There are times when I’ve felt low, demotivated, had a loss of interest in my work, and lost enthusiasm for life, though I suspect I’m hardly alone. This could be partly attributed to living reactively by way of hopping from one thing to the next, not having boundaries, and taking on more than what’s realistic for me to do. In the end, I’d inevitably feel scattered, spread thin, and overworked (despite having accomplished quite little). For me, it was mostly because of living without intention, doing things mindlessly, and generally living a reactive life. At a super-high level, it was about mismanaging my time and attention.
The dictionary defines burnout as physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress. While it’s true that work has become a major source of burnout for the vast majority of us, it really is part of a bigger existential crisis that we are experiencing in the world today. We are conditioned by the world to think, to be, and to do things a certain way, which only benefits our society. Why is there a need for “wellness” programs? Why is that a thing now in the corporate world?
We get so caught up in accomplishing things that we have forgotten to live; we are mostly living in the future. There is more to life than checking items off our lists. We carry unrealistic expectations of ourselves as well as those of others on our shoulders, but it’s only a matter of time before we can’t shoulder the weight anymore.
We are living in a burnout society, but it wasn’t always like this. Our grandfathers or ancestors never experienced burnout. While most of them worked 40 hours a week, it seems for the most part, they had boundaries set in place. It wasn’t a conscious part of their living, but it’s the way they simply lived their lives by default as if there was no option (there wasn’t). When they were at work, they worked. Of course, there was also time for breaks and chatting with their coworkers, which was warranted in an 8-hour workday.
They came home at a reasonable hour to be with their families and had plenty of discretionary time for themselves. They never brought work home with them nor did their employers expected them to do that. They took the weekends off to fully relax. There was always enough time to do the things they wanted to do.
50 years ago, the idea that technology in the foreseeable future would help make our lives easier by way of working less didn’t quite pan out. If anything, the opposite is true. It’s ironic that modern life is exhausting, given the advances in technology in these years that were supposed to make our lives easier; in reality, we have never been more tired, stressed, and burnt out in the history of mankind.
The American economist Milton Friedman is partly responsible for this turnaround in the modern workplace, starting in the mid 70s when he advocated a bastardized version of capitalism, where the goal for businesses was to maximize profit over people within the bounds of the law. This is a far cry from Adam Smith’s version of capitalism, whose purpose was consumption (not production), and which put people before profits. I believe this change in mindset has a relation to the increase in cases of burnout. Here are some other reasons why we feel burnout.
We experience burnout when our commitments far exceed our capacity. It’s only a matter of time before we crash and burn. Our inability to keep up with the pressures of every aspect of our lives over an extended period of time results in burnout. Another reason we feel burnout is when we don’t value ourselves enough. We put others’ needs before our own. We try to help others at the cost of our own well-being. We think we are helping others by sacrificing our well-being, but we won’t get far. As an introvert, I feel somewhat drained when I give too much of myself to others — it’s not a good feeling. When we are unhappy with ourselves, that unhappiness manifests externally in everything we do. It’s only a matter of time before something sets us off and we lose our center.
Here are four ways of ensuring we never experience burnout, ever.
Focus on the fundamentals — eat, move, sleep. These are usually the last things we think about, but they determine how we do everything else (including our mood, behavior, and our overall state of mind). When we do them consistently by way of habits, it goes a long way towards ensuring our physical well-being. For instance, when planning my month, exercise is one of the first things that goes in my calendar.
Learn to use your attention well. We can use it to focus on the critical few rather than the trivial many. We are so used to living reactively in this day and age, and because of this, our short attention spans are only adding to the problem. Constantly switching between things only undermines our attention. We need to learn to slow down. Whatever we do, we must give it our complete attention. It’s only when we know everything we are not doing can we truly focus on what we are doing (more on this below).
For instance, here’s how I manage my attention in a typical weekday. I do creative work first thing in the morning (most days), as it requires the most energy. Consulting work happens in the afternoon, while I leave an hour to do any admin work before closing out my day. I settled on this weekday template a while back. It has worked quite well for me. Through the years, I’ve realized there will always be more to do than we can possibly do, but we can’t put off our life because of our work.
Devote enough time for your self, work, and relationships. Neither of these areas should come at the expense of the other.
It starts with self. For instance, I do 3 things every morning to renew myself. We need to learn to slow down. Take some time every morning to be with yourself. You can meditate, write, exercise, do breathwork, or simply sit in solitude. It’s only when we take care of ourselves first, can we take care of others (if we choose to). It’s healthy selfishness.
If we can’t do our work in less than 40 hours a week, we should question our line of work, our way of working, or both. One way of making sure we are working on the right things is to focus on weekly outcomes/results, rather than getting caught up with tracking time. We need to learn to set boundaries such as leaving work at work and taking weekends off to feel truly restorative.
The relationships in our lives (be it through friendships, partners, or families) play a vital role in sustaining our emotional well-being. It’s what keeps us going when the going gets tough. There is no shortage of “successful” people in the world who have achieved great success in their work, albeit at a tremendous cost to their personal lives, so they aren’t truly successful. We cannot afford to postpone our relationships in the future when we don’t even know with certainty if we are going to wake up the following morning. Even if we did, who’s to say those relationships will stick around for later if we don’t tend to them now.
Have enough time for yourself, your work, and your relationships. We need all three; not to simply survive, but to thrive. Neither of the three should come at the cost of the other two. More often than not, it’s the work that tends to dominate our lives, but it shouldn’t.
Finally, stop trying to do it all. We can’t. Accept the trade-off between doing a few things well versus doing many things averagely. While both approaches require the same amount of effort, it’s always our choice. This may sound simplistic, but it’s a basic truth. The sooner we accept it, the more at peace we will be.
It’s only when we say yes to a few things at any given time that we can say no to nearly everything else (at least for now). We need to learn to manage our expectations of ourselves as well as those that others have of us.
It’s not until we have a complete inventory of everything on our plate can we choose what to say yes and no to. Until then, we are simply winging it hoping we will make the right choices and it will all work out. Good luck with that! We need to learn to move from hope to trust. Evaluate your commitments on a weekly basis and be realistic with how much you can put on your plate. When in doubt, do less.
We experience burnout when the commitments we make far exceed our capacity. Then, it’s only a matter of time before we crash and burn. While the world conditions us to be and do things a certain way to their benefit, it’s ultimately up to us what we say yes to. Modern life can seem exhausting, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We can all return to the old way of living, where we give everything we do the attention it deserves.