Feeling Fried: Three Strategies to Deal with Burnout

Things were going great! New opportunities were popping up everywhere! I felt blessed to be alive. I had great health, everyone in my family was doing great, my job was going great, even the weather was great! I hated to go to bed at night and was excited to get up in the morning!

I don’t know when it happened. It wasn’t like there was a crisis or an explosion, or a really bad day. It just kind of built up gradually. Things weren’t going great. Nothing was working. It felt like being alive was a chore and took constant effort. I had a cough that lingered for weeks and I couldn’t shake that sore throat. I felt like a never saw my family anymore and when I did everyone was upset with each other. Work felt like a constant, never ending crisis. It was cold, wet, and gray outside. I couldn’t wait to crawl in bed each night and when the alarm clock went off it felt like the bell of dread.

Can you relate? Have you ever felt like that? I bet you have and if you haven’t you will at some point. That feeling is so normal in our culture now that we even have a word for it: burnout. When you feel like the fires of life have burned up all of the fuel you have and there’s nothing left but ashes. Day follows day, they all seem the same, and you can’t quite remember being excited about anything recently.

You want to get the flames started again?  Good. Here are three foundational strategies to get your fire rekindled and deal with burnout.

First Strategy: Rest and Relax

The first thing you need to understand is that burnout is your mind and your soul telling you something. The most important thing you are being told when you are feeling burned out is that you are tired. When you are tired you need to rest.

I know you are busy. Very busy. So busy. The most busy person in the history of the whole busy world.

Welcome to the club!

I understand that you have important things to do and they all needed done yesterday. I understand that you don’t have time to rest. I understand that you think you will sleep when you’re dead. I understand that you think that, but I also know that almost none of that is really true and even if it is it doesn’t change the facts.

You need rest. God rested, how are you exempt? Simply put if you don’t take a break and rest you will break.

And then how much will you get done?

Sometimes taking a rest means physical rest. Catching up on sleep and giving your body a break. Often, however, what is most needed is giving your mind a rest. Giving your mind a rest doesn’t mean not thinking or not working, it means thinking about or working on something different for a while. Winston Churchill was a big believer in rest, but he was an even bigger believer in activity:

“It is no use saying to the tired ‘mental muscles’… ‘I will give you a good rest,’ ‘I will go for a long walk,’ or ‘I will lie down and think of nothing.’ The mind keeps busy just the same. If it has been weighing and measuring, it goes on weighing and measuring. If it has been worrying, it goes on worrying…It is useless to argue with the mind in this condition…A gifted American psychologist has said, ‘worry is a spasm of the emotion; the mind catches hold to something and will not let it go.’ One can only gently insinuate something else into its convulsive grasp. And if this something else is rightly chosen, if it is really attended by the illumination of another field of interest, gradually, and often quite swiftly, the old undue grip relaxes and the process of recuperation and repair begins.”

The best rest for your mind is allowing it to work on something else, to try out new ideas, and to gain new perspective.

If your primary work is work that is mostly mental rather than physical then for a rest try something that uses your hands and your body. Go for a run, build something, craft something, play an instrument, work in a garden, play a sport. If your primary work is work that is mostly physical rather than mental then for a rest try something that uses primarily your mind. Read a book, write, play a board game or a card came, attend a lecture or a concert, or work on a puzzle.

Base the length of your rest on how burned out and exhausted you are. Little breaks throughout the day can keep you fresh and much more productive and less likely to burn out. If you are completely exhausted already then stop and take a longer rest or plan one in the near future.

No matter how long of a rest you take use at least part of it to implement the second foundational strategy for dealing with burn out.

Second Strategy: Reconnect with Your Motivation

The second thing your mind and soul are telling you when you are burned out is that you are no longer sure why you are doing what you are doing. Burnout is a sure sign that you have lost your connection to what you working on.

When you know why you are doing something and you care about why you are doing something you will have purpose, drive, energy and satisfaction in getting done whatever needs to get done to achieve your purpose. This is true for both short term goals with clear endings and long term goals that are perpetual.

Slogging through that last statistics class that you need to graduate is a great example of a short term goal with a clear ending. It’s a lot easier to complete the class when you are fully connected to understanding why you need the class. You need the class because you need the credits to graduate. You need to graduate because you need the degree that will help you get the job that will allow you to get started in life and fully become an adult.

Showing up for work every day, even if you don’t love your job, is great example of a long term goal that can be perpetual. You show up for work because your job provides the paycheck that supports your family and allows them to live in a safe, clean, warm house with food on the table and a loving provider that takes care of them. The day to day work may not be super motivating, but the reason you are working for is compelling.

If you feel burned out take a rest and spend a little time reconnecting with the reason you are doing whatever it is that you are burned out at doing. This may require asking some of the big questions of life. It may mean reconsidering what you are doing. Is what you are working for still worth it to you? Do you still care? It is still important? What will you do if you discover that you don’t care about it, it’s not important, and what you are working towards is no longer worth it?

If that’s the case my advice is to be thankful for the burnout that caused you to stop and reconsider. If the why doesn’t make sense anymore then stop! Reconsider where you are going. Set some new goals and define success differently and start working towards that. Quitting and doing nothing is giving up and defeat. Quitting one goal because you discovered it’s not something you want to obtain and working on a new goal that’s better for you is a wise shift of strategy that will lead to greater success.Sometimes just remembering what you are working towards and why is enough to energize you to carry on. Usually, however, you need some additional help, and that’s where the third strategy is essential.

Third Strategy: Think and Act Small

The fuel for your motivation fire is success. If you’re trying to coax a fire that has burned out to lukewarm coals back to life you don’t throw a huge log on top of it and wait for the smoke to turn to flames. That strategy will smother a fire, not rekindle it. To get a burned out fire going again you add some little twigs and tinder. Once they catch you add bigger sticks. When the flames are roaring again you can toss on a log.

The same is true when you’re burned out. To get going again you need some quick wins. Nothing fuels success better than success and your goal should be to achieve something and make some progress, no matter how small. Take a rest, reconnect with your why, and then figure out what you could do right away to make some progress.

Still having a hard time getting started?

You’re not going small enough.

Go really small.

Laughably small.

Can’t fail small.

If you’re trying to write a book and you’re stuck make your first step turning on your laptop and opening the file you’re working on. Did that? Great, success! You did what you said you would do, you made progress, congratulations! Way to go!

Feel a little silly sitting there with just an open laptop? Why don’t you type at least one word.

Just. One. Word.

You can do that.

But…if you did that you might as well finish the sentence, and maybe the paragraph, and the page, and….you’re on the move again.

That’s how success works. A little win often leads to the next win and the next. Chain a few wins together and it feels like progress. Feel like you’re making progress and all of a sudden your motivation starts to come back. Get your motivation back and all of a sudden you’re not burned out anymore.

Keeping the Flame Alive

If you’re alive and breathing and thinking then you have a box of matches. And no matter how dead the fire is, how dark the night is, or how cold the air is a match, some tinder, and some fuel are all it takes to get a blaze going.

If you’re experiencing some burnout understand what that means and listen to the message. Take a break and get some rest. Reconnect to the reason you are doing whatever it is that you are tired of doing and make sure you still want or need to do it. Start small and build some success. 

Enjoy the flames.