You may not be able to define it, but you definitely know it when you feel it! It’s that general malaise that has you pulling the covers over your head instead of leaping out of bed. It’s the sudden urge to head to the airport instead of back on the computer after lunch. It’s the no-energy, no-motivation, no-dreams state of mind. And it’s awful!
The pain of burnout is obvious: You just can’t get motivated. You feel worn down, ineffective, hopeless. The idea of moving at all, let alone moving forward, requires way too much effort. However, burnout is a waste of time and energy. Whilst you’re suffering, you could be living a fantastic life.
You’ve likely experienced burnout at some point in your life, maybe related to your business, or maybe related to a relationship. Sometimes it creeps up on you, building over time, while other times it jumps out of the blue and hits you. One day everything is fine; the next, you’d rather poke yourself in the eye with a sharp stick rather than sit through one more day with this job or significant other.
Burnout doesn’t always come from the same source, either. It can come from working hard and needing a break, or it can come from lack of challenge. That means that addressing burnout is going to require some analysis. You might need a good, long rest, or you might need a kick in the pants. You might need better focus on your goals, or you may need an entirely new goal.
Here are five of the most common sources of burnout and five solutions for tackling them.
Burnout Cause #1: Overwork
Imagine training for a marathon. Every day for months, you check your online training schedule, you map out your running course, you lace up your shoes, and you hit the road. Rain or shine, you put in the miles – 3 miles, 13 miles, 23 miles. Over time, the mileage builds until it’s the big day. With literally thousands of miles under your belt, you line up with hundreds of other runners, adrenaline pumping and sweat already starting to form on your forehead. It’s time.Three or four (or five!) hours later, depending on your pace, you cross the finish line. You did it. You grab your medal and finisher’s t-shirt and hobble to your car, probably with the help of a friend or two.
The LAST thing you feel like doing is to run another mile or two. You’re done. Spent. Exhausted. In fact, it may be a few weeks before you feel ready to run again. It’s to be expected; you trained for months, you ran for hours, and you left it all on the course. Your reserves are empty and you’re ready for a nice, long break.
Do you see an analogy here with work? Maybe you’ve been pushing hard for a specific project or goal, day in and day out for an extended period of time. You’ve pulled a few all-nighters, and you don’t even recognize your kids because you haven’t been home before their bedtime. You’ve been aiming for a product launch or some other hard deadline, and now it’s done. You’re exhausted, and rightfully so. Just like the marathon runner, you’ve left it all on the course.
Chances are, your job – whether you’re in sales or software development – has large fluctuations due to external events. You have tax season, holiday season, or inventory season, and that makes your life crazy at times. Don’t worry; that’s normal. And it’s normal to want a break after it’s done.
What isn’t so normal, though, is a constant pressure that never abates. If you are always under the gun, always faced with a seemingly insurmountable deadline, always running at record-breaking pace, you’re not going to last. If you find yourself unable to relax due to internal or external pressures, you need to evaluate. You’re on the brink of total breakdown.
Solution #1: Pace Yourself
Even if your business or career requires constant push-push-push (and with 24/7 technology, almost everyone considers themselves to be always “on”), you have to find ways to pace yourself. Maybe it means taking a yoga class during lunch one day a week, or using every Sunday as a complete day of rest away from mobile phone, email, and iPad.
Sound crazy? Well, the crazier it sounds, the more necessary it is. If you think you just can’t take a week’s holiday every year, that means you need to do it!
Set a small goal. Maybe this week it’s just to walk to pick the kids up from school instead of driving, and to not use your mobile phone during meal breaks. These small cushions of blank space let your emotions and brain – and body! – start to recover.
And speaking of your body, don’t forget to work out. Exercising not only brings much-needed oxygen to your entire body, it also relieves a lot of the stress that gets pent up in us over long periods of work. As if that weren’t enough, exercising regularly also builds your stamina so that you can work for more extended periods of time. You don’t have to be a professional athlete to benefit from regular breaks. In fact, anyone in any field will find their productivity improves when they pace themselves.
Burnout Cause #2: Lack of Progress
There’s a reason that a hamster running on a wheel inside a mesh cage has become western civilization’s icon of a wasted, purposeless life. Who wants to work so hard, day after day, just to remain in the same place? Unfortunately, this is how a lot of us feel about our lives: That we work and work and work and never make any progress or move any closer to our dreams. And that’s a sure-fire recipe for burnout.
While that may be okay when you’re at the gym and your goal is just to get in a quick workout, it’s no way to live a life. To have a fulfilling life, or month, or day, you need to have goals and have a sense of making progress towards them. If you feel like you’re spinning your wheels, you WILL burn out, just as a motor straining against an immovable object will eventually give out. Humans are meant to have a purpose, a goal, a destination.
One simple solution is to just quit – get off the hamster wheel, walk away from the dead-end job, or give up on whatever goal you were aiming for. If that works, great! Quit wandering around aimlessly and just sit down where you are. But if that’s not a viable option, you’ll be interested in…
Solution #2: Track and Celebrate Small Successes
To fight burnout that comes from frustration at lack of movement, you must have a sense of making progress. Depending on your exact goal, how you measure that progress will vary. But it’s essential for your mental well-being for you to be able to look back at your day and say, “Yes! I accomplished this!”
Tracking progress could be as simple as having a daily list of things to do and crossing them off, knowing that the day’s list rolls up into your larger goals. Or you may want a more firm metric, like miles traveled, money earned, calls made, pounds lost. Obviously, some goals are easier to track than others, but overall, you should know where you’re going and how close you are to achieving them.
But what if your goal is huge, like when starting your own business? Break it down into actionable chunks. What do you have to do before you can quit your current job? Make enough money to replace your income, maybe £25,000. What do you have to do to earn £25,000? How many businesses will you need to get in touch with before you get 25 customers? If you know it’s about 10 for each job gained, so you will need to talk to 250. Bingo! There’s your progress chart.
Making progress is the first step; tracking that progress is essential, too. Some people are very visual and like to see at a glance on a chart or graph what they’ve accomplished. Others find it sufficient to look back at their calendar or old to-do lists and see what they’ve done. Still others like to monitor their bank balance on a daily basis. Whatever works for you, find a way to link your progress to your goal. When you see yourself making strides forward, no matter how small, you’ll see that the end is closer every day.
One final word of advice: Celebrate your progress! Whether it’s five pounds lost, 100 pages written on your novel, or ten new sales calls, take a moment to enjoy the completion. Reflecting on how far you’ve come will make success that much sweeter.
Burnout Cause #3: Lack of Vision
So you feel like you’re making progress, and you regularly take breaks to let your batteries recharge, but you still feel a general malaise and a lack of motivation. What gives?
The answer may lie in your end goal. You may think, “I know why I’m working twelve-hour days: I want to get my business off the ground.” And to that, I respond: “Yeah, but…”
- Yeah, but… why do you want to start your own business?
- Yeah, but… how will you know when you’re ready?
- Yeah, but… what after your business is launched. What then?
Having a goal that is misdirected, unclear, or not motivating enough can be worse than having no goal at all. So if you’re not waking up psyched for the day ahead, lack of vision could be the issue. Thank goodness, there’s an easy way to rectify this issue…
Solution #3: Get Clear on Your Why
Many now-successful entrepreneurs have a rags-to-riches story. How they were able to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and achieve a life of leisure and cocktails. Analyzing these stories – at least the ones that seem to be true – show that a big reason is needed in order to succeed. We hear of financial gurus that were facing bankruptcy and at risk of losing their families, motivational coaches that were £100,000 in debt and 100 pounds overweight. All of these people had huge reasons for working hard, day in and day out. Success was not an option; it was an imperative.
So to bring this home, if you’re working to put food on the table, you’re not going to worry too much about motivation. You’re going to get up every morning and start hustling because you have no other option. But what if you’re not in this back-against-the-wall position?
You can still create a strong “why,” one that motivates and inspires you. Money is rarely sufficient; instead, think of what you’ll do with the money you earn. Take your family on a trip? Ensure your parents’ comfortable retirement? Build houses for the homeless? Take your goal beyond a number in the bank,
If you’re trying to lose weight, why did you pick your goal weight? To look sexy? To be able to shop in any store you want? To be around when your kids have their children? You need to know the why behind the goal in order for it to successfully motivate you.
During this exercise, you might determine that your goal is misaligned with your values. You may need to re-align your goals, find a different “why,” or find a new goal altogether. Don’t let that discourage you, though – better to re-evaluate now than to reach your goals only to look around and wonder why you bothered.
Cause #4: You Don’t Know the Next Step
Burnout can often come when you are so overwhelmed with information, possibilities, and ideas that you have no idea where to go next. It’s like planning a holiday, but you’re not sure where you want to go, when you want to leave or return, how you want to get there, or what you want to see along the way. Mountains? Beach? Safari? Skiing? It’s all on the table. Even if you have the end result in mind – trip to beach, let’s say – the possibilities can still be overwhelming. Studies have shown that a confused mind does nothing, and nothing is more confusing – and tiring – than a plethora of options to evaluate, rank, and act upon.
Sometimes you can feel overwhelmed and burned out not only because there are so many options, but because you have no idea what your criteria should be. To go back to our beach example, if you don’t have a departure date in mind, a specific destination, or a price range, you’re going to have a difficult if not impossible task in sorting through all options to find the “best.”
If this sounds familiar, the good news is that your frustration and lack of motivation are temporary. Typically as soon as you can identify your end goal and define some parameters for your decision, you can move forward. It’s the dozens of possibilities combined with the lack of decision criteria that make for the banging-the-head-against-the-wall feeling.
So before we get into some specifics of handling overwhelm, here are a few quick actions you can take if you’re feeling bogged down and mired in choices:
Define the ideal outcome. Back to the beach example: Do you want to relax, skydive, be surrounded by people, or be on a desert island? Get clear on what you want to feel, have, or do.
Eliminate the obvious. If there are some options that are just so far out there that they’re not even in the realm of possibility (like a three-month trip to Richard Branson’s private island), get rid of them. Do a quick pass through your contenders to narrow down the choices as much as possible.
Make a list of criteria. For our fictional holiday, is cost an issue? Travel time? English-speaking?
Once you’ve taken as much off the table as you can, you may feel motivated enough to move forward with clarity. If not, we’ve got some more advice in the next section.
Solution #4: A Handful of Grit
In the last section we talked a bit about ways to quickly wade through the information and/or options overwhelming you. For some people, that fast sort-and-purge may be enough to get you on track. But if you’re still stuck and feeling burned out as the result of the avalanche of choices you face, here are some tips to help you move from “stuck” to “superstar:”
Make progress, however small. Sometimes all it takes is a bit of traction to get yourself moving again. Think of a car stuck in the snow, spinning its wheels. The snow is so slick, the wheels can’t get purchase and so they just spin and spin. But with a handful of grit, there’s enough for the wheels to have something to push against and Voila! The car moves. The same can be true for you. All you need is a little handful of something to let you make progress.
It could be cleaning off your desk and getting rid of all the extraneous papers and projects. Or you could make a phone call, submit an article, write an email. What it is, is less important than the actual process of undertaking and doing something.
Swallow the Bitter Pill. Sometimes we’re not really overwhelmed with tasks, we’re overwhelmed with tasks we don’t want to do. We’re burnt out because instead of just doing what we need to do, we think about it, whine about it, and resist it. Resistance, whining, and mentally rehearsing the task all take a ton of energy, more than it would take to just do the stupid thing in the first place!
Maybe you’re resisting a sticky personnel problem, or maybe dealing with the “business” side of business, like finances or tax, is where you get bogged down. Often these rotten little tasks build up until we feel totally overwhelmed by them. Doing one or two can get you moving again. What works in these situations is to just put a stake in the ground. Decide one thing, however small. Once that stake is planted, you can begin to make other decisions based on it.
Give up the idea of “perfection.” Whatever goal you’re tackling, whether it’s a product launch or a wedding or a new YouTube show, you probably want it to be the best it can be. But striving to make everything “perfect” is just going to drive you nuts. Perfection doesn’t exist, and looking for the “perfect” harpist or camera or website design is going to have you wasting time. Instead, look for “adequate” or “good enough.” Once you release yourself from the bonds of perfection, you’ll be able to move forward more easily.
Burnout Cause #5: Your Goal Is Stale
By this point, you’ve read a lot of causes of burnout and many suggestions for combatting it. Are you still wondering why you get a headache every time you think about working on your goal?
Sometimes our goals seem fine. They’re measurable, we put a timeline to them, and they’re things we really want – or think we want. But still they’ve lost their ability to motivate us, and as a result we feel bereft, bored, or just plain meh. If this sounds familiar, you may think that there’s something wrong with you – you’re not disciplined, you lack commitment, or you simply don’t have what it takes.
Don’t be so hasty to get down on yourself. The problem may not be you: It may be with your goal. If you haven’t found yourself in the previous sections but are still suffering from burnout, here’s one more possibility: Your goal is stale. In order to have the capacity to motivate, our goals need to captivate us – not just logically, but emotionally. The logic part is important, sure, but even more important is the ability to ignite our passion and capture our imaginations.
Sometimes stale-goal-itis occurs when we’ve been working on a goal for so long that we take it for granted. We know we’re working towards a larger picture – launching a company to become financially independent – but it’s become words on a page rather than a living, breathing dream. It’s the living, breathing dreams that get us through the downtimes!
Solution #5: Make Your Goal Come Alive
For your goal to truly motivate you through times of trouble, low energy, and even burnout, you need to make your them come alive. Fleshed-out, passion- and emotion-filled goals are the ones that are going to have you getting up early to hit the gym or staying up late to add one more post to your new blog. While logic may tell you what to do, passion motivates you to do it.
Think about the sport coaches who have their players imagine playing – and beating – their big rival. Or the aspiring novelist who lies in bed at night, imagining what she’ll say when she’s interviewed on television. Or the next popstar, singing his ten-year-old heart out in front of his bedroom mirror while imagining he’s performing in front of thousands. These are just visualizations and visualisation is how to make your dream come alive.
What will it feel like when you walk across the stage to accept your degree? Who will be in the audience at your first book reading? This isn’t mindless dreaming; it’s creating the blueprint for your future success. Plus it’s a lot of fun!
Logic gives you the quickest route to your goal, but emotion makes the time fly.
It’s natural to face some burnout along the way to your goals. Sometimes it’s as a result of working hard, sometimes it’s because you aren’t clear on where you’re going, and sometimes it’s because you’re not passionate enough about your end goal.
Remember always that you don’t have to do this – whatever “this” is – alone. If you still need some motivation or support, find an online group or maybe a coach, who can help guide you through the process. Dreaming and making those dreams into reality can be a lonely business.
If you’ve ever suffered burnout, what are your tips for moving through it. Please leave your comments below.