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How to recognize the early stages of burnout, and my treatment plan


I recently realized that I’m in the early stages of burnout.

This isn’t an unfamiliar place for me, but it is new for me to recognize the early signs of burnout in myself before it becomes a full-fledged disaster. This time, I’m thinking about how I got here, and making an explicit plan to change course.

In the hopes of helping someone else out there, I thought some public journaling might be in order.

How do you recognize if you’re in the early stages of burnout?

I have recognized two symptoms which I identify as unusual for me. Together they indicate I’m heading towards burnout.

Symptom 1: Lately, I get frustrated and angry by small things

One warning sign of burnout is when small inconveniences start causing a disproportionately large emotional response.

For example, on a recent weekend I was traveling for work. I was in the Detroit area, about to head to London between a client visit and a conference. It was a beautiful day. I stopped by a local Starbucks and, by chance, another customer was rude to me.

Normally, if I wasn’t in the early stages of burnout, I would assume the other person was having a bad day, and I’d shrug this off. It wouldn’t be something that I’d even be likely to remember. But in this case, I felt a lot of anger toward that person. I was livid.

I quickly realized that the way I was feeling was more about me than about that random person in the Starbucks, but it took me a long time to shake off the anger.

This aspect of burnout is particularly tricky, because natural little miscommunications at work can slow you down more than normal, as you’re now having to handle not just the miscommunication, but also keep your own stress and irritability in check.

Symptom 2: Lack of excitement

I’m also just not as interested in work projects as normal. I’ve got a lot scheduled, but I often feel like I’m overwhelmed, and that all I can do is the bare minimum.

This lack of excitement contributes to:

  • Less curiosity and asking fewer questions
  • Taking less time to connect with my teammates and chat
  • Poorer listening skills
  • More hurried work / less critical thinking

Those things together mean that my work quality goes down a bit. And then that frustrates me.

What causes me to burn out?

Like I said, I’ve been here before — and I’ve been past this point, to where I simply couldn’t cope with the stress of my daily job anymore. Looking back, I can see some trends.

I have a tendency to enjoy working a little too much. And I have a few traits that I believe pay the way to burnout:

I tend to be a perfectionist, and I always want to help. I don’t like saying no, I always want to be involved when asked. I like finding a way to not only make things work, but to try to give them an interesting twist, too. I spend more hours working than I should — and by saying, “more hours than I should,” I mean…

I haven’t been giving myself enough time to recharge. For good health, I need to spend time away from a computer. I need to get exercise. I need to spend time outside. Meditating on a daily basis helps me ward off anxiety. Spending time with friends in person really helps as well. One of the things I realize now is that I haven’t been doing enough of these things lately.

I stretched myself thin and didn’t leave any room for life to happen. I signed up for a few more work projects than I should have this spring and summer. They are awesome projects, they are interesting and exciting and important. But I maxed out my schedule (plus a little), complete with loads of travel. It looked barely doable — until my dog, Mister, unexpectedly passed away. There was no room in my busy schedule for me to grieve my best doggo friend, and he wasn’t there to wag and say it’d all be great anymore. I started to feel trapped.

(( Perfectionist + overcommitment ) – self-care ) * grief = TIRE FIRE

As a career Ops person, I always want leeway. I like to plan a course where I’ve got a backup plan in my back pocket, and ideally a few viable alternatives behind that.

When you are headed towards burnout, you start feeling like there’s no leeway. No alternate plans. You have more stress than you can handle. You’ve got a seat on the struggle bus, and you’re not sure who is driving it.

So, what to do to change course?

Here’s my plan.

Step 1: Book time off

Yes, I am presently oversubscribed. But the very first thing I did when I recognized that I’m heading towards burnout was that I went into my calendar and started requesting days off wherever I could possibly make it work, or where someone else might be able to make it work in my absence.

This sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s necessary. While I can’t take a week or two weeks off right now, what I can do is:

  • Make a proposal for days off
  • Explain why I’m asking for those days off to my colleagues and boss, and ask for help to make it happen
  • Commit to not working during that time off — no notifications, no emails, nothing

Oddly enough, I find that it’s harder to disconnect from work than normal when I’m close to burnout. It’s something about the stress– it makes it harder to put work down. But disconnecting is truly needed, and for me I think this is one of the biggest ways to avoid burnout.

Putting work on pause and having time off helps give needed perspective on life. It reduces stress, eases the tension causing those knee jerk reactions.

It will also pay itself back by helping make me more focused and efficient when I am at work.

Step 2: Spend time with humans (of the non-work variety)

The second thing I did after recognizing the symptoms of burnout was to email my friends at home and suggest getting together. I was lucky to have a good friend who had just started up a conversation about this, but I looked around at my other friendships and thought about others who I haven’t seen in a while, as well.

As an adult, it can be tough to make and maintain friendships. But the time and effort is so worth it. For me, it makes me a happier person, and that happiness extends into my work life.

Just like disconnecting from work, shifting gears and making time for friendships can be a mentally tough thing when you’re feeling burnt out. My mind tends to fixate on the problems at work, and it wants to stay there.

But I know from experience that planning a hike with a buddy is so much better for me in the long run, so a big part of my “anti-burnout” plan is making sure that I’m getting at least four hours of non-nerd-time human contact a week for the next few months. (I know, it’s just so “perfectionist” of me to set an hourly goal, right? I like specific targets.)

Step 3: Pick an anti-anxiety habit (or two)

For me, daily meditation is very helpful. I have learned in the past that this is a simple tool that is quite effective at reducing my stress and anxiety. When I start doing this on a daily basis, it has a more significant effect each day.

I’m starting this slowly at just five minutes a day of meditation. At first my whole goal is simply to re-establish this as a habit, without mentally scolding myself if I skip a day. The point is to keep starting until it becomes something that I look forward to each day and it is once again natural.

I find that when I do practice meditation, I have a more balanced view of things and I am more able to ask for help. I’m also better at thinking of alternatives for how something could work when someone has a request that I can’t fulfill due to time commitments.

Journaling is also helpful for me. I’ve started writing for this blog in a new way. I’m finding that it’s helpful in a similar way that journaling helps me think through things.

For example, I dictated the first draft of this blog post aloud while walking around a hotel room looking out the window. An app on my phone recorded the audio and uploaded it to the cloud. Another app created a transcript, which I edited for the post.

This method encourages me to be more conversational and more personal in my writing.  That’s very very helpful for me right now, because it’s a little bit more about my experiences and it’s a little bit more about getting my thoughts out in a way that is helpful and therapeutic for me. It also just makes me more excited about writing again, which is incredibly welcome.

What if I don’t have time?

The voice of burnout in your head is likely to make an objection: we don’t have time for this. That’s the whole point.

Well, here’s the thing that I’ve learned from the past: it may hurt to make time, but it’s going to hurt even more if you don’t.

It’s not easy to ask for help with your workload. You may need to negotiate to make it happen. It’s not a good feeling to say that you can’t do things which you’ve agreed to. If you’re in a culture of over-achievers, it can be quite difficult to say that you don’t want to work as much as everyone else is working.

However, the thing about burnout is that you can’t sustain it. If you don’t take action and you just keep your nose to the grindstone, chances are good that you’ll become desperate for a job change, and that you’ll either quit your job or take something, anything, for a change.

Burnout leads to bad choices.

It’s a much better choice to start doing the tough work and speak up for your own needs, before you are so burned out that you can’t. Get yourself into a more productive place before making any big decisions about the future — and things will look better from your new vantage point.

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