This is a piece I wrote a few years ago. I'm even busier now than I was then, so it feels even more relevant.
“I just can’t do it anymore.”
People burnout everywhere, in every field. They burn out professionally. They burn out in taking care of others. I live in Los Angeles and I can understand how just driving a car can burn someone out in this level of traffic.
No one plans to burn out. Maybe they do have a little awareness that they’re going down that road, though.
We have a level of control over where we place our attention, as well as our effort. If you’re worried you’re burning out, consider preventing it.
There’s two parts, I believe, to preventing burnout.
For the first, I’d like to borrow from a simple model I first heard from Dr. Christine Moutier (a psychiatrist and former supervisor of mine at UCSD), modified a bit here. Imagine a gas tank. It’s feeding an engine. That engine is you. If the engine shuts down, you shut down.
This gas tank has a leak in it. It’s losing gas. Gas is pouring out. Eventually if we do nothing, the tank will be empty. When it’s empty, the engine stops. It doesn’t run anymore. The engine burns out.
We don’t want the engine to stop, so we need to fill the tank. It has to be filled faster than it’s losing gas. In life we each have our strategies to fill the tank. Sleep. Food. Socializing. Rest. Sex. Yoga. Watching TV. Meditation. Talking to people. Exercise. Make a note of your ways to fill the tank, and note what others do, since one way might not be enough. One way might not be able to fill it fast enough. It’s for your own well-being.
On the other side, look at the size of the hole that gas is leaking out of. This is the effort we put out into the world. We can try to narrow the hole, to hold back. That may be effective, to a degree. If done too much, it leads to apathy. The hole can’t ever be completely plugged up, in a normal life.
It’s not a particularly complex model, I’ll give you. Yet really smart people neglect themselves all the time. They think their tank will never run out, as if there’s a secret reservoir somewhere. Running on empty hurts the engine. So the first step is to keep the tank filled.
The second part of not burning out is to Not Overextend. We all have projects we’re asked to be involved in, whether that be something at work or even fixing up something in the house. Or maybe it’s arranging an event for family or friends. Presuming this is not a startup business that is your idea, ask yourself – how much am I putting into this? How much are the other people putting into it?
Here’s the key: If you’ve been asked to do this project by someone else, and you decide to invest a lot of time/energy in it, make sure the other person is as invested in it as you. The plan, the approach, and if possible, the energy/time. If you’re thinking up a lot of aspects of it, make sure the other person agrees along the way, or has as much skin in the game.
Let’s say I’m asked by my wife to plan a party for our friends. I put a lot of time into planning and arranging it, and then my wife tells me she doesn’t like what I did. I devoted hundreds of hours into the project, she devoted none. My response to any criticism she might have is anger and wanting to quit and disconnect. I would feel burned out. Such is the way when only one party in a group does most of the work, and the other critiques or doesn’t support it.
Now in many situations the division of labor is unavoidable. One side will do more work than the other. Chances have to be taken. When they are done with open eyes, though, the disappointment may be less.We can clarify the point, then, that the other party needs to buy into the plan at least. Don’t overdo it expecting the other party to be wowed by the amount of time you’ve put into it. What if they aren’t? You may end up apathetic and withdrawn. Check in with them frequently, to get their buy-in on the approach, so they won’t be surprised, and you won’t be surprised. And finally, try to discern endeavors that might not be worth the investment.
The idea is basically to not overextend yourself in any project to the point you're running on fumes. And if you're investing in some kind of project with other people, make sure they're buying into it to the degree you're expecting them to. Otherwise you'll end up feeling burned, as a precursor to feeling burned out.
Oh, and chocolate. Regular bursts of chocolate.
I'd love to hear your tips on avoiding burnout. What's worked for you?
Cross posted from my blog: http://paulrpurimd.com/how-to-not-burn-out/