You know what it feels like. You dread going to work. You feel tired all the time. You get upset about little things like people not saying hello to you in the morning.
You’re far too busy and overloaded to get the job done right, so you’re just phoning it in. You find it hard to focus. You stare into space a lot.
You used to love your job and you worked very hard at it. Now it seems like work never ends. It’s all-consuming. You no longer have time for former friendships and hobbies.
You feel like you no longer care about anything anymore.
All you want to do is escape.
And you hate it.
Welcome to Burnout
What is burnout, anyway? Here’s my definition:
Burnout is what happens after a period when your energy expenditure has been consistently greater than your ability to recover, draining your reserves to the point where you have no energy left.
That is, you’ve been draining the tank for too long and now you’re running on empty.
Now if you’re well and truly burned out, the only option left to you is this:
Because burning out is a natural self-protective mechanism that triggers when you’ve gone too long without respecting your own need to recover. Your mind and body are forcing you to rest so that you won’t kill yourself.
This is why, as usual, the popular motivational slogans are wrong.
It’s popular to tell people to push through the pain when they’re tired and to use willpower to force things.
But this is a stupid approach.
If you’ve been reading my blog, by now you know not to attempt to force things.
Because such an approach will only make things worse.
Our Four Energy Systems
If you haven’t reached the point of burnout yet (but feel like you’re on your way there), there’s hope. You can make life better and more survivable by building recovery into your life.
To understand how, first you need to understand our four main energy systems: the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.
All four of these can be drained and restored.
Physical energy is easy to understand. When your muscles are tired, they’re tired. When you’ve been labouring too long without a break or had too many sleepless nights, you naturally end up physically exhausted.
Emotional energy is generally drained by other people. Drama, catfights, accusations, pettiness, jealousy, backstabbing, mutiny — all of these drain you emotionally.
The frustrations of everyday life can also take a toll. If you live in crowded, noisy, filthy surroundings, all of those can bleed your emotional resources too.
Mental energy is expended when you work on intellectually demanding tasks. Writing, analysis, or coursework can all take it out of you.
And finally there’s spiritual energy. By this I don’t refer to anything religious but rather to the strength of your spirit, motivation, and morale: once you start asking yourself what the hell you’re doing all this for, that’s a sure sign your spirit has been drained.
So what drains spiritual energy? You can probably guess: politics, cynicism, disrespect, incompetence, ungratefulness.
The Art of Recovery
Once you understand how all four of our energy systems can be drained, it becomes easy to see the importance of building recovery into your life — and more importantly, how your energy can be restored.
Because you must be able to restore yourself in each of these four areas in order to do your best work sustainably without burning out.
Physical recovery is straightforward enough: you need to sleep. Take naps and impose strict sleeping hours if you have to. A good massage can also help a great deal, and hard exercise will also increase your physical capacity.
Mental recovery can be as simple as giving your mind a break and just staring into space for a while. Many people already do this instinctively. Absorbing meditative tasks like crafting or colouring can help too, and meditation itself is a wonderful restorative for the mind.
Don’t try to recover with “mindless” media like Twitter or TV, though. That keeps your mind stimulated, keeping you from resting. What you want instead is to simply let your mind be quiet for a while.
Emotional recovery means spending time with people who actually matter to you. Text them throughout the day, and encourage them to text you without requiring either side to reply immediately (people are busy after all). Set up appointments to hang out and put them in your calendar, even if this means booking people several weeks in advance.
In the meantime, try something as simple as visualizing a long 30-second hug from someone who matters to you. That can give you a boost too.
And finally we have spiritual recovery. This means actively trying to rediscover meaning and purpose in your life. Think about the people you serve and how your work makes a difference to them. Think about the family you care about and support. Volunteer. Engage in a hobby and make time to do things that are personally meaningful to you; an hour or so twice a week is enough to make a difference.
Take Tiny Breaks
Recovery doesn’t have to take a long time. It certainly shouldn’t feel like a chore.
That’s why many of these suggestions can be incorporated into tiny breaks between your work sessions, or your lunch break, or bathroom breaks, or your commute, or after you wake up and before you go to bed.
Try it out and feel the difference.
Because on the whole, a lifestyle incorporating frequent breaks to rest your body, mind, and spirit will be more productive and sustainable than a lifestyle based around forcing yourself to work as hard as you can for as long as you can.
Listen to what your heart, mind, and body are telling you, and ignore the fashionable willpower “gurus” of the world.