Burnout is a serious thing. I’ve been experiencing it in many forms and lengths: from 1-2 days (the “shit, I’m taking the rest of the day off” thing), up to several weeks, or even months (these are borderline depression, actually). The only upside of experiencing so many episodes is that, in time, I got relatively good at spotting the early signs of a burnout.
Alas, the fact that I can identify them early doesn’t necessarily mean I can always avoid the actual burnout, and we’ll see at the end of the article why.
Before diving too deep, let’s see what a burnout really is.
Running On Empty
Burnout is the inability to function normally, as a result of a general exhaustion. It manifests at the psychological level, with apathy and pessimism, and also at the physical level, with extreme fatigue, migraines or even small feverish episodes.
It can be assimilated to a disease, with the only notable difference that it’s auto induced, there is no external agent triggering it.
For short period of times, like the 1-2 days “I’m taking the rest of the day off” type, rest is all you need to get over it. For longer episodes, it gets trickier. You may need to see a doctor and even get some medication (most of the time vitamins and supplements). If it goes for months, some deeper damage may occur, usually where there’s already some sensitivity (it’s like you’re hammering your own body, and, sooner or later, it will crack at the softest point).
Like I said in the beginning, burnout is a serious thing.
Fortunately, it can be prevented. Let’s look at some of the most relevant signs of a burnout.
1. Your “Stuff To Do” Extends Over Your Usual Routine
If you put so much stuff in your “to do” basket that it overflows and starts to eat out time and resources from your usual routine, that’s one of the most clear signs of burnout.
For instance, if you skip your morning run in order to work one more half an hour. Or if you skip calling a friend or even going out at your favorite eating place.
These routines play a very important role in our life and if we skip them because “we have too much stuff to do”, it means that stuff is preparing to eat us alive.
2. You Turn Into A Pessimist With No Particular Reason
Another clear sign of burnout – although a bit unusual – is a change in your general outlook in life. If you get more negative tones in your life lenses, even if there’s no sign of physical fatigue, this might be a symptom of chronic stress.
If you can’t derive joy or amusement from your life, or, even worse, if you avoid joy and amusement, that’s not ok. We need to be able to laugh and to decompress every once in a while.
If we’re stuck in a serious paradigm for too long, that’s usually followed by a breakdown.
3. The Number Of Small Gratifications During The Day Increases
This is somehow easier to spot, if you really pay attention to your behavior. If you feel the need to gratify yourself more often than usual – by eating a muffin when you usually don’t, or by checking Facebook 3 times more than your normal routine – that’s a symptom that something’s not right.
This increased need for gratification is how our body tells us it had enough. It’s a clear signal that we need to take a bigger pause. If we can do that, if we can see that we’re close to the edge, and take a day or two off, then this need for small, frequent “rewards” will fade away.
4. Your Efficiency Is Plateauing On The Same Types Of Tasks
Again, it’s a relatively simple sign of a burnout: if you do something in double the time you usually need to do it – and I’m talking here about easy to identify tasks, like something simple from your work, or even chores around the house – then you should take note.
This lack of efficiency means we spend more energy on simpler things, because the entire machine is slowing down. Somewhere else there’s a leak, and we’re ignoring this malfunction, by pushing forward.
Of course, if we keep pushing, sooner or later we’ll hit a wall.
5. Your Start Victimizing Yourself For No Real Reason
A common pattern among the burnout signs is the victimization approach. You feel the need to complain about things not going ok in your life, and that’s obviously because you had different expectations. Even the smallest parts seem to bother you now and the closer you are to the burnout, the more you complain.
It’s a very common pattern especially in work-related burnouts, when we’re starting to blame our bosses (or other authority figures) for what we perceive as “increased” or “unfair” workload. Sometimes it may be this case, for real, but most of the time we’re simply too tired and don’t want to accept that we need to stop (whatever the costs of this stop may be).
The Most Common Cause Of Burnout
Most of the time, burnout appears because we work too hard. But this is just one of the manifestations of the cause.
At a deeper level, burnout is the consequence of prolonged focus.
That focus may be on work, that’s true, but it can also be on study (burnout is very common among students during exam sessions), on acquiring a certain habit (going to the gym too often in the beginning will let you depleted), or even on a specific relationship. And by relationship I don’t mean only a couple relationship, it’s common for mothers to get exhausted and burned out when they’re focusing too much on their kids.
Prolonged focus, in turn, has many reasons, but probably the most common is the desire to not fail.
Or, in simpler words, the fear of failure.
I find it so, so funny that we fail, by burning ourselves out, by fear of not failing.