Merriam-Webster defines burnout as “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.” This, my friends, is what we call an understatement. The National Institute of Health gets closer when describing the symptoms of burnout (via PubMed):
Exhaustion: People affected feel drained and emotionally exhausted, unable to cope, tired and down, and do not have enough energy. Physical symptoms include things like pain and stomach or bowel problems.
Alienation from (work-related) activities: People who have burnout find their jobs increasingly stressful and frustrating. They may start being cynical about their working conditions and their colleagues. At the same time, they may increasingly distance themselves emotionally, and start feeling numb about their work.
Reduced performance: Burnout mainly affects everyday tasks at work, at home or when caring for family members. People with burnout are very negative about their tasks, find it hard to concentrate, are listless and lack creativity.
Addressing this issue usually involves some combination of the usual suspects – things like taking a vacation, unplugging from your devices, getting enough sleep, regular exercise, and even antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication.
But here’s the thing – even if those efforts work (and a lot of times they don’t, especially if you don’t catch the burnout early), it can take a loooooong time. And rare is the person who can just take a break from work or life or both until the burnout wears off. (I’m wrapping up Burnout Year 3.)
One must therefore find some way of being at least minimally productive during that time. But productivity during burnout means something different from “regular” productivity, even if parts seem similar. It can mean:
Saying “no” to even more things, especially things that will exacerbate the burnout. Remember that “No.” is a complete sentence. HELL YEAH! or no and Would I do it tomorrow? are helpful philosophies when I remember to employ them. (I am still working on this. See: “Would you like to write a post about productivity?”) (I kid. Mostly.)
Lowering your standards. A “productive” day can be one where you accomplish one or two things from your list, not necessarily the 10 or 15 you (admittedly foolishly) planned or hoped for. Be kind to yourself. (I am still working on this, too.)
Tools and techniques aren’t that helpful. In my work, I often find myself paraphrasing the great Carolyn Snyder, “If it’s not a design problem, there isn’t a design solution.” The philosophy applies here. Burnout isn’t a time management problem, so time management tools won’t resolve it or even work around it very well. I mean, never say never, of course. And sure, if something looks promising to you, give it a try. But let yourself off the hook if it yields no or negligible improvements.
Outsourcing and Delegating. These tools aren’t unique to burnout conditions, of course, but burnout makes this both more important (because the slippery slope of burnout is steep) and more complicated (because you need some level of productivity to fund your outsourcing or delegation). Be sure to combine this with “Lowering your standards,” above, as outsourced or delegated things are rarely done as well as you could do them or would like them done. Outsource/delegate anyway.
Consider an executive coach. Often considered “nice to have,” a good coach (ask friends for recommendations!) crosses from “want” to “need” when burnout comes into play. Coaches have many techniques to help you identify both the cause of your burnout and paths back to productivity.
Finally, if you happen upon something that gives you any kind of spark – something that doesn’t exhaust you, or about which you don’t immediately feel cynical, or on which you can truly concentrate – latch on to that thing like some NASA-quality Velcro® and don’t let go. Even if it’s not what you “should” be doing, or if it doesn’t earn money. These things are restorative, and each time you engage in restorative activities you get a little bit closer to the motivated self you once knew.
More on burnout: