Having picked my own path for the last couple of years, there were times when I got completely burnt out as often as once every few days. Like everyone else, I was struggling and I needed to get back on my feet as quickly as possible. I have no choice but to figure out how to deal with burnout more effectively, my business needs me.
There is no shortage of articles about burnout and how to prevent it, yet I find most of those rather generic and not exactly helpful in remediating the situation. Only recently, I discovered a secret and since that “ah ha!” moment, things have changed completely for me when it comes to demanding times. As of now, I don’t even need a holiday trip to exotic destinations anymore and I am still able to keep my cool with ease.
I found the solution to be a very simple and repeatable process, so I decided to put it down into words with the hope it could reach out to more people. While my experience would not be applicable to all type of careers, I’m pretty sure it would help a majority to overcome stress and be content with current choices.
Knowing that you are burning out
Do you even know that you are burning out? I did not, not until my second job.
I found this article from LifeHacker to be pretty helpful to judge if you are having a burnout. Even if you are currently happy with your job, think about those times where you felt bad and see if the symptoms apply:
- A generally negative attitude, often paired with the feeling that nothing is going to work out.
- Inability to concentrate.
- General apathy towards your work, chores, and other tasks.
- Feelings of stagnation.
- A lack of interest in social activities and being with others.
- Difficulty with healthy habits like exercise, diet, and regular sleep.
- Feeling like you’re never doing enough.
- Neglecting your own needs (and putting the needs of others ahead of your own).
- Personal values and beliefs lose their importance.
- Short temper.
- Constant exhaustion.
- Feelings of inefficacy.
- Feelings of detachment from people and things you care about.
- Frequent boredom.
- Psychosomatic complaints, such as headaches, lingering colds, and other issues with a cause that’s difficult to identify.
- The denial of these.
- The work you did kept having issues for several consecutive days.
- What you expected to be a simple task has dragged for days.
- Completely consumed by work and forget to pay bills or forget your date(!).
- Lost track of time, it was Monday yesterday and it’s Friday tomorrow.
- You work long non-productive hours and you wish to be efficient as you used to be on some other days.
If you only have one of these, maybe it’s fine although I suggest that you ask your colleagues, bosses or family and friends to help you. In extreme cases I came across, the person was so consumed by stress that he was not able to tell that he is burnt. The first step to any problem is awareness and acceptance. Once you have accepted that you are experiencing it, let’s move on.
Know what causes YOUR burnout. My epiphany moment.
Like everyone else, I thought that the common solution is to take a break and go on a holiday trip with loved ones or simply take a few days away from work once in a while. Holiday trips are always nice, but it didn’t exactly help me much, the effect didn’t last. Occasionally, I found myself to be extremely stressed just 2 days after I came back to work. It’s not because there were tons of work waiting, it’s not because the holidays were too short.
My enlightenment came after reading a short article about how Marissa Mayer prevents employees’ burnout (read about it here). I immediately realised an important misconception and
NOT being able to take break is NOT the cause of burning out. What I have learnt to be extremely crucial in looking at the matter is another way of defining it:
burning out is result of not being able to do what you love or what is important to you regularly.
Let it sink in a little before you read the next section.
Getting rid of burnout
The solution is actually quite simple: do what you love and is important to you regularly.
Another way to look at it is to ask yourself: what is it that you absolutely cannot miss out?
Do not try too hard to find the answer. You might not know the answer now, and might only discover it when you are actually doing the activities you love. It’s important to keep the question in mind all the time.
Fortunately for me, the answers came pretty easily when I knew what I needed to look for. I’m also lucky because I have been doing what I love all along. I just needed to separate the tasks keeping me happy while minimising the other mundane distractions. As a software developer, I’m passionate about writing codes and creating new things. However, as I also need to perform managerial duties, I had less and less time to do so. Repeatedly, I had to work for days without writing any useful code for the team, I became highly agitated. My solution was to simply make time to write some code every other day. I’m pretty certain many developers who are moving on to higher management roles would feel the same.
Everyone has a favourite hobby to boost energy, it could be playing a musical instrument, drawing, writing, or some kind of sports. But the real cause of burnout could be rather different. You probably can miss a practice or two without feeling resentful towards whatever it was that was stopping you. However, there would be other regular activities that you absolutely do not want to skip as they are important to you; you would keep tabs on people making you work through it, hoping for revenge one day.
The reasons are no doubt very personal, it could very well be work-related like mine, or it could be non-work related such as one example the article suggested: attending your child’s weekly event. If you still don’t have an answer, no worries, keep searching. Below is the list of questions I hope could help you to pinpoint your resentment:
- Why do you want to take a break, go on holiday? What are you really running away from?
- What do you love most about your work environment?
- What do you wish to be removed from your work environment? Is it within your control to avoid?
- How do you recharge your energy? Can it be done at the end of the day? In the middle of the day?
- Is there any regular event/activities that you are looking forward to regularly?
- Are there some people you want to meet but things keep getting in the way?
Though personal, if you are not able to seek into your inner self and answer these questions, find someone to help. Perhaps a coach, a person you can trust, they might know you better and ask the right questions instead.
Keeping sanity and staying ahead
Once you have found what’s important to you, keep them permanently in your schedule. Think of them as checkpoints or life-savers. You can’t stretch yourself for too long, you need to aim for the next checkpoint. Do your best not to miss it, or possibly, keep every sprint as short as possible. Over time, I have learnt to incorporate multiple re-fuelling events into my work month. There are small daily checkpoints, I get to do what I like without fail at certain times of the day. There are slightly more satisfying weekly rewards and of course, a most fulfilling activity monthly.
Having said that, it’s not always possible to keep to such a schedule. By setting up multiple rewarding activities, even if I miss one small one, I can always aim for the next bigger one as my “save game”. In the case when I really have to skip several of them, such as when I travel, I make sure to plan ahead and reserve one of the earliest day for “me-only” time and only do what I want on that day. In other words, I plan my burnout ahead of time.
Most importantly is to be aware of what you need constantly. The activities don’t need to be the same every time. As your life changes, maybe getting married or having kids, your ‘rewards’ will change. By keeping in touch with yourself, you’ll know how to line up the activities without much effort.
Be aware that you are burnt out occasionally and accept that. Keep a look out for what is important to you yet you kept missing out on. Make it as part of your schedule or find ways to make it up.