I've been burned out a number of times in my life and it made me wonder: have I picked a career that's too stressful? I love my job, but maybe my sensitive soul can't handle the pressure. It was frustrating and disappointing because I thought I had to give up what I loved in order to take care of myself. If you're wondering that right now, I'm glad to tell you that you don't have to give up what you love doing. You just need to learn how to deal with that stress and I'm going to walk you through it.
Burnout is kind of hard to define and I'm going to keep it vague because I think it can crop up in many different ways: "Exhaustion from prolonged adversity"
Most of the time, "adversity" means "stress". Stress causes hormones to be released by your body (cortisol, etc. the "baddies") and you actually need to do something to flush those hormones out of your body. Otherwise, they build up and are very bad for both your physical and mental health. Prolonged stress can increase your risk of heart disease. Now you have a really good reason to pay attention.
Step 1: recognize when you're stressed or burning out
Learn your early-warning "I'm stressed" symptoms. They're probably slightly different for everyone, so I'll talk about mine and maybe some will make sense to you. Learning your own takes mindfulness, introspection, and PRACTICE!
The easiest way for me to tell when I'm overstressed is if I have an outsized emotional reaction when there's more being added to my plate: either a new task added to my workload, or if I run into an obstacle on my current task that makes it more difficult to complete. I usually feel a mixture of angry, overwhelmed, frustrated, and resentful. In extreme cases, I might cry. That's a loud wake-up call: time to change something.
Step 2: get distance from your stressor
This is the hardest. Why? For me, I'm always telling myself "Just power through this and relax later". The problem with that approach is that there's always going to be more stuff you need to do. There will always be more features to build, messes to clean up in the house. The older you get, the longer your list of responsibilities grows, and the concept of being "done" disappears entirely. So you can't wait until you're "done" to relax.
You need to SET BOUNDARIES and redefine "done", maybe on a daily basis. I decided I was "done" today when I was assigned a last-minute project this week after completing a very large, complex project that grew in scope multiple times while I was working on it. I felt resentment when this new project was assigned to me and later when I was working on it, I got so frustrated that I almost cried. Red flag: time for a break.
Do you deserve a break, though?
It's not about whether or not you deserve a break! The reality is that you need one. Accept it. You only get one body, one life. Treat yourself with compassion and you will flourish.
How long of a break?
This depends on the scale of your stress: is this an isolated incident or are you actually burned out? I'll give two examples
- Today, I got frustrated with more stuff being added to my workload, but if I look back on the past few weeks, I've been relatively calm and happy. I decided to take an afternoon-sized break.
- A few years ago, I was the tech lead of a VERY LARGE project at Google. So large that (I learned later), entire companies are dedicated to solving the problem that we were trying to solve with our little feature team. It was complex and it was big. On top of that, everyone kept telling me that if we didn't deliver it to customers soon, Google would decide to shut down our product and everyone would have to find new jobs. PROLONGED EXTREME STRESS! I stopped acting like myself, cried in at least 2 meetings, had trouble falling asleep and chewed the inside of my cheek when I was sleeping. I was not myself at all and unfortunately Google decided to shut us down anyways, a month away from shipping. At that point, I decided to quit and move to Mexico. It took multiple months to feel like myself again. I ended up taking 7 months off in total.
The scale of your burnout should inform the scale of your break. And as you get older, it will take longer to recover! That's why you can't just "power through". A friend of mine who used to work in the film industry told me that it took her years to recover after she left the industry. YEARS. No job is worth that.
Step 3: get those stress hormones out of your body
Stress doesn't just happen in your mind and it doesn't just go away when the stressor goes away. That's why you don't immediately feel relaxed and happy when you ship a huge project. The good news is, there are things you can do every day to flush those stress hormones out of your body.
These are mechanisms that acquired through evolution and, for that reason, they make more sense to a caveman running from a saber-toothed tiger than a software engineer at a desk, but the good news is that they're simple.
Here's a non-comprehensive list of things you can do (there are way more):
- Move (dance, run, get your heart bumping!)
- Deep slow breaths
- Casual, friendly social interaction (e.g. compliment a stranger)
- Laugh with people
- Connect with loved ones (e.g. long-hug your partner)
- Creative expression
Step 4: reflect
I'm a big fan of journaling as a tool for introspection. It's surprisingly effective for helping you see the big picture and move towards a solution instead of ruminating. Think (and write) about:
- what are your stressors (e.g. work, relationships, having too many hobbies (me))
- what things you do that work well for relieving that stress (I love going for a walk in nature every day after work)
Step 5: long-term prevention strategies
You can’t eliminate all stressors from your life. Sure, some lives are more stressful than others, but if you try to eliminate stress entirely you’ll probably just start stressing about things that didn’t stress you before. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t change ANYTHING, though!
Think about which stressors are avoidable and which aren't. Here are some examples:
Unavoidable stressor: having deadlines at work. They exist for a reason. No matter how much I hate them, we need to have them.
Avoidable stressor: waking up to a messy kitchen (it’s a bad way to start the day, IMO)
For your unavoidable stressors, you want to cultivate habits that will clear those stress hormones from your body on a regular basis, like going for a walk in a natural space after work (my fave).
For your avoidable stressors, get creative! Maybe you need to set boundaries in a relationship, talk to your boss about project pacing, get a bigger garbage can so you don’t need to take out the trash that often.. you get the idea!
Mindfulness (as much as that term is overused and I hate it) is the key to all this. Pay attention and you will get better at recognizing the early signs of stress, then you can go through the next steps and slowly but surely your baseline mental state will be a lot more relaxed and you’ll be able to weather stressful situations like you never thought you could!
Internal vs. external stressors
External stressors are things that stress you out from the outside world, like your boss telling you that you’d better deliver that project ASAP or the company will go bust.
Internal stressors are, basically, pressure you put on yourself, by thinking things like “if I don’t complete this project on time, it’s because I’m a bad engineer and then everyone will know it!!”
The world is stressful enough without you adding to it. Notice when you’re doing this to yourself and decide to not believe those thoughts. Respond with compassion instead. Think of your mind like a garden that needs constant love and attention. The more you do it, the more natural it will become.
Don’t work overtime
You need rest and stimulation outside of work to be your most productive at work. Creativity comes from unrelated ideas being thrown together, which means if you spend all your time thinking about work, you’re limiting your creativity at work. ALSO: have you ever gone for a walk on a lunch break and come back to work feeling refreshed and ready to take on the world? That’s because your brain REALLY NEEDS those breaks! Skipping lunch isn’t good for you or the company. Do everyone a favour and take your lunch break and sign off at 5:00.
But there’s so much work to do!
In most cases, if you work more hours on a regular basis, you’ll be less efficient in those hours. You’ll be tired and less focused. You’ll get the same amount done in 10 hours that you would have in 8 if you were well-rested. So, do everyone a favour and sign off at 5.
If your company is prioritizing work well, they should have you working on the most important things only and that should be achievable in 40 hours per week. If there’s “way too much work to do”, perhaps some of it can be cut. Is everything you’re doing valuable? Be ruthless.
“I’ll just power through and relax later”
I agree that there will always be exceptions, but there should not be many! I have been working for a startup for over a year and a half and I have only worked once on a weekend (and only for an hour). Sometimes I work an extra hour because I’m in the zone on a project, but not often. You should definitely not be working late on a weekly basis.
It’s hard to maintain boundaries, especially if you love your work
This is something I suffer from. Sometimes you need some structure to help you maintain those boundaries. I have a recurring meeting with a couple friends after work to do yoga together (in a virtual room) and that helps me wrap up on time. Pinpoint where you’re struggling to maintain those boundaries and schedule something for that time. Just like everything, it gets easier with practice!
If you would like to learn more..
I learned a lot about burnout from Emily and Amelia Nagoski's book and I highly recommend reading it. If you're already stressed out and can't handle the idea of reading a whole book, Brené Brown has a podcast episode about the book where she interviews the authors. Check it out!