Archive for September, 2009|Monthly archive page

The Ins and Outs of Burnout

iStock_000008031771XSmallIn the past two weeks I have spoken with two professionals, both highly capable and generally cheerful people, who are facing genuine cases of burnout.

We sometimes hear the tern “burnout” tossed around to indicate a variety of unpleasant conditions, so let me clear about what I mean. Burnout is not the same thing as stress, boredom, or frustration. Genuine burnout is marked by

  • a lack of productivity (there’s no work going out the door),
  • an inability to rest or relax (there is no balance between exertion and recovery),
  • a feeling of helplessness and disengagement (nothing makes a difference), and
  • a lack of reserves (any small exertion of intellectual or emotional energy is exhausting.)

When nagged with the feeling that we aren’t getting enough done, our first impulse may be to redouble our efforts, try harder, and work longer. And during these uncertain times, we often hear misguided advice to that effect: “Now is not the time to quit your job, slack off, or change course. When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” In actuality this course only deepens the problem.

What can we do if a case of burnout looms?

1. First, slow down. I hear some of you scoffing, “Slow down? I’m so far behind already! Only a clueless person would tell me to slow down.” Please, stay with me on this. If what you’ve been doing has led you to the brink of burnout, how will it help to continue in the same direction, only faster and with more determination? Doing more of what you’ve been doing will not lead to a better outcome.

2. Re-examine your goals and priorities. If you have worthy goals in your life, then sailing through changing winds and storms to reach them can be seen as just another part of the journey. If you do not have a compelling destination, trials and setbacks may seem senseless and punishing. Consider what things really matter to you. Know the difference between your “nice to haves” and your “non-negotiables”, and make time for the things that matter most. If you hear yourself saying you “ought” to do something, give that action extra scrutiny. Chances are it’s someone else’s desire, not yours. Consider what your life might look like without it.

3. People often reach the point of burnout because of over-work. Ask yourself whether you are overworked because you find it difficult saying no to requests, you let perfectionism drive you, or you’re afraid to delegate. With insight and a bit of practice, you can learn to set appropriate limits, delegate effectively, and declare something “good enough”.

4. Feelings of helplessness are made worse by a chaotic environment. Get help to organize your time, paper, and projects. Begin by bringing order to one area of your life, then move on to enlarge the domain of calm and order in your life.

5. Make use of supportive relationships. Human connection is a powerful force for recovery. As a professional organizer and productivity trainer, I am able to help my clients identify the resources they need to stay productive and fulfilled, and to keep healthy balance in their lives.

Detailed information about burnout is available in the well-written and comprehensive article at

Happy Labor Day!

A quote for the day:

photo by Margaret Lukens

photo by Margaret Lukens

I have laid aside business and gone a-fishing.

— Izaak Walton, author of The Compleat Angler, 1657

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