A Timeline for Treating Burnout

You’ve reached a state of burnout when:

  • you can’t socialize after work, or on weekends, because the only thing you’re prepared to do in your state of numbness is to get drunk alone;
  • you hear about layoffs at your workplace…and are bitterly disappointed you weren’t among the people let go;
  • you’re riding your bicycle to work, all the while wishing a car would hit you, because then you wouldn’t have to go to work that day.

A Timeline for Treating Burnout

0-3 months:

  • Don’t feel ashamed.

    Burnout is common in the tech industry, yet still regarded as some kind of shameful personal weakness rather than a normal human response to irrational working conditions.

    Fortunately, some courageous people are starting to discuss burnout openly.

  • Say “no.”

    Stop “learning to say no.” Just do it. Do NOT say “maybe.” People think “maybe” means “yes,” especially when women say it.

  • Stop volunteering for now.

    Yes, there are worthy causes all over relying on volunteer efforts. But when you are in burnout, you are in crisis mode. You might have arrived here by giving away your time and expertise. While it’s certainly flattering to be told a project will fail without your unique, uncompensated work on it, remember that anything depending on a single person is unsustainable.

4-6 months:

  • Step away from the screens.

    I know I’ll sound like a crank, but I really do believe there’s something physiologically harmful about lengthy exposure to computer monitors, and we burn out more readily when working with them. It’s been established that light shining in our faces affects our circadian rhythms, which is probably why, after hours, days, weeks, of this treatment, you feel as jumbled as you would from the jetlag of a nonstop flight from LAX to Heathrow.

    Get away from the TV, the laptop, the iPad, and so on to reset your clock.

  • Get your house in order.

    I’m not using a metaphor–I mean your actual, physical dwelling place. A dirty, cluttered living environment is both a symptom of burnout (you’re too weary to wash the dishes or hang up your clothing) and a contributor to it (your place isn’t relaxing or pleasant to be in). Counter your packrat or slovenly tendencies with some re-education and a fresh, wetted sponge.

7-9 months:

  • Simplify, simplify.

    When a painter reaches an unsatisfying point in her work, she might recharge her enthusiasm by painting with a reduced palette. Removing the burden of choice frees you from yet one more thing to do–and exposes how many of the options posed to us make no difference in how our days proceed. Stop dithering over things which don’t really matter.

    You don’t have paint en grisaille, but you must set yourself more confining limits than usual to realize the benefits of this practice. Type “voluntary simplicity” or “minimalist living” into a Web search engine to receive much more information than you really need to start living with less.

  • Risk being called “unsupportive.”

    Many of us, especially women, reached our limits by taking on the burdens of others. We’ve been the caretakers and companions of people who dumped on us…because we let them. For some reason we fear being called “unsupportive” for not concerning ourselves with these people’s endless problems. I’m not talking about being unsympathetic to genuine tragedy, but rather about defending yourself from these vampires.

    You know how the flight attendants on commercial flights instruct parents to put on their own oxygen masks before attending to their children’s?

    Consider your recovery from burnout just like this scenario–you’re of no help to anyone else until you have your own air supply secured.

10-12 months:

  • Take on one well-defined project.

    By “well-defined,” I mean a project with a start date, a definite list of tasks, and (this is important) an end date. Just as you recover from a physical injury by assuming only gradually heavier duties, you recover from burnout by taking on shorter projects with less complexity, then gradually moving into either longer or more complex projects–so long as you still feel enthusiastic about the work.

    Do not join a vaguely defined project. What you need at this stage in your recovery from burnout is reassurance that, however stressful a particular moment can be, that moment passes. Open-ended projects can persuade us that nothing changes, time has stopped, this reality is the only one, and the stressful moments are endless–sending us right back into burnout.

  • Schedule a regular digital sabbatical.

    Get away from the Web, IM, e-mail, RSS, blog, podcasts–all of them. To update Timothy Leary’s slogan, turn off, tune out, and drop in. If you’re so addicted to constant electronic distractions you can’t envision an entire weekend without them, then begin with shorter absences–thirty minutes, an hour, two hours or even twelve.

How have you recovered from burnout?

  • Davis9525

    Thanks — I am a 77-yr old care-giver, who escapes to the computer, has a dirty kitchen floor and a house full of clutter.   You have given me some ways to step away from burnout and back into living.  

    • I’m glad to be among the things which help. I can’t recommend getting away from the keyboard enough.

  • ferm

    Concentrating at work is impossible no matter how easy the task is. I am so burned out for like 8-9 months. There is something wrong and I can’t find a way out. I guess you are right about the contribution of short&well-defined projects on recovery from burnout. I am really exhausted by dealing with burnout,depression and anxiety combo. Any advice will be appreciated. Thanks…

    • Melanie Archer

      I think it’s important to talk to people who have no stake in keeping things the way they are. Regrettably, this exempts the people we live and work with–talking about changing something (jobs, residences, ways of working) can threaten their own (precarious) sense of stability.

      Some health insurance plans offer over-the-phone counseling; if you have access to that, try it out. Otherwise, find a therapist or support group of complete strangers to listen to you in person. They’ll deal with you as you are now, not as they wish you were, or as they think you used to be–that’s one of the few ways to escape the whirlpool.

      Always remember that coming back from burnout is not an overnight project.

      Good luck!

  • andrei

    hi. reading your blog. have burned out: about a year of helping a friend out of a financial and health disaster, two years worth of feverish non-stop start-up activity. feel continual fatigue, occasional loss of memory. did it really take you a year to recover?

    • A year for me, but mine was just work burnout. I can imagine that the burnout from caring for others would take longer, since that’s mixed up with so much emotion. Some of us are more resilient and can just “snap out of it,” which is a gift.