How to Recover From Burnout
I’ve seen several tweets this past month about the lack of resources on recovering from burnout.
“Everyone talks about how to avoid it,” one Twitterer noted, “but nobody talks about what to do once you’re already there.”
In the interests of doing what I can to fix that, here’s what I’ve done to recover after I went down in flames in the fall of 2009.
Prologue: Some Background
I am not a psychiatrist, psychologist, or any sort of mental health professional. I strongly recommend finding one or more people in this field whom you trust and working with them as part of the recovery process if you possibly can.
I am, however, a person who was hospitalized for burnout three times before the age of 30 and once more at age 33. I’ve been told by several doctors that if I did not slow down, I would die. I am addicted to work.
So here’s what worked for me. It may not work for everyone.
First: Know Thyself
A lot of people get into the burnout zone because we don’t see what’s happening to us until we’re burned out.
I don’t say that to assign blame. We have bills to pay. We have families to support. We really believe that the overload is temporary, and if we just work a little harder, it’ll end. Often, we want to believe that we can fix problems in our lives by working harder, because working harder is a thing we control.
So we don’t look too hard at whether the work we’re doing is sustainable. That’s not our fault, but it becomes our responsibility.
The first step to reversing the burnout course is to see it for what it is.
- Make a list of all the stuff you actually do in a day. All of it. If you’re so fried you spent five hours lying in bed listening to Spotify, write that down. This is not the time to judge whether something was sufficiently “productive” to “count”; this is the time to note where it is you actually are.
- Make a list of all the stuff you’re not doing, but is worrying you. That bill you haven’t paid in three months. The mystery Tupperware in the fridge that has learned seven languages and is currently the mayor of South Bend. Your chronically disorganized laundry pile. The fact that you missed your best friend’s birthday — again. Again, this is not the time to judge; it’s the time to get all that stuff out of your head.
This can be an uncomfortable experience. You might start feeling angry or panicky. You may blame yourself for having “wasted” a bunch of time or feel the need to get up and do one or more of the things on the list. Strong negative reactions are normal; the fact that you’re having them means you still have the strength to reverse course.
As much as you can, be present with those feelings. Breathing exercises can help you manage the load (there are guided tutorials on YouTube and in apps like Headspace), too. If you need to walk away from the list and come back later, do that.
Remember, you are in a tough situation that is not your fault but is your responsibility. That might feel unfair. It is. But you can change it, too.
Second: Increase Friction
I recently wrote a piece (which I will link here once it’s live) on the negative effects of frictionless UX online. The instant and often passive way we can fill our brains with inputs by scrolling Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, or by letting YouTube or Netflix autoplay whatever’s next, means that we’re absorbing more information faster than our species ever has before.
For example: My husband rolls out of bed at about 6:30 am in order to be out the door at 7:00 am and fully awake and engaged with teenagers by 7:20 am.
The first thing he does when he gets up is to grab his phone and stagger to the toilet, where he scrolls through his email and messages and starts to plan his day. In the first five minutes, he reads and deals with as many as fifty different bits of information.
We’re both old enough to remember how our parents handled the same morning routine: Get up, get dressed, brush teeth and so on. We do all those same tasks, only we also do them while being bombarded with other people’s needs.
And it can be difficult or impossible to turn off. My husband says there’s no way he could be ready for his job if he didn’t check his phone first thing each morning. He’s expected to walk into work knowing all the stuff people sent him after he left the evening before.
This is a “frictionless” world for information. And I’m convinced it is a major factor in our burnout.
- Pay attention to where your information inputs have gotten frictionless. Are you zoning out after dinner and scrolling Twitter or Facebook or Tumblr for hours on end (whether or not you “should” be doing something else)? Are you regularly muttering “Not today, Satan” under your breath as you swipe away yet another notification from your work email? How often does Netflix stop to ask you if you’re still alive?
- Make it harder for other people’s content to reach you. Delete one or more social media apps, or bury them somewhere in your phone. Turn off push notifications that you don’t absolutely need to see, and set rules for when your phone shows you the rest of them. Mute or unfollow contacts you don’t interact with much or that you see often enough in real life that you don’t need to keep up with them online as well. Do this in stages, starting with the ones you use/need to see least. The goal is to give yourself greater control over what information actually reaches your brain.
- Replace with content you really want to consume. Instead of scrolling Twitter in the morning, read one blog post or article. Subscribe to a fiction magazine or journal: it’s a great way to get short, entertaining reads in your favorite genre, especially if your brain isn’t handling full-length stories yet. Or just enjoy the “content” of relative silence and the simplicity of brushing your teeth without also reading emails.
The goal is to carve out space for your brain to breathe. It’s not always easy, especially if (like me) you developed the habit of scrolling endlessly through Pinterest in order to avoid both doing what you needed to do and realizing how burned out you are.
There are good reasons for doing this, though. Even Facebook has admitted that too much passive scrolling causes worse moods. And at least one study found that limiting social media reduced loneliness and depression, at least in undergrads.
But That’s My Social Circle!
For a lot of folks, especially disabled folks, social media is a lifeline to the rest of the world. Even if you still spend a lot of time on social media, fight to increase friction where you can. Curate your lists, and spend more time engaging (the Facebook study claims that moods improve when people like and comment instead of just scrolling).
The goal is to put yourself in control of the information that is currently overloading your brain. To do that, you’ll need to change your relationship with your sources of information.
Third: Commit to Existence
Increasing information friction in your life helps carve out space and free time. Space and free time are absolutely necessary to resolving burnout.
Let me repeat that, because it’s that important:
Space and free time are absolutely necessary to resolving burnout.
Burnout occurs because the pace at which we attempt to do things isn’t sustainable. We don’t restore the energy we use day after day. Instead, we eat into our reserves — until we don’t have reserves anymore.
- Get a blank calendar. Or play on hardcore mode and delete everything in your existing calendar.
- Schedule the following four priorities: sleep, meals, movement, and relaxation. The last category can include play, fun hobbies, religious/spiritual pursuits, or anything else that helps or has helped you feel more like yourself
- Schedule all four separately. Sure, yoga might be relaxing, but double duty is forbidden. Assign it to either the “movement” or “relaxation” category, but not both.
- Schedule everything else around these four priorities. Sleep, meals, movement and relaxation are non-negotiable if you want to continue living.
- Reevaluate those lists. If there are things on your “things I should be doing” list that you can’t fit in the schedule, ask yourself what would happen if you didn’t do them. Not if they didn’t get done — if you didn’t do them. Delegate or let them go as necessary.
I’ll repeat this too, because it’s important:
Sleep, meals, movement and relaxation are non-negotiable if you want to continue living.
Fourth: F*** You, Pay Me
In the process of reevaluating those lists, notice how many things you’ve agreed to do, or have been handed to you, or that you think you should do, that you aren’t getting paid to do.
I don’t just mean pay in terms of cash, although that’s certainly important in order to afford things like food and a safe place to sleep. I also mean “pay” in terms of mental and emotional energy and support.
I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating: Your mental and emotional energies work in some ways like a bank account. If you loan out too much of them without getting repaid or receiving interest, eventually the bank goes bust. And if you’re burned out, your bank is going bust.
One of the keys to reversing burnout and avoiding relapse is to resolutely refuse to do things for which you do not, in some fashion, get paid.
Look at your lists from the first step. For each item on the list, ask yourself two questions:
- What do I get out of doing this? For work, the answer might be “a paycheck.” For doing laundry, “clean underwear.” For driving the kids to soccer practice, “happy kids who got enough exercise not to bounce off the walls.” For petting the cat, “feeling more relaxed.” And so on.
- Does what I get from doing this adequately compensate me for the energies I expend in doing it? Only you can answer this question for yourself, because only you can decide how much energy it takes you to do something and whether you’re happy with what you get in return.
Use these two questions to evaluate things you do with your time. If you’re not satisfied with the answers to both questions, reconsider whether you need to do the thing. Maybe you can just stop doing it altogether. Maybe there’s an alternative way to do it, or to get it done, that makes you feel more satisfied with the return on your investment.
The goal is never to invest physical, mental, emotional or spiritual energy in anything that does not adequately compensate you for doing so. I call this the “fuck you, pay me” attitude. If it doesn’t pay you, don’t do it.
In some cases, you may need to take a few steps to see where the payment is. For instance, driving your kids to sports practice may not seem to compensate you at all; but having happy, healthy kids who feel supported may be extremely valuable. (Of course, if you’re driving kids to practices they don’t even want to attend, it may be time to ask them whether they’re happy with what they get from this activity.)
Take Note: If the answer to the first question is “nothing” or “nothing that actually matters to me,” don’t even bother with the second question. Strike the thing off your list. It’s a vampire. Revoke its invitation into your physical or mental space and never invite it in again.
When in doubt, ask yourself, “What if I just never had to deal with this ever again?” If your feeling is one of overwhelming relief, it’s time to eliminate the thing or find another way to do it.
Fifth: Forget Quick Fixes
If you’re hoping you can do the above four steps and fix your burnout overnight, I have bad news: Burnout doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t resolve overnight.
Burnout is the result of a longstanding pattern of non-sustainable behavior. While these steps can help you redirect yourself onto a more sustainable path, you still have two major factors to contend with:
- You’re going to need time to recover what you’ve already lost, and
- You’re going to have to guard against relapse.
I had my last hospital stay in 2015. While I was there, my psychologist and I worked hard on creating a plan to prevent relapse. I’ve adhered to that plan, but it takes conscious effort every day. And I’m still finding ways to improve it; for instance, I recently deleted every social media app I have except for Twitter, which I buried in a folder on my phone so that accessing it has to be a deliberate decision.
Recovering the reserves you’ve burned will take time, even after you’ve gotten into a more sustainable pattern of using and recouping your physical, mental, emotional and/or spiritual energy. The time it will take depends on how much of your reserves you’ve burned. And you always run the risk of burning out your reserves again unless you maintain sustainable patterns.
A Note on Selfishness
It’s very hard to maintain recovery from burnout if you’re a naturally giving type. Finding a sustainable way to live your life can feel very much like devolving to a state of utter selfishness.
In fact, the opposite is true. Burn out for long enough, and you’ll end up permanently disabled, if not dead. I’m considerably more disabled than I would have been if I had started dealing with my burnout symptoms in 2004, when I first noticed them.
By focusing on my sustainability first, however, I’ve become much more able to keep the commitments I do make. I’m more reliable, because I make sure I have the energy to do things before I agree to do them. And while I’m more disabled than I was in 2004, I am far less disabled than I was in 2009 or 2014.
Burnout is one of those situations in which selfishness is a necessity and a good. If you do not protect your basic needs, you will have nothing left to give anyone — ever.
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