How to Survive Burnout

Burnout happens.

If you're the intense, works-well-under-pressure sort of person I am, it happens more often than you'd like.

I've been burning out for the last 20 years, leaving behind a trail of wreckage and accomplishments in equal quantities.

But here, with those years of experience tucked in, I've learned a couple things to make it better. Here they are.

1. Know Your End Date.

This implies something really important. You have to know when your high-stress, use-up-more-energy-than-you-generate time is ending.

If you can't say when it's going to be over, you're not in burnout. You're in over your head, and you need to get out.

If that's you, stop reading this, and make a plan to get yourself out out of the situation. Seriously, right now.

Now, if you've got an end date, great. Let's sanity-check one more thing.

2. Make Sure It's Worth It.

Here's a great grounding question:

Are you willing to give up every single second between now and your end date - even knowing that life is short, uncertain, and that those seconds may be your last - to get this done?

If the answer's no, stop reading this and get out of the situation.

That's your real trade-off, staring you in the face.

3. Reframe. It's all about energy.

Now that you have a clear date in mind, and you know you're willing to do it, it's time to consciously reframe your life around that date, and what it's going to take for you to achieve that goal.

A lot of people think burnout and deadlines are about time. They're not. They're about energy, and how to manage it.

For the next little while, you're going to be stealing energy from pretty much every other area of your life, and putting it toward your goal.

That's ok, and it's how this works. It's also the reason for #1 and #2. Doing things this way is about as sustainable as putting your rent on a credit card.

But, when you need to do it, you can. And by framing about it in terms of energy, you'll be able to make the hard choices on what to cut out.

4. Make a Sacred List

The first thing you lose with burnout is the ability to see clearly. Make a plan now, while you can still see.

Jot out the areas of your life you're not ok stealing time from, and define clear boundaries. Write them down, and put that list somewhere you'll see it.

I call this a "sacred list." It's the few things that I know I have to keep, even in the craziness ahead. They're usually short. Here's a recent one:

  • Shower at least every other day.
  • Brush teeth every day.
  • Eat three meals a day.
  • Stop work 1 hour before bed.

Sacred lists are minimal, brutal, and important. They're the things that must happen, even if it means taking energy away from your goal.

The clarity you have right now isn't going to last. The list will. In those tired, zombie-brain moments - trust it.

5. Order a Pizza. Order Five.

If it's not on your sacred list, cut it. This includes things like cooking meals, getting the mail, doing laundry, and anything else you can manage.

Most things in life can either be skipped entirely for a short period of time (getting the mail, doing laundry), or you can pay someone to get them done (food delivery, yardwork.)

Take advantage of that truth, and offload everything you can.

6. Be as Healthy as You Can.

Whatever low-energy healthy things you can find time for, do. These make the list because they often give you more overall energy even counting the time they take up.

Having a salad once a day will keep your brain and body working better than Cheetos. Going for a 15 minute run will help you get better sleep.

If you can swing them, do them. If you can't, don't sweat it.

Speaking of sleep…

7. Don't Skip Sleep. (Until You Have To.)

It's unlikely you're going to get through this with a full 8 hours of sleep a night. But - as much as you can - carve out time sleep. Getting 6 hours means you'll be sharp the next day, and get significantly more done.

Remember, this is about energy, not time. Sleep is the only thing that gives you more energy.

Treat yourself like your cell phone. When you're low, plug in, and charge all the way up.

8. The First 24 Hours After Finishing Are Weird.

I've done this so many times, and it still catches me. The space just after your end date, when the thing is done is weird. Your brain and body are still amped up and what do we do next? go! go!

It leads to strange things like doing the dishes really, really intensely and then deciding that dear god you must dust all the things.

This is a normal, weird phase. If you let it pass, it will - and you should.

Because soon after, it's time to move into recovery.

9. Plan Recovery Time

Once you hit your end date, you're going to be exhausted, and your life is going to be in shambles. This is ok.

You'll have a plan.

Before you even begin, block out time on your calendar to recover and get your life back together. Take time off work if you can. Book yourself at 50% of what you'd normally do, or less.

Give yourself the time and space to refill, and then take it.

10. Don't Forget Your People.

One of the things that's easy to forget in a crazy burnout episode is how shitty we are to be around.

Our friends and family put up with a crazy, smelly, grumpy shell of a person for days and weeks at a time. They've still had things going on in their lives that they'd normally talk to you about, but they've held off on saying anything to help you out.

As much as we think about burnout as being an individual sacrifice, the truth is it's a group one. We're poor friends and co-workers. We're bad siblings, parents, and kids.

It's ok. That's part of the cool thing about having people who care about us - they're willing to take the bad with the good.

But now that you're through, it's time to give them some good back.

Carve out time and energy, and really engage with the people who've been dealing with your flaming craziness for the past bit. You'll both be glad you did.

11. See If You Can Avoid It Next Time

As the years have passed, I've become better and better at spreading my crazy burnout out into the weeks and months ahead of a deadline, rationing out that energy consistently and steadily, instead of in one crazy push.

The strange part is that that long-term rationing actually ends up producing more results than the burn and crash.

But sometimes burnout isn't avoidable. Life's crazy, and things happen.

However, with a bit of foresight, sometimes you can avoid it entirely. I've found best place to learn how to spot impending burnout is by looking at the wreckage right behind me, while it's still fresh. There's lots to learn, sitting right there.

That's everything I know. I hope it's useful to you, and one of those points makes your next burnout easier on you and the people around you.

And always, good luck. It helps.