One Simple, Yet Effective, Hack for Burnout

Dr. Marina Harris

Put the joy back in your life with this one easy hack

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Do you dread going to work?

I personally suffer from the Sunday Scaries. Come Sunday evening, I am deadass unprepared for Monday. I watch the clock, praying that tomorrow never comes. I do everything possible to make time move more slowly.

I feel tightness in my chest, I panic. I compulsively check my email to make sure I didn’t forget anything — or I completely ignore all responsibilities. I feel nauseated every time I think about work.

There was a time in my life where this became unbearable. I got into a stable routine of trudging off to bed Sunday evening, staring wide-eyed into the darkness all night while I tossed and turned with needles in my stomach, dreading the alarm on Monday morning.

That’s when I knew I was burned out. I needed to change something and fast.

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Symptom check: How to tell if you‘re burned out

General stress and burnout are close cousins — it can be hard to know if you’re just experiencing high levels of stress or if you’ve crossed the threshold into burnout.

Burnout is a prolonged stress reaction characterized by exhaustion, hopelessness, and feeling incapable. Burnout leaves us depleted, cynical, and feeling like a failure.

Check your symptoms with this question checklist from the Mayo Clinic:

Have you become cynical or critical at work?
Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started?
Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?
Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
Do you find it hard to concentrate?
Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?
Have your sleep habits changed?
Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, stomach or bowel problems, or other physical complaints?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you should seriously consider burnout as the reason behind your symptoms. Check with your doctor or therapist on how to best manage your burnout symptoms, and try this simple activity.

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The hack: Differentiating between nourishing and depleting activities

When we’re burned out, we dread going to work. We are exhausted, unmotivated, and depleted. There is an imbalance between things in our life that deplete our energy, and things that enhance our energy.

But when you’re burned out and everything feels exhausting, it’s really hard to figure out what is actually draining you.

This activity helped me figure that out and turn my burnout around.

Take out a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle, hot dog style.

Think about your day-to-day activities at work and at home. You can even take out your schedule.

Because most people can more easily identify depleting activities, start there.

Label the left-hand side depleting activities. These are the activities that leave us feeling exhausted and drained. The activities that feel like a chore or that we feel like we are dragging through.

When considering depleting activities, ask yourself:

  • What makes me want to pull my hair out?
  • What feels like an unnecessary hassle?
  • What tasks make me feel less capable or confident?
  • What time of day do I struggle to motivate myself?
  • What tasks or activities do I avoid until the last minute?

Label the right-hand side list nourishing activities. These are activities that nourish your soul, boost you up, give you resilience, and energize you.

For nourishing activities, ask yourself:

  • What projects do I enjoy working on? Or dislike less than others?
  • What leisure activities can I incorporate?
  • What fills me with a sense of mastery or competence? What makes me feel good about my skills?
  • What excites me?
  • Who are the people who nourish me?
  • At what point in the day do I feel I get my best work done?

I work as a therapist and researcher. My list looked something like this:

Depleting activities: Seeing patients after 4 pm; conducting research; writing reports; writing academic articles; more longer-term therapy; administrative meetings; binging TV for 3+ hours; checking email for longer than 15 minutes; checking email after 6 pm.

Nourishing activities: Teaching therapy to medical residents; group therapy; short-term therapy; working with athletes; working with eating disorders; mentoring; mindfulness; spending time with my dog and husband; watching sports; blogging/personal writing; anything entrepreneurial.

When I compared my list with my schedule, I found I was spending about 80% of my time on depleting activities. No wonder I was burned out! I was spending my entire day doing things that I didn’t actually like. When this happens, it makes us exhausted even through the activities we typically enjoy.

Increasing nourishing activities while decreasing depleting activities

It can be incredibly difficult to change the day-to-day makeup of your job. For some of us, we don’t have a lot of choices in our day-to-day work.

I get it. But clearly doing what you’ve always done is causing you burnout, so let’s try something different.

Here’s the oversimplification. To reverse burnout, spend more time with nourishing activities, and less time with depleting activities.

If you have a job that doesn’t allow you to lessen the depleting activities, you need more of a buffer — vastly increase what nourishes you.

Take a 15-minute break to do crafts at lunch. Incorporate mindfulness into your morning or evening routines. Read for fun. Play with your pets. Start a creative project. Make more intentional time to see your friends and family. And when you’re doing these things, unplug. Fully immerse yourself in the activity. Participate fully.

You may also have more control than you think you do. Sometimes we let perception get in the way of reality, which isn’t helpful to us. Talk to your supervisor or boss. See if they will help you brainstorm creative ways to add more nourishment into your day. Ask to take on a project that you are excited about; see if you can offload less-exciting projects on a colleague.

The takeaway

Burnout is incredibly tough, isolating, and frustrating. When there is an imbalance in our lives between what nourishes and depletes us, burnout leaves us exhausted and drained.

It’s important to re-balance our lives. Take a look at your list and make an intentional effort to increase the nourishing activities in your life. Bonus if you can decrease the tasks or projects that are depleting for you.

For me, this meant switching jobs. I turned down a job that had higher earning potential because it involved a high level of depleting activities on my list, and took another job that was focused solely on eating disorders and working with athletes. I know that not everyone has an opportunity to switch jobs, but the point is to intentionally craft your life to be more nourishing. This protects us from burnout.

Digging yourself out of burnout can take a lot of effort. But you don’t have to feel stuck if you can discover what nourishes your soul.

Feed what nourishes you.

Let it guide you to creating a more joyful, fulfilling life.

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PhD in Clinical Psychology | Science-backed advice for living your best life | Expert on eating disorders, relationships, and athlete mental health | Former Division I Athlete

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