I believe it’s safe to say that everyone with a job already experienced some symptoms of burnout in a mild to severe way. I’m no exception, but fortunately it was manageable, so I was able to undo the damage pretty fast. Scratch that, fortune had little to do with it.
About two years ago I’ve started my current job as a fresh graduate. I’ve had quite a lot of work experience before that, and compared to my previous positions this job was a tenfold increase in terms of quality or coolness. I was literally obsessed with creating new ideas, innovate everything, etc. – as a stereotypical fresh-grad Millennial usually does.
The problem is that after a while I was less and less interested in creating something new – instead I felt like I had no time for anything. Spoiler alert: reversing early-stage burnout is very easy, and I’m going to show you how. The key is to realize it early on that you need to do something.
When do we burn out anyway?
Studies show that a month is more than enough for corporate people to burn out. But what’s more interesting is that people are prone to burning out during three specific stages of their career.
The Idealism Stage
Do you remember being a fresh grad? Full of ideals, ready to show the world who’s the boss. You’re giving a 110% to everything. You found to button to engage your afterburner, and you’re pressing it as hard as you can. Yup, that’s me by the way. And you know what? This is the way you should be. The world is yours, go for it. But go for it in a mindful way.
Because harsh reality is out there, and this is the first time when you have to face it. College was tough? It’s not. Way less tough the Real Fuck’n Life. If you manage to let reality keep your ideals at bay, then you might even avoid burnout entirely. This is pretty much just managing your expectations in life. You may even benefit from reality molding your ideals into something more plausible. Who knows, you may actually learn something from your mistakes.
The Realism Stage
Most people who survive their first 2-3 years at a job without burnout are relatively safe for the next 10-15. There’s a slight problem with ideals though: if they aren’t put into action, they expire. This is when Reality comes back to kick your ass, and this time he brings his friend: Routine.
If you replace ideals with routine, you’re in for a treat of burnout. Yeah, another contract, yeah, another project, I know, deadlines, yup, got it, will do, etc. It’s just wrong. The way forward is actively maintaining a balance between work and life, reality and ideals, creativity and repetition.
The “almost there” Stage
This one here might be the most dangerous stage of all: right before you could actually achieve something, you just get bored. You might be one step away from being country manager, but you’ve already seen it all. This is prime time to dust off the afterburner switch and stomp on it like you used to about 20 years back in time.
Turning around on a slippery slope
As you can see, preventing burnout is mostly done by being balanced, but still, in practice most people experience at least a mild version of burnout syndrome thoughout their careers.
And you know what? It’s okay. You can turn it around.
The power of me-time
I’m an extrovert, so by definition I should be getting energy from being with other people. While this is true, everyone including extroverts must have some quality me-time. An opportunity to grow the way you want instead of being shaped by your environment.
Now I’m not talking about long periods of solitude, only a few hours every now and then when the only person important to you – is you. And by that I mean that going to a pub with friends is not me-time however exciting that would be. Being with family (even though it’s important and sometimes even therapeutic) is not me-time.
Take the opportunity to grow and develop yourself. Read a book. Meditate. Go do yoga or some other sport. On your own, without interacting too much with people.
When was the last time you learnt something new? When was the last time you created something new, not work-related on your own? When was the last time you gave yourself the well-deserved attention instead of being influenced by friends, colleagues, family, social media, TV, etc.?
Learn to say “no”
The most important thing, especially during the idealist stage is to learn to say no. It’s tempting to always burn on maximum, but it’ll quickly deplete your energy reserves. I’ve firsthand witnessed nice people feeling like shit just because they over-committed themselves and failed in their core activities. Commit to activities that are important for you.
- Is it for a friend / boss / family / important colleague / etc.?
- Does it worth the effort?
- Do I learn something from it?
- Can I do it with clear conscience?
- Do I want to do this?
If you answered “yes” to neither of these questions, then you probably don’t want to say “yes” to the request either. Of course, feel free to experiment with your own framework, it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.
Go with the flow
This is perhaps the most important but least exact piece of advice. Roll with the punches. Get organized, it will help with avoiding over-commitment, but don’t be afraid to make changes on the fly.
If a plan only makes you feel even worse because you clearly won’t be able to meet your original expectations, then re-adjust!