Melody Kramer

36 People Explain How They Avoid Work Burnout

18 May 2015

About a week ago, my friend Topher, a psychologist in interior Alaska, asked if you could share some strategies for avoiding burnout.

This distribution list is full of ambitious and accomplished professionals who work hard and, at least in some cases, play hard too. I’m curious to hear any tips, tricks, and life hacks you use to stave off burnout, and to keep yourselves professionally fulfilled and satisfied. This could include anything from daily habits to long-term strategies. What do you do, and perhaps more importantly, not do?

You did! They’re amazing. Here they are, but first:

Your yearly PSA: Seven years ago this week, I was the passenger in a rollover car accident that changed my life in a number of ways. Perhaps the most long-lasting way is that one of my fingers doesn’t work so well; other lingering affects include not sweating the small stuff and always always always wearing a seatbelt in cars. Had I not had a seatbelt on that day, I would have flown out of the windshield and ended up on a busy highway in Massachusetts, and died. **Please wear yours. **

Burnout, How to Avoid:

From Ariana :

When I’m feeling especially burned (burnt?) out, I make a point of “never leaving my house for the sole purpose of work.” Ideally, the first place I go that day will be unrelated to my job, and even more ideally, it’ll be semi-fun (yoga, special coffee, weird Lady Gaga-themed spinning studio…). Something like a doctor’s appointment counts too, though, as would a pre-planned EOD grocery run if that was all I could manage.

From Sophie:

Things I embrace as bulwarks against burnout:

meal scheduling - my husband does the grocery shopping and we collaborate on the weekly dinner menu before he goes, so he knows what to buy. I do most of the cooking, and we schedule meals to accommodate my work schedule - if I have a work event one day, I know I’m going to need to make something mindless that night. By the end of the week, we are both pretty tired so we plan leftover-friendly meals for earlier in the week so we can just reheat leftovers on Thursdays and/or Fridays.

lackadaisical housekeeping: this is one of those things we could probably throw money at til it went away, but we just don’t. My husband is a naturally tidy person and I am a slob and he very graciously puts up with the many piles of things I can’t quite bring myself to put away or deal with. I very graciously make an occasional stab at tidying, but we both know it is a gesture of love on my part, and not a real habit being formed. The poor man is now outnumbered, because our daughter is also a slob. We clean the high-priority areas (kitchen & bathroom) weekly, we stay on top of laundry & dishes. Everything else pretty much goes to hell til we can’t take it anymore and spend a day cleaning. It’s amazingly freeing.

online shopping: ye gods this is liberating. The decision NOT to go to Target weekly is both a cost- and sanity-saving measure. When I buy online, I buy the things I need. If I go to the store, it’s much easier to impulse-shop. Add in not dealing with traffic, crowds, and the hell of parking lots and you have a recipe for weekend fun-time maximization.

no assholes allowed: admittedly, this is a bit of a luxury in a tight job market, but for me, it’s an important guiding principle. I really can’t function well when I am surrounded by assholes (by which I mean people who are cruel, lack empathy, proceed only from self-interest, and who can’t be bothered with simple kindness), and I like to function well, so I limit my interactions with them. I left a secure & rewarding but hateful-due-to-assholes job in teaching because it was just not worth the stress. I’m way happier now and am able to make real contributions to my field working for people who treat me like an adult. It’s great!

saying no: I’m at a point in my career where I am often asked to do things: write articles, give presentations (often involving overnight travel), serve on committees. It’s exactly where I want to be, and it’s super-flattering, and I LIKE to contribute, so my first impulse is to say yes. But I can’t say yes to everything without running myself into the ground, so I have a mental decision tree in place. I ask myself, Do I want to do this? Do I have time to do this? REALLY, do I have time to do this? Will doing this be both helpful to others and to my own career? What goals will this move me closer to accomplishing? What will I learn by doing this?

Often, I need to say no, and I do so as positively as I can, and wherever possible, I recommend an alternate candidate, because I like helping colleagues move their own careers forward.

From Amanda:

  • Exercise. I have to prioritize my physical body because otherwise it starts to pinch and ache and creep into my mind. But it clears my head and I do it for me.

  • Meditate. Hah. I don’t really, except that I do. My meditation is called Capoeira and if I don’t keep my focus I’ll get clocked or land on my ass. But it is the right fit for me. Plus, it incorporates exercise. Two for one. I started playing capoeira because it looked amazing and fluid and acrobatic. I kept playing because it challenged me and fucked with my head and then because I found a community. And then one day I realized that once the roda starts, I stop thinking about anything but the roda and I feel so much more clear headed when I leave. I hear tell this is the point of meditation, so I’m calling it.

  • Go Home: The other thing about capoeira and committing to it is that I have to be there. Which means that I have to put my work down and walk out the door on capoeira nights. That’s important.

From Lauren:

My biggest thing is stopping the addiction to and expectation of email access 24/7. I switched jobs last year and now work for an arts program within a healthcare organization. Thanks to HIPPA and strict access rules I can’t have my work email on my personal cell phone. It’s been a really positive change it forces me to not answer email when I’m at home or “off”. I can access it if I need to via webportal, but the expectation is that unless staff is at the level to be issued a work phone, they will answer email during work hours. My team knows how to reach me if it’s an emergency, but I’ve found most things can wait. Obviously this is different if you’re medical personnel, but I was/am in the arts, not saving lives, and the constant demand for immediate response made everything seem like an emergency. If I wasn’t forced to make this change, I’m not sure I would have on my own.

I have at least one other activity that I’m involved in that uses my work skills, but is not work. I serve on a board for a girlchoir and feel that my skills are used in a different way and very much appreciated.

From Kevin:

I don’t know if my burnout management techniques are useful for other people, or even effective all the time. But here’s what I do:

I try to keep my life at a sustainable pace, and push projects further out into the future when there isn’t enough time to do them now. Sometimes, though, it’s unavoidable (like right now). A lot of projects that couldn’t be put off, or turned down (including helping my brother with his wedding), came up at the same time. So I’m in the middle of a three month period of completely unavoidable burnout. Knowing that it’s going to stop soon, and I’ll be able to slow down, is very, very helpful.

But in the middle of it, I’ve still got to be careful. My biggest problem is when I say I’m taking a break, I keep stressing about my projects. My partner is amazing and supportive and calls me on this, and then we go for a walk, which is good. I know a few triggers that will make me relax even when I’m super stressed: night herons, oysters/clams/shellfish, cooking. And I have some familiar media that I go back to when I need to de-stress: favorite cooking shows, really fun novels, favorite stand-up comedy specials. I cycle through them as much as I can to try to hit that conditioned “relax” button with any spare time I have to relax in.

And sometimes it doesn’t work at all. And then I’m just burned out and not a very nice person, but I know it’s only for a little while.

From Kelly:

The only thing that has helped me is to up my stamina. I ride my bike to and from work everyday. This amounts to 6 hours/week. The commute in allows me to increase those much needed endorphins as well as to clear my thoughts prior to coming in the office. I’m good for the day.

Now, at the end of the day, I’m really ready for the bike home! Depending on what kind of day it is. I can burn off any contentious thoughts, recharge my endorphins and problem solve. I’m also at my most delightful for my family. No “hard day at work” moods that they have to endure.

I’ve read many articles on this topic and increasing my stamina is the only way that I’ve been able to live a fairly balanced life. When you’re charged, the daily ups and downs of life just don’t seem so hilly. :)

From Laura:

I have a couple of short term ways I avoid burn out:

  1. Have fun stuff on my desk @ work (bubbles, etch a sketch, coloring book)

  2. I don’t forward my work emails to my cellphone. I check my work email once when I get home from work and once before bed.

  3. I’m working on disconnecting when I get home (I’m a data analyst/ on a computer all day).

Long term I have a quarterly review with my bosses so I can make sure I’m working on projects I’m passionate about. If I come up with a cool idea outside the quarterly window I work on that as a brain break from my normal work.

From Casey:

I have a firm no checking email rule after 6 pm.

From Jessica:

My commute is usually an hour, so I always take that time for myself. I listen to an audio book or I read (if I’m not driving). I watch a television show that my husband might not be inclined to enjoy. I lose myself in writing for fun. I take the two hours, five days each week, and do something alone, that I can enjoy. Often, I just sit quietly with a cup of tea and enjoy the silence of my own space. On the weekends, I get out of my house and enjoy the outdoors. I take the dog for walks, go kayaking and sit at the beach.

Most importantly, I take technology breaks. When I get home from work, my husband and I have a rule: all personal electronics stacked on a table, out of sight, for an hour. We talk with each other sans outside distractions. It’s important for us to connect and to disconnect from the constant inundation of the outside world.

From Stephanie:

To avoid burnout I do the following: -plan for week ahead and review past week -plan in time for slack - at lease one evening with no plans -go to the park once a week to sit or read and drink wine -make dinner and watch tv on Sunday nights with my sister -prioritize my professional and personal to do lists by project, urgency and impact -delete emails I don’t need/unsubscribe. Use Twitter lists to follow local events, topics/people I’m interested in -travel somewhere once a month -therapy -bike riding, yoga, dance, walking -be present in every part of my life and learning to let things go -talk to strangers. Some taxi drivers are good listeners.

From Karen:

I do everything I can to avoid checking work emails at home, on the bus- anywhere other than at the office - except during a couple times a year when big events mean I need to be ‘on’ more. This after a cooking disaster (think exploded dishes) answering the boss’s non-urgent email while making dinner. 90% of the time, it really can wait until business hours.

The other big thing that’s important for me is to have at least 1 regularly scheduled non-work activity. For me, it’s a pottery class. I always feel too tired or busy to go, make myself show up anyway, and am always glad I did for that couple hours of creative me time.

From ** ** Andrew:

Just like this list, I stay fresh by working on personal projects that challenge me to think in a different way about the medium in which I’m presently working (in your case, social interactions; in my case, civic design).

From Dave B:

My main suggestion would be in the category of long-term strategy. And that is: Look at what you’re doing for work/career, or going to do, and make sure it’s what you want. I’ve seen plenty of middle-aged people like me starting out in entry-level jobs (which were satisfying on many levels) and later moving up the ladder because it was the thing to do.

They often ended up making more money and having more prestige, a fancier title, and a better resume, but also having more pressure, stress, and paperwork. And most importantly, no longer doing something they liked for most of their work day.

For example, I used to be a copywriter for publishing companies & book clubs. A talented art director I worked with at the book-club company got promoted to assistant creative director and then creative director, then got a similar job at an ad agency and eventually became a VP. Although he enjoyed the challenges of the job, he found that he hardly ever did what he got into the field to do: drawing and coming up with designs and concepts. Rather, he was supervising other designers’ work, hiring staff, setting schedules, attending meetings, etc.

It’s good to ask if you’re taking a job or promotion because you really want to do that job, or are just taking it for some other reason (because you think you should take it, or it’s a move up the ladder, or you’re flattered to be offered, or you’re afraid turning down a promotion would doom your career at the company).

From Samantha:

As a journalist, it can be hard to unplug in my time off because I always feel like I’m going to miss something. But it really helps me feel better when I spend my days off avoiding checking email - or maybe checking it at the end of the day. Likewise, I try to have one detox day every few weeks where I do things I’d usually consider a waste of time, like watching three episodes of reality TV in a row or laying on the beach (which is hard to do when you have errands to think about). But everyone needs that one day where they do nothing - it helps. When I’m at work, I try my best to seek out things (in my case, stories to work on) that excite me and invigorate me. I’d recommend everyone try to seek out new and exciting things about their work that day that help them see their job in a new light. Avoid repetition, increase happiness!

From Kevin:

I’ve been a fan of meditation for a while now, and this saying has always been helpful to me in preventing burnout: “You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day – unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.”

A nice reminder that when things get tough we should be investing more, not less, energy and time into our wellbeing :).

From Leonard:

Early mornings. If I wake up early, I have an edge on myself and don’t feel Behind throughout the day!

From Melissa:

Is he asking about his peers or all the workers?

He should start first with making sure the cleaning staff, maintenance etc have living wages with healthcare and predictable hours

Then he should make sure the same standards are for nurses and secretaries to have predictable schedules to make sure child and elder care isn’t stressful.

Finally, he should make sure the doctors are using their time off and being ethical managers.

From Ellen:

I’ve found recently that the things I used to do to relax (online of course) don’t really cut it. Even just being on my personal Twitter seems stressful.

So for the first time ever, I’ve had to rope off some “no screen” time where I just read books or maybe newspapers. I used to be that person who never read books because I was too busy reading the Internet (think pieces, newsletters, etc). But now physical paper books are becoming a necessity.

From Michelle:

I just wrote an article about this. Small tip: change your passwords to small reminders of motivation.

From Cary:

To avoid burnout, daily exercise is key. It keeps me energized and gives me some time when I know I can either listen to a fun podcast (that has nothing to do with my work) or just zone out and bat ideas around in my head. Sometimes it’s the only hour of the day I don’t feel like I should be doing something else.

The other thing that helps me is going to one-night (or longer) trainings or courses that help me think slightly differently. It may be hearing about how someone else does business, or learning about social media, or even a cooking class or something completely unrelated to work. But again, it gets me out of that gerbil-wheel mentality and puffs some fresh air into my brain.

From Sonya:

I don’t work or play particularly hard, but my main strategy for avoiding burnout is taking a slow-but-steady approach. I prioritize doing a little bit every day rather than trying to write an entire article in a couple of hours (for example). Sometimes – too often – I lose track and end up having to binge-work because of a deadline, but mostly I avoid that. I also just say no to projects or gigs that don’t mesh well with this method of life-management. However, my situation may be a little different from most people’s because I’m mentally ill – limiting stress is really crucial for me.

From Jessica:

I take lunches. In news, you can easily find reasons not to. News might break, coworkers who don’t take lunch (most of them) might look at me sideways. I take an hour lunch as often as I can, often to go to the gym and run my stress out. It’s a quality of life thing for me, not a luxury.

From Renee:

1) Having a pet is a huge stress-reliever. I had a bunny for 10 years, and he died a few years ago, but I could always just lay on the floor and pet him and feel instantly calmer. I’m really looking forward to when my husband agrees it’s time to get a puppy!!

2) Gardening helps keep me sane. It gets me outside in the sun and getting exercise. I started veggie gardening several years ago, and I really enjoy that peaceful time when I’m out in the garden with my hands in the dirt, listening to the birds sing. And then the garden-fresh vegetables are an added bonus when they’re ready to pick!

3) I am not much of an exercise-enthusiast (though everyone else in my immediate family is) so I’m not good at going to the gym or working out at home on my own. I signed up for Tae Kwon Do with a friend so I had someone else holding me accountable for showing up, and an instructor keeping me moving! I used to do tae kwon do as a kid, and also was in a club in college, but hadn’t done any martial arts for 10 years when I started up again. Now I’m an orange belt and it feels great! And when I’m in the dojo working out, I can only be “in the moment” and no other stressful thoughts can take hold of my mind. Or I might get kicked in the gut.

4) Friends to laugh with - even if only online. When I am stressed out doing homework, it helps to jump on Skype or Twitter and joke around with friends to lighten up my mood or just vent!

5) Praying. I don’t pray as often as I intend to, but when I’m at my most stressed, just having a calm one-on-one talk with God helps me put things in perspective and remember what’s important in life.

There were several times over the last few years when I was getting my masters degree (in addition to working full-time) when I felt close to burnout, and these are the things I would say helped me most when I felt like I was at my wit’s end! Taking care of yourself by having some peaceful time to read, watching TV with a loved one, or doing a creative hobby is really vital and not a “time waster” like some people make downtime out to be!

From Tal:

To start my current company, I moved to Hawaii and run everything remotely - and pick the right people to do it with. I start work at 7am, work 3 hours in the morning as a contractor to pay the bills. Then at 11am I go surfing for an hour. I come back to work fresh and it’s like a brand new day. At night I go to Jiu Jitsu which really, uh, shakes the etch-a-sketch.

Jiu jitsu and surfing are two things that are completely opposite of tech, super physical, and really force me to stop thinking about work. Also, they mostly can’t be messed with - they are semi-hard stops (because I care about getting better at each).

I also have a no-laptop-on-weekends rule. I try to completely disconnect and either sleep all day or go on hikes.

It may seem like I have fewer hours to work, but I still have eight - and they’re super high quality and focused work hours. Plus, I come up with the best solutions when I’m out in the water.

On top of that, startups always take longer to build - and as a cofounder things feel more urgent than they truly are. It’s important to enjoy the ride!

As one cofounder once wisely said to me, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

From Amanda:

A few of the strategies that work for me, balancing a career in finance with my own small business:

-Disconnect as much as possible when outside the office. I leave my Blackberry at my desk when I go to lunch, I don’t bring it on vacation, and I only check email until 7 at night. I make exceptions to this rule when time-sensitive things are happening, but if people really need me they know to call my cell.

-I take care of personal paperwork and business type tasks at the office: scheduling appointments, calling customer service lines, writing checks, doing taxes, scanning and faxing documents. Usually this is from 6:30-7:30 am before my coworkers get in. I hate having things hanging over my head when I go home, plus being at the office puts me in a productive (and assertive!) mood. This way, when I come home at the end of the day, there’s nothing that needs doing. Knowing I can count on a couple hours to myself every night without doctors’ offices to call or paperwork to file is a gift.

-Travel like I mean it. I recently took my annual two week vacation, to Peru and Argentina this time, and it did absolute wonders to recharge and refresh me. Life got bigger, I caught up on sleep, I read 10 books, and I wore no makeup or suit jackets for 18 days. It was heavenly – but I was also excited to return to work. Really great weekends that include outdoor activities, museums, making art, and hosting friends can do the same thing on a smaller scale.

From Alex:

I have worked variously for large companies down to small hard-driven startups, and now I work somewhere inbetween, but there have been a few hardwon lessons

  1. Don’t work more then 40 hours, you aren’t going to be that effective after that.
  2. Care a lot, but view everything as an experiment. Otherwise, you could constantly feel personal failure for things you may not have any control over.
  3. You can’t win every battle, but be prepared to fix things when they fail. You somteimes have to let the ship crash before you can help, even if you can see the iceberg.

From Julia:

I was curious about this same question, especially for journalists who work in really intense news zones, like Ferguson, Mo. So I interviewed a few people who worked in the St. Louis area, and wrote up a few of their strategies. Personally, I try to go to professional development events (conferences, workshops) and am currently back in graduate school to try to get me even more excited about the future of journalism. Having these events scattered throughout the year also give me something to look forward to when my daily work life feels dull or exhausting.

From Gregg:

It’s a really challenging thing to explain, I’ve found. Having been laid-off from enjoyable jobs three times in 30 years, I’ve used those circumstances to develop an ability to be engaged, efficient and committed to my job – yet still be able to detach when the time comes to step away from the computer/studio/desk.

Setting boundaries – separating the job from your non-job life, knowing when to stop thinking about work, not carrying it home with you. Not allowing yourself to be drawn into office politics, co-worker conflicts and personal dramas. Recognizing when your system needs a break and not feeling guilty about giving yourself one. Prioritizing the inevitable demands that others will make on your time.

These are what I do – but I have no magic secrets to teach others how to do them.

From Michelle:

From biggest to smallest: Taking at least one week long ‘unplugged’ vacation a year. Going to conferences or otherwise finding opportunities to step outside the day to day and get inspired. Listening to podcasts that are totally unrelated to work on my commutes. Running to great music at least a few times a week.

From Laura:

One is having physical exercise - running, biking, dancing. It helps me relieve stress. When I’m not training or physically active, I feel worse. Caveat: too much pressure training for an athletic event, like long bike ride can create its own burnout.

Another is just trying to feel good about the goal. That what I’m working so hard for is really worth it.

Something I want to try more is meditation and yoga.

From Rachel:

Right now one of the few things keeping me sane is exercise - specifically long walks or working out on the elliptical at the gym. I have to force myself though, between all the work.

Leave a comment
Fix my typos