Just like everyone else, at least once or twice in your life you’ll go through it: the lingering feeling of fatigue, the unexpected fear that your career path is stagnant, and the sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach that everything you’re attempting to accomplish has little or no value.
Bouts of suffering from this debilitating combination of exhaustion and disillusionment are not only common, they’re more common among people who are highly motivated to do something useful and important. In some ways, the more idealistic and hopeful you normally feel, the harder burnout can hit you.
How to Identify Burnout
Signs of burnout may include:
- A strong desire to “play hooky,” or renege on your obligations.
- Feeling critical, cynical, irritable, negative, and/or unappreciated.
- Loss of interest in the activities and people you normally enjoy.
- Low energy and apathy.
- Physical symptoms such as headaches, backaches, or muscle weakness.
- Sleep difficulties.
Burnout often develops slowly, then lasts several weeks or months. When it hits, you’re likely to experience a severe loss of motivation and productivity.
What Causes Burnout?
Different people fall into burnout in different ways, for different reasons. But there are some common patterns that often lead to the burnout experience.
Too many restrictions. If you have strong ideas for what you’d like to do and how you’d like to do it, then chafing for too long under too many restrictions – including pressures to do other things or do things other ways – can drive you toward burnout.
Internal conflicts. If you have values and priorities that conflict with what you’re actually doing much of the time, then after a while whatever internal drives you normally feel may begin to short-circuit.
Confusing goals or expectations. Clarity of purpose generally supports motivation and satisfaction. If you’re operating in a confusing situation with too little direction and too few points of reference, then burnout may become a plausible mechanism for escape.
Avoid Burnout These Ways
One frequently offered piece of advice for fighting burnout is to take a vacation, or at least spend a few days in a different environment.
But burnout results from long-term exposure to difficult circumstances, so any short-term solution is not going to pull you out of it.
Instead, it’s more effective to make deeper changes that will produce a more lasting effect. These changes can include:
Rethink Your Purpose
Burnout is often a sign your work and your life feel headed in a direction that doesn’t serve you. The appropriate remedy is to re-examine what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. A significant change, or at least a clarification, may help you fight off the feeling of burnout.
Revise Your Activities
Even when you’re on the right track, the ways you’ve organized your days, weeks, and months can dull your senses and block your feelings of accomplishment. It’s often helpful to re-arrange your schedule and your priorities to put more lasting emphasis on whatever you feel is important and satisfying. You can then fit your lesser obligations into the time remaining.
Even if you don’t change your priorities, just making better use of your time may be enough to change your feelings about your work and life situation. A refreshed attitude can break the cycle of negativity that’s pushing you toward burnout.
Do More for Others
Helping other people is an important way to rethink your purpose and revise your activities. By diverting a larger portion of your time and energy to other people’s needs and priorities – through formal volunteering, consulting, mentoring, or just informally helping friends with their projects – you can begin to de-emphasize and eventually drive out the elements in your situation that are inclining you toward burnout.
Doing more for others also makes you feel good, and that’s a powerful antidote to the negative feelings that burnout often brings to the surface.
What’s more, socializing is itself an elixir that fights burnout. The simple act of spending more time with people you care about will help you feel better about yourself and your difficult situation.
Once you begin to fight feelings of burnout, you’ll initiate a “virtuous cycle” in which the better you feel about your work and your life, the easier it becomes to enjoy what you’re doing, experience stronger motivation, work more productively, and reach a higher level of success.
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