest thing to do is nothing at all. It starts with one issue and eventually affects my whole life for weeks or months.
I can’t control something I care about
Unfortunately, I am not in control of what happens in most of the world. It seems like a lot of people make a lot of bad decisions. Dealing with the consequences of other people’s choices is very hard for me. Sometimes, it is painfully obvious that it is just time to move on. If your boss is abusive and you hate your job, it is easy to decide to quit. If you are in an abusive relationship with someone that you do not love, again that seems like an easy decision even if taking action is scary.
The hard decision is when you love your job and your boss, but he or she is making bad decisions. It is when you can’t imagine being alive without your spouse but you have differing opinions on major issues. Sometimes fate just deals you a bad hand. A disease, an accident or a disaster might happen to you, or worse someone you love. These things are hard to deal with. This is what gets most of us. This is how good people lose themselves and those they love. This is how people get worn down and burned out.
Not taking care of myself
Unreachable goals and a lack of control are almost always how I get to burned out. Not taking care of myself is how I stay there. It is no coincidence that my most productive times have been when I was eating right and exercising. We all know it. We are always on the lookout for the magical diet that is easy and works every time. We want an easy solution but almost anything good comes with some level of suffering. Bad health and depression work hand in hand. The more unhealthy you are the more depressed you feel. The more depressed you feel the harder it is to eat right and exercise.
How to beat burnout
The secret to beating burnout is to always make progress. Only plan work that you know you can accomplish. Focus on improving. Instead of setting goals, have dreams. Create habits. Put systems in place that are aimed at fulfilling your dreams.
At first, focus on your health. Feeling good will make everything else come easier. If you are already in good health, then focus on your health anyway. Take it to the next level. Sign up for a marathon or something. If you are like me and staying healthy is a lifelong struggle then do whatever you can. Again, make progress. Start with eliminating sugar and soda. If you have an addiction such as smoking, do not quit right off the bat. That is asking for trouble, frustration and probably failure. Start small and work up to that. Never stop improving your health, one achievable step at a time.
When it comes to your work, don’t think about the big picture during the week. Don’t second guess yourself. Do your work even if you don’t feel like it. Next, if you don’t finish a task on time, break it down into smaller tasks. Most of the time we get stuck because we aren’t sure what to do next. Finally, be honest with yourself. If several weeks have gone by and you still haven’t progressed, drop it. Quit, you aren’t that into it. You will feel much better when you focus on something that you actually care about. You may have fallen in love with the idea of a project. If you discover that you hate the work involved, then quit working on that project. Don’t let inner turmoil derail your entire life. It will if you let it.
Most importantly, never give someone or something else control of your happiness. Either accept your situation or change it. Don’t complain. It will only lead to bitterness.
Only do work that you care about. Never work for money. Getting paid should be a byproduct of doing your job, not the reason. Many people think that they are not in control of their job, especially when they answer to a boss. This is simply not true. If you are at odds with your boss or a co-worker, the first thing to do is assume that you are wrong. Try to imagine a scenario where they are right. If you are unable to do this, gather data. Usually, if you have enough data on your side and you are right, a tactful conversation will win the day. If it does not, you must choose: accept it, or move on and do something else. Do not pretend to accept it if you can not. This will lead to not giving a shit otherwise known as burnout. If you really feel that you have no say in what you do, find a different job. It isn’t worth it.
The best way to have control is to take the blame. If it isn’t your fault than how can you fix it? When a problem is someone else’s fault, they own it. They are responsible for it. You are the helpless victim. The best way to get stuck is to pin your success on someone else. It is hard to make progress when you are working on someone else’s schedule. Having someone else to blame won’t get you any closer to done. Instead, look for things that you could have done differently. Take responsibility and be creative. Again, never blame anyone for anything. At the very least it was your fault for relying on someone that you can’t control.
Honestly, I may be the last person in the world with the right to give advice on avoiding burnout. Then again, I have plenty of experience with it. As the classic Type A personality, I tend to push myself hard. When things don’t work out as planned, I end up depressed. I fill my time over reading and playing video games or something similar. I feel that following the guidelines above is how I can avoid burnout. I hope that you find it valuable as well. I am curious to know how other people deal with this problem. If anyone has advice or thinks that I am off base, I would love to hear about it.