can't pin me down

Burnout Self Care

So it happened. You woke up one day (or maybe start to notice it after several days) and you're completely burnt out. You don't want to work, the idea of working repulses you, you might have trouble focusing or concentrating. One or two days of that might be just a normal dip, but a little bit longer and it starts to look more and more like a condition you need to address. 

Burnout comes from a period of prolonged stress - you know that feeling when you're exhausted after riding roller coasters all day? It's a mental, physical, all over kind of exhausted - the kind you only get when you repeatedly stress your body into an adrenaline response, and eventually, you're just depleted. Roller coasters are fun, but that kind of stress/adrenaline response can happen in working situations too, and can leave you feeling depleted in a profound way just as easily. 

An important note: many of us experience depression with burnout, and they can feel similar, and happen concurrently. If you're experiencing burnout, it may be depression, but even prolonged exposure to stressful experiences can be a good reason to seek out mental health care.

I can, and will, write another post about how to avoid burnout, but for right now, let's assume that it's happened: you're burned out. What do you do to stop being burned out, especially if you can't take a three week no-phones vacation to Bali to completely unplug and recharge? Here are some of the best strategies I've found for recovering from burnout without fully withdrawing from the work.

  1. Get as much sleep as you can. This one seems simple, but it often falls out of the schedule. Many of us will sleep for a long time once or twice "to catch up" on missed sleep, and then revert back to shorter periods of sleep at night. Listen to your body, but if you regularly sleep less than six hours, experiment with upping that one or two hours at a time to see if you notice a difference. Setting a bedtime and protecting it can be a big help, as can minimizing electronics at night, and making an effort to sleep in your bed, rather than a couch. Sleep is when your brain does a lot of its processing, and when a lot of your body processes work, so shortchanging sleep can have real physical AND mental effects. 
  2. Look for activities that will hold your attention, to build that muscle up. A friend of mine did a lot of puzzles while she was working through some serious burnout and grief. I've completed several intricate paint by number canvases when trying to recover from burnout. Board games, cooking, coloring, writing fiction - if any of these activities hold your interest, do them! Remembering that you can focus, and you can produce things, is an important counter balance to the self-talk that assures us that we will never work again. As much as I love a good Netflix marathon session, the active nature of these activities helps you practice focusing on a task, which is different than focusing on media or narrative. 
  3. Evaluate your overall health - physical, mental, emotional - and make adjustments if you need to. It can be hard to work at your top levels if you aren't feeling your best, and many of us let go of our health related habits when the stress is high. Use this recovery time to evaluate your health - maybe make a doctor's appointment you've been putting off, explore your campus' mental health resources, get that dental cleaning you've been avoiding. Do you have a movement / exercise routine that suits your body and your needs right now? When I was recovering from my post-defense burnout, I started walking, every day, because I didn't feel up to more vigorous exercise, or anything that I had to do at a certain time of the day, like a yoga class. Walking helped me to move my body in a sustainable way, and gave me lots of time to think and process, which helped me move through the recovery period faster than if I had stayed stationary. 
  4. Set goals that you are confident you can achieve, even if they're "vague." Nothing can derail your progress back from a state of burnout than jumping too quickly into the work, with really big goals, when you aren't at 100% power. So instead of saying "now that I've taken one whole weekend to rest after finishing this huge task, I will now start and finish next huge task at the same pace," set a goal that you feel like is "low," "small," or "vague": I will commit to working on this project for one hour a day; I will free write about my topic for one 25 minute pom every day; I will focus on setting up my systems and processes for this new project without forcing myself into the deep thinking tasks I know are waiting for me. As your energy picks up, you can set goals that reflect that, but you'll be doing so with accomplished goals already under your belt. 

In general, burnout takes longer than you think to recover from, because it took you a while to get into that state! Some of us are working in cycles of over-work and crashing that have lasted for years, and that level of stress can't be undone with sleeping in on a Saturday. Mindfully working your way back from exhaustion can be the first step in building a sustainable rhythm going forward - so take your time and build that foundation to be sturdy and strong.