Burnout . . .
According to Google, burnout is
- the reduction of a fuel or substance to nothing through use or combustion.
- physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.
For me, that looks like exhaustion, impatience, productive procrastination, and – when it gets really bad – my impression of an ostrich. (Yes, I know the head in the sand thing is a myth, but the analogy still works.)
Burnout has been triggered by different things throughout my life, but the common factor is always that somehow I have wound up with more on my to-do list than I believe is possible to accomplish in the amount of time I have to accomplish it, combined with a sense of one or more factors relating to that list being out of control – and this has continued for an extended period of time.
For example, in addition to being a mother and author, I am also a homeschool teacher. I can spend weeks planning my children’s education and hours teaching them, but at some point it is up to them to actually do the work. Like all children, there are phases in their life when they “just don’t want to” and nothing I say or do will make them budge. You know that saying: “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink”? I am intimately acquainted with the full meaning of that idea.
Now, if their “just don’t want to” phase happens to occur at the same time I am trying to meet an ambitious number of writing related goals, have an unusually high frequency of medical appointments scheduled (for me or my kids), I am not getting enough sleep for one reason or another, and I am in the process of planning another child’s birthday celebration … well, this can sometimes lead me to burnout.
I have learned to recognize the signs of my impending burnout, but I am still working on nipping it in the bud. Some of the things I have tried which worked are:
1. Start saying, “No.” I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to say, “No” to awesome opportunities or friends who need help. I want to do it all and I want to be there for all the people I care about. The trouble is, if I try to do it all, something always suffers – everything is done poorly or a few things are done well while something else gets forgotten or simply doesn’t get accomplished on time. Trying to do it all never works out well. If I try to be there for everyone all the time, it leaves me nothing left to give to those most important to me: my family. As much as I fight it, my time and energy are not infinite. Learning to say no is a constant life struggle.
2. Reprioritize my to-do list. When I feel myself spiraling toward burnout I am normally moving at the speed of light, running from one task to the next, going to bed late, getting up early, and trying to solve every problem at the same time. So I try to take a step back and reevaluate where I’m putting my energy. Are the things I am trying to accomplish really that important or urgent? The best questions I have found to help me with deciding how to reorganize or even trim my to-do list are: What will happen if this doesn’t get done? Can someone else do this?
3. Try to delegate. This is a tough one. Most of the items on my list are things only I can do or things only I can do well. That last part is where I usually fight with myself to let go. I grew up with a grandmother who asked me to handpick pieces of lint from the carpet and from whose bathroom floor I would have happily eaten from dinner. Perfectionism runs in my family. Letting someone else do something, *knowing* they can’t do it as well as I can (and that’s not ego, that’s just fact with certain tasks), but that they can accomplish the task “well enough”, is tough. Very tough. However, I have learned that the consequences of full-blown burnout are far greater than a mediocre job.
4. Take a break. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how important the to-do list tasks are. I need to step back, set my list down, and take a break. I need to switch gears and get my mind off the things that are bothering me. Since taking a week-long vacation from life isn’t typically practical, this is when I will go see a movie, or read a book just for fun (not to review), or even spend two hours listening to a friend’s problems. Nothing gets your mind off your own trouble like listening to someone else’s trouble – especially if they’re in a tougher spot than you are. And there is always someone in a tougher spot than you are.
5. Rejuvenate. I find a way to re-energize myself. This always involves worship and Bible study. Nothing puts things into perspective faster and calms my worries more thoroughly than reminding myself of Who is truly in control. When I find myself entering burnout, I almost always have let my Bible study slip. After all, there is no deadline by which I have to “finish studying the Bible.” No one ever “finishes” studying the Bible. And then there is the lie that “no one else is affected if I don’t read the Bible today.” It’s easy to see that if I don’t take my daughter to her medical appointment that she will suffer. It is more difficult to see that she will also suffer if I let my relationship with my Lord fall to the bottom of my to-do list. Yet it remains true that everything in my life suffers when I don’t prioritize spending time with God.
In addition to Bible study and worship, I will do what I can to catch up on sleep, spend some time alone with my thoughts, and find a creative outlet that is just for fun. I love being an author, but taking it seriously means it sometimes feels no different than any other job – there are days I can’t wait to start working and days I’d rather do anything but. So I make a point to find alternate ways to express my creativity without the pressure of public scrutiny or deadlines. These things re-energize me and fill that emotional cup so that I have something to give.
These are the 5 major things which I have found to help me avoid and recover from burnout.