Work Burnout: How to Overcome Emotional and Motivational Exhaustion
If you prefer to listen, here's the podcast version of this post on iTunes and Soundcloud:
It’s no shocker that working all night and all day with a million different deadlines can lead even the most inspired and motivated individuals to burnout and depression. Careers and schools often demand it, and it becomes the norm – hopefully for only a short time in your life, but regardless – it’s dangerous for your body and soul and can take a toll on the future-you and your success as a professional AND happy individual.
So this is for people who are in creative fields, schools, or professions that require they go hard for extended periods of time – causing them to burnout mentally and lose motivation. I have some information to empower you to make better decisions and tools to help you if you’re already stuck in an overworked depression. Plus, i'll offer you some ways to temper the stress and anxiety of intense deadlines and assignments moving forward. I know there’s a lot written on this subject so I will offer you a practical set of solutions so that you can actually implement them starting NOW and not in six months, when “things calm down.”
This one is for my new friend in the Netherlands – Nathalie. xo
There are three parts – the what, the why, the how – the tools.
Part 1: The What
Burnout from prolonged stress experienced from deadlines and long hours at work or school. It manifests as physical exhaustion and mental numbness – like you’re a knife that has lots its edge. This is the result of neglecting yourself outside of work, so getting out of balance and staying that way. In certain stages of life, this level of busyness is often necessary because of how demanding the curriculum or field happens to be. Plus, nowadays people compete on a whole other level – the trend is to keep going harder, faster, cheaper, do something even newer – and it’s crowded in a lot of fields, so the name of the game is don’t slow down! Your success depends on it! If you can't, there's someone else who will! With our technology, life seems to speed up to meet the speed of the newest devices. Working at full-speed comes with lots of adrenaline, so it’s easy to get addicted to it and ride it like a high. This is when the imbalance becomes pervasive: we no longer WANT to slow down. Because we’re getting GOOD at this nonstop, no-sleep top performance as a definition of who we are.
The biggest downside is that when you keep going at this level you eventually burnout. Your chemicals get exhausted and you lose the stamina mentally and physically to continue working as hard. When you continue to work yourself hard and endure the stress anyway, the eventual outcome is you lose the passion and ability to perform. You lose your creative engine – which is ultimately what you’re working so hard to hone. Alterations to your approach need to happen BEFORE that process begins– and they need to be integrated into your awareness and focus.
I don’t mean stop working hard, I mean change the way you work hard and fine tune your awareness so you can sustain it efficiently. This is a shift that comes in your approach to your day: there are very minute and simple changes that alter your entire life trajectory. It’s like choosing to stop and grab a tiny cup of water instead of continuing to run the last 10 miles after skipping it, because you know it’s what you need to sustain this run without bailing early. Why this is super important to look at and shift now is that you don’t often stop til you’re waaaay out in the boonies and the marathon path is actually not the one you wanted - plus your feet are blistered.
There’s a habit in hard working professionals – and that is to always use any extra energy to work harder. Often without spending the time in the present for reflection, which causes most to continue the same intensity of work without having the faintest idea what’s going on in their hearts, down to the depths of their soul. The heart isn’t on the same wavelength as money and stuff, so it goes undervalued until you wake up unfulfilled, depleted, burnt out. Why? Because in the grander sense, “You” – your breathing, feeling person has been put last on the chain of importance for too long, and now you’re depleted and suffering.
The trick is to maintain a habit of checking in with yourself on a holistic level, despite the fact that you work hard. And this really doesn’t take a whole lot of time, but it doesn’t feel important in the moment so often we skip it. The hardest part is choosing to create a pause to check in, at all. You must do it for the sake of your stamina and this other unseen part of yourself who is suffering silently. Your brain will often lose sight of this all together because it’s chattering about deadlines and emergencies, nonstop.
So this post I am going to help you build your PEAK WORK REGIME. And that means – like a marathon runner, you’re going to build and finesse the healthiest form for long distance running – this means paying attention to very specific physical and emotional needs so that you can conserve energy and maintain balance. As you read this and (hopefully) take notes – you’re going to have to deliberately take a big step back and look at what you’re doing now vs. just mentally digesting it and continuing on as if nothing happened. To effectively incorporate things into your regime, means taking deliberate time to STOP and reevaluate things from a non-stressed perspective. It is with these momentary pauses that you can improve your current life in small and simple ways – and no matter how small and simple, they add up pretty quickly. In other words – going against your instinct in the present for the sake of being able to run harder, longer, happier.
Part 2: WHY people get burnout depression
1. Lack of connection to self and body
You’re on autopilot so you’re steered by the external vs. the internal aka “what’s best for me.” In this sense, you're not choosing what you do, you're simply reacting to things and being guided by external factors. This is how you end up somewhere you didn't want to be without even noticing it: you haven't been stopping to check in with how you feel about what you're doing and if it's what you want. This disconnection is the imbalance created by not fully meeting your basic needs – good nutrition, sleep, exercise, mental quiet time. And by not having a routine that allows you to naturally slow down at the end of the day, which is what helps your body reach rest and relax mode. This is the opposite of stress-response and it allows you to digest food, resume normal blood flow and heart rate, and get a good nights sleep.
2. Permanently in a Stress Response
When you're stressed you are operated by your fear/threat system - which is an overuse of your stress response system. This is the most primitive part of your brain, otherwise known as the reptilian brain. So when you're stressed, you’re using only the dumbest part of your brain – and you’re fearful, so you are solely focused on the threat so that you can run or fight. It’s also when you’re the least capable of solving problems. You’re coming from the primitive brain vs. the part of your brain that allows you to reflect and CHOOSE what's best for you. This is a base-level reactive self vs. a reflective one – so you’re less able to find solutions.
With long-term stress you can actually desensitize yourself to your stress hormones or become hyper sensitive to it. It's the extended exposure that can “break” your chemicals and it has a domino effect that spreads to other areas of your life and wreak more havoc. Because it changes your hormones, it can affect your weight, sex drive, sleep cycles, reproductive system, etc! Not a small matter peeps!
It’s one of those things that feels okay when you’re in the early stages – almost like you’re riding an adrenaline high, but as it progresses you can wear it out and cause health problems like insulin resistance. It’s not good for you so if this sounds like you, do something about it.
3. Never Present
When your thinking brain is always on, it means you are not actually participating in your life. You are instead - always in the future or the past. When you are in this place in the majority of your time you are fast-forwarding through your life. You might believe you are living, but you are not. You are watching a movie in your head instead of smelling the food you’re eating. It’s a half-life, and quite unfulfilling. Even if it’s a good memory – it’s got nothing on the present reality. This is when people grow to be very unhappy and disconnected from their understanding of what is causing the problem.
4. No Payoff
This is extremely powerful in creating a sense of hopelessness and depression. It demotivates immensely. If you don’t get to see the end to a lot of hard work, your it makes hard work pointless and your life, a waste. This is the reason many people lose the will to show up to work after a project is cancelled. What this means is you should ALWAYS show someone your work – someone who cares about it, regardless of the cancellation of a project. So for example- your peers, your significant other. Give it life of some kind and share what you have conquered and learned from your process. A friend show-and-tell works!
5. Your Physical Stress-Type
We handle stress based on our past stress-traumas, and also genetics. Just like a lot of Asians are lactose intolerant, so do you inherit a threshold for stress. You also grow a system of relating to stress based on your experiences throughout life – so depending on how stressful your home was and how your little-self digested it, you might have a much different reaction to the stress you’re encountering as an adult.
Think of it like your muscle memory – you have a stress-memory that encodes your level of upset. Have you ever noticed how there are certain people who don’t freak out about how much they have to do even though they have the same amount you do? This is about becoming AWARE if you have a negative response to stress so that you can choose to recondition yourself.
If you have a negative response you’re getting an extra high dose of stress hormones in your body, which means you have to work on calming that with manual techniques. This is vital because they overwhelm your system after a while and create a slew of serious health problems. The longer the stimulus, the harsher the effects are on your body. With that – let’s get to the tools!
Part 3: The Tools
Before we go into the tools is take a short inventory of yourself in your current work life, right now. Look at what, generally, in your chosen career field motivates you and what depletes you. Look at what the energy sucks are. Because there’s likely a reason you chose this – because it brings out an inspired voice inside you.
What do I want you to do with this information? You let it guide your focus. If something is not serving you, put as little time into it as possible. It doesn’t mean you are going to neglect things – it means stay AWARE that it is NOT IMPORTANT TO YOU. For example – I hate meetings and bureaucracy. I love helping people. This can allow me to choose to spend as little energy as possible on the things that I dislike – meaning I will contribute less in ways because I am conscious of this fact.
We often create the majority of the time and stress OURSELVES in how we choose to gauge what’s in need of our attention and discussion, and what’s not. Often when we feel insecure – which is a huge amount of time when it comes to creative work – we tend to overly insert ourselves to prove our worth to ourselves and others. Like we want to put our all into things because we want to be perfect even when that thing doesn’t further our truest mission in life. As type-A-ers and creative, meticulous people we must train ourselves to let go of what is less important in favor of taking care of ourselves. When it’s not what you’re into, let it go as much as possible. Move on as quickly as possible. Stop the unnecessary mental chatter and shit-talk. It’s all just distracting you from what you want more of – which is happiness, life and inspiration juice.
1. Take mini-mindfulness breaks.
This is about deliberately labeling the places or moments that are JUST FOR YOU. Create safe-zones, like the shower. When you’re in the shower – place immense value on your time to just be you and relax.
2. Take a Self-Made Stress Inventory
Know when you are creating the work: if something is out of your control, let it go. You are not helping yourself solve something. This will still live in your brain and not in the world - and you have no idea what will happen. You are simply removing yourself from your present. The reason I say this is because when you operate from the thinking-brain / the ego for the majority of your life, the state of self perpetuates itself, just like a chemical drug addiction.
3. Separation of Work and Life.
Create limits for when you are going to be mentally occupied by work. Compartmentalize. And STRIVE to stop talking about work when you’re at home or with your significant other – because otherwise mentally you’re always there. Without bringing in other focuses, work-stress can dominate ALL OF YOU. You want to welcome in variety wherever possible.
4. If you can’t sleep, just rest.
I know that often if you suffer insomnia, it can be really hard to just lie there – aware of how you’re unable to sleep. It can make you even more anxious - lamenting the fact that you're sooo tired and tomorrow is gonna suck because it's already 3 am and you've gotten no sleep! etc.. Instead of having that mental freak out, place value in the time you’re able to simply rest by lying still with your eyes closed. This is not sleep but it will give you a lot more than if you skipped it and got out of bed. It's like a half-version of sleep! Really quiet your mind and accept it as something peaceful and soothing. Do the same throughout your day: any time you can rest your eyes and mind is helpful, including when you’re about to head back from lunch, or for a brief moment before you walk into a class. Really focus on the fact that you are allowing yourself valuable energy rejuvenation time. Imbue it with more potency in your mind.
5. Allow yourself the right to do absolutely nothing.
It’s hard to stop working if you work all the time – it can make you feel guilty for not doing something when you are not at work or school. Make a deliberate effort to sit and do nothing and don't give yourself a hard time for doing it.
A short refresher for anyone who hasn’t been taught the basics of self-care:
Be outside as much as possible. Take walks as often as possible. Add as much color to your work-space as possible. Constantly practice shutting off your mind – take breaks to breathe slowly in and out. Do inversions – and breath slowly in and out.
Place importance on empty air in your mind and being “off”. I don’t mean watching television or texting. I mean no thoughts in your head whatsoever. When your brain isn’t consciously thinking. You are creative thinkers and in order to be the most efficient, you need to operate at optimal level. That means being fresh and clear, and being able to bring in things from far outside of your work routine. For example – read fiction, and not just coding books. Try new things that have NOTHING to do with your job as often as possible. You will find that it brings a lot to your creative self – more umph than you would ever anticipate. When you allow things from outside of you to change you, your capacity grows. You find weird new insights that broaden your tool set in your work.
And just so you know, when you sleep is when your brain washes out the gunk that causes it to break down – so there is a lot of important value in sleep. Don’t scoff at it as a self-indulgent luxury. I think a lot of us feel we are slacking or not doing good enough when we are relaxing or hiking – like you almost feel guilty. This is a rationalization for why this is so valuable. It gives you clarity to be doubly effective.
6. Save Your Mind-Space for Action
This is one tool that will take you EXTREMELY FAR. Save Your Mental Energy for Action and Learn to Let it Go. Make a rule for yourself to skip self-punishing and regret. Replaying a mistake doesn’t help it mean more. Despite how you might rationalize it helping you be MORE prepared by stressing about something – that is not the case. It actually keeps you stupider. Why? Because when you worry, your brain is taking energy from the smarter parts to give it to your threat-response brain. Stress makes you primitive. Reflection is the more advanced part of your brain and that’s the part that's activated when you put things aside to bake instead of trying to muscle them.
If something didn’t go to plan – save your time energy for more important things like action. Forgive yourself immediately. It’s not the end of the world. If no one died, then don’t cry about it. It’s just work. It’s not allowed to destroy your enjoyment of this one life. If you’re a student right now know that your education is much more about conditioning you as an individual. Like doing muscle reps. That learning and honing will carry you further than anything single test or project or portfolio piece – so if one thing doesn’t go well, let it go and move on. Learn, but don’t self-punish. It’s not worth it and it’s exhausting.
This goes for the people you hang around as well. You need all the energy you can get for positive actions – so don’t allow those around you to complain or lament how tired they are. I think so much of our perspective is created by those we spend time with so if you’re around people who are constantly complaining about work and fatigue, you’re going to be focused on it more so. If you want to understand HOW important it is - read up on mirror neurons. There's a part of your brain that literally creates the emotions of another human when you see them. So you are taking in the emotions of everyone around you. Trim out the negativity! It's not worth it and you can't spare the energy.
7. Kill the Gnats!!
When you wake up in the morning or start your week, do the little tasks that take 15 minutes, first. Just get them out of the way! Every day you have a finite reservoir of willpower. Once it's tapped, you lose motivation and self-control. Hence the reason you don't want to go to be tried by a judge on a Friday at the end of the day. When you have a ton of little things on your mind, they have a tendency to eat away at your reservoir and drain a shit ton more energy than they deserve. Get 'em done!
8. Put an Infinite Dollar Sign on your Time
It doesn’t have to be a literal dollar sign. But place the highest value on your time - know when something isn’t a big deal. If you’re costing yourself money and time, throw it away. For example, my doctor spent hours finding the right box to return a 10 dollar item to amazon. He then had to find the right shipping label which took several more hours. It ended up costing him – in time – hundreds of dollars.
I want you to think of your time in this way. It’s the most valuable asset you have and you need to look at those nagging little tasks that cost a ton in the same way. Begin to mentally train yourself to put them aside when they’re not serving you.
If someone asks you to do something or you feel obligated – make a rule for yourself that you’re going to say NO to things that are not serving you. This is something you must learn to do if you want to build your ultimate work regiment. You cannot be doing things like working for show or socializing out of obligation. Keep your time precious and let go of the expectations of others.
9. Do “21 days of Happiness”
Start this right now y’all! Seriously. Why? Because you need to recalibrate what you see as your life right now and this will help you do that. Not to mention, you’re most capable when you’re in a positive mindset. I gave this out to a friend of mine working in the game industry who was super burnt and he said it literally changed his life. So try it!
It takes 2 minutes every day for 21 days and you essentially rewire your brain to be positive. Wanna do it with me? Say yes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
1. Some kind of physical exercise (a few sit-ups or maybe taking the stairs at work)
2. Some kind of meditation (you could sit quietly and breath deeply for a minute in the morning? for me it’s just yoga).
3. Journal about 3 new things you’re grateful for.
4. Journal about 1 positive experience you had today.
5. Perform conscious acts of kindness: Open your inbox and send a sweet random note, like someone's post with no likes, or say something nice to a person at work - whatever it is, take positive actions toward another person. At least one per day, no maximum. Make it like a game! If a stranger at the checkout counter is mean, make a point to say something kind to them.
There’s no “time-out” from your life. This is it, right now. And though you need to keep powering through because that’s what the moment demands of you, place importance upon your happiness and comfort during this time. Make your experience of it, important. Because once you do, with just those small gestures of kindness toward yourself you will automatically begin to lean toward healthier and self-protective habits. It's when it becomes your MO that you shed the self-made stress and overworking habits that are currently unconscious. By caring about yourself, you begin to create a more clear separation of you and your job – one that creates a healthy buffer for you to increase your vitality and overall creative energy. Because you are not your job. You are soooo much more. And it will only help you to think that way. It’s about having better quality work time. Think of yourself when you’re in the zone. Things take a half the time they would normally take when you feel at the top of your personal and emotional game.
Most of the time when you're working your butt off nonstop for something - it's for the wrong reason. We get a lot of our ideas of success from other people: what does my mom think is successful? What do my classmates want? I want it, too. What are people my age in my industry SUPPOSED to have done by this point? Rarely do we actually stop to think on what we actually want for ourselves, what rewards us - and what we want to foster more of in our life's version of success. The reason I bring that up is that so much of what we pursue, we do to make others think we are like this other ideal. It’s not coming from a place of best-self. And the best-self measure is truly where your gold exists.
Your decisions today create the self you become – and because you’ve got a motor on your boat, it’s important to form the right habits NOW while you work. It will make you happier and therefore stronger, for longer. Be good to you! You're the only You, you've got.
Featured image via Flickr