Earlier this week, I posted an AMA — Ask Me Anything — on Instagram, and received a question about burnout.
Burnout, especially in these times, seems to have become extremely common. When there is so much happening in the world around you and in your direct sphere of influence, it can be especially overwhelming. That’s why I wanted to share some of the tips I’ve learned here about recovering from and preventing burnout.
First off, if you’re feeling burnout — I’m sorry. Burnout is awful, and especially hard to manage because it’s hard to figure out that 1) you’re burnt out and 2) what to do about it. I’ve experienced burnout in both big and small episodes, and having been there and back a few times, here’s what I’ve learned:
It’s important to create healthy expectations and compassion for yourself when recovering from burnout. This sucks, but burnout can take a long time to recover from. In some cases it can take weeks, months, or even years — but don’t panic. No matter how burnt out you are, you can recover.
Burnout has a lot of contributing factors — it’s not just working long hours (though that can be a contributor). It’s much deeper than that. Think of your whole self as a cup. Participating in certain activities that are physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally demanding means that you’re pouring from your cup. These may be activities you choose and even love, but you’re still pouring from your cup to participate in them.
A healthy balance is when you both fill and pour from your cup. When you do things you’ve always wanted to do, or that bring you joy and are just for you — you fill your cup. But when you’re obligated to fulfill mentally, physically, spiritually, or emotionally demanding work that crowds out any time or energy for you to do things that fill your cup, your cup runs dry — and that’s burnout.
It can happen over months and years, or during shorter but highly traumatic periods. So what do you do?
Recovering and healing from burnout is really hard, because while you may be able to get some rest — rest alone won’t heal it. You need to start doing the opposite of what got you here: which means you’ve got a prescription for indulgence and strong boundaries.
For the indulgence piece, recovering from burnout is about replenishing your energy and carving out time for YOURSELF. You need to refill your energy bar — both physically and spiritually/mentally. If you’re physically exhausted, you need to spend time being a total potato in bed for hours and not feel guilty about it. But if you’re spiritually/mentally drained, then you need to write a list of things you selfishly want to do just for you.
They could be small things like cooking a nice meal, getting your nails done, or playing hooky with a friend for a day, or big things like scratching off a bucket list item. And start prioritizing them. Put them on your schedule. Cancel other things so you can do these, because if you don’t start refilling your cup, things will only get worse. Filling your cup is your job now.
On boundaries, there’s a lot of stuff we do because we feel like we have to, even if we don’t actually have to do it. Some of this “have to” comes from ourselves and the pressure we put on ourselves, but some of it also comes from other people who may use guilt to get things from you. Feeling guilty is intense, and it can feel much easier in the moment to pour from your cup in order to avoid guilt, so we just say “yes” to everything. Not anymore. Your standard for saying yes just got much higher. You need to delegate, cancel, and ask for help. Get those things off your calendar. You might upset some people, but that’s something you need to get used to.
I say this for myself as well, because I get guilted into doing things too. It’s my theory that women and people of all genders who are raised and programmed to give, get burnt out more because we’re not taught to say “no.” People will always feel entitled to you and your time to either avoid pouring from their own cup or to fill theirs up. Sometimes they have no idea it’s your last drop. That’s why you need to learn to say “no.” If you continue to say “yes” and you betray yourself to pour more from your cup, eventually your body will say “no” for you — you could get sick or have an accident. Your health is more important.
When you’re burnt out, you need to consciously be working to fill your cup more than you pour out. It can be hard, but you need to try to get to a 1-to-1 ratio. Here’s my advice: don’t think of work or other commitments as one big pour. We make lots of decisions at work or for our families. Start with microscopic decisions that reduce the pour. Does that meeting really need to be 30 minutes, or could 15 minutes or maybe an email suffice? If you don’t have a desk job and instead work shifts, can you start committing to an after-shift activity for yourself that’s not happy hour? Can a family member be doing more? Do your kids need you to do something for them, or have they gotten used to you doing something for them?
Just start to ask these questions and assess. You need to be like the IRS in spiritually auditing the use of your time and energy. It may feel ruthless and selfish at first, but consider the alternative of potentially developing a chronic illness or a panic attack.
Also, no matter what you do, you always need to have something to look forward to. Having nothing to look forward to creates real despair. So schedule that haircut, book a yoga class, or put a “Do not disturb 8-9PM” on your door when you get home and just watercolor, journal, or whatever you want. You need scheduled things to look forward to. I found that when I’ve pre-planned time off, blocked it off on my calendar and scheduled around it, my life started to feel way more manageable. When I started to let that practice slip, it felt overwhelming again.
And make sure you communicate where you’re at with the people asking for things from you, so that they can understand and start to help you out.
Like I said, recovering from burnout may not be easy, but it is possible. Carve out that time for yourself and fill your cup. You can do this.