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Confessions of a Burnout Junkie (And How to Avoid Becoming One)

Taryn Austgen
Taryn Austgen

May 05, 2016

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My cursor maintained its steady rhythm while I sat and stared at the blank document on my computer.

And in that moment, I finally admitted what I had been denying for weeks.

The warning signs had appeared—inability to focus, lack of excitement, feeling like a failure, my normal Pollyanna attitude turned to dark cynicism—but I had pushed through, telling myself it would be different this time.

But I couldn’t deny it any longer.

I was burned out. Again.

I felt like a failure. I had allowed myself to get burned out for probably the 10th time in 4 years.

You see, I’m a burnout junkie.

I push myself hard and attempt to do ALL THE THINGS. I succeed for a while. But after a few weeks or months, the tell-tale signs of burnout show up.

But rather than fix the problem, I ignore the warning signals and press on, thinking this time will be different.

You’ve probably heard that insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

That about sums me up. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Burnout is real and is very common for college students who have a lot on their plate. It can be tempting to just muscle your way through it, especially when you feel like you have no other option.

But speaking from more experience than I’d like to have, that’s not the best way to go about it.

So, for both you and myself, I put together this Burnout Guide of how to avoid burnout, the warning signs, and how to recover.

How to avoid burnout

The best way to recover from burnout is obviously to not get burned out in the first place. Novel thought, right? What are the best ways to do that?

Relax.

I know. Relaxing is a lot easier said than done. There’s a never-ending list of things to do, people to be with, problems to solve, and things to accomplish. But scheduling time to relax is just as important as scheduling time to study, go to work, or anything else in your busy life.

And “relaxing” doesn’t necessarily mean “veg in front of the TV” (in fact, that may not relax you at all). Take the time to think about what actually relaxes you—reading, painting, a bubble bath, playing a game, talking with a friend, going on a walk—and do that.

And don’t feel guilty about it! It’s okay to take time to recharge your batteries. You weren’t created to be “on” and producing all day, every day.

Eat well.

We all know we should eat well, but usually we think of it in terms of “I don’t want to get fat,” and not “I want to do what’s best for my brain, hormones, and emotions.” And while the old adage “you are what you eat” isn’t entirely true (I can already hear all the dad jokes about turning into a chicken when you eat a chicken), what you eat does impact more than your waistline.

Take your vitamins, eat your veggies, and slow down on the pizza. You’ll thank yourself later.

Sleep.

You know how you always feel better about a problem after sleeping on it? You just don’t think clearly when you’re tired. That’s why sleep is vitally important to preventing burnout.

And if you’re too busy to sleep, that’s a huge warning sign that you’re probably doing too much. Cut out some things and take care of yourself! Your body was created to need sleep.

Know what energizes you.

Not only do you need to know what relaxes you, you also need to know what energizes you. Make a list to consult when you need it. Otherwise you’ll spend hours letting Netflix autoplay do its thing and not actually feel better afterwards.

Do you feel like you can do anything after you go on a hike? Write that down! Does talking to your best friend/coach/accountability partner keep you going? Add it to the list. Are you inspired and excited about life when you have a canvas and paint at your fingertips? Put it on there.

Don’t get stuck in an “I don’t know what to do” rut. Have a go-to list that makes decision-making easier.

Tell-tale signs of burnout

Avoiding burnout is obviously the best. But if you’re a burnout junkie like me, you blew right past preventative because preventative is for wussies (or wise people, buuuuutt, we won’t let ourselves admit that) and you’re already in a burnout spiral. Burnout comes in many different ways, but here are some of the signs:

  • Forgetfulness
  • Lack of concentration
  • Lack of productivity
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Increased irritability
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Increased illness
  • Loss of enjoyment
  • Pessimism
  • Isolation
  • Detachment
  • Physical pain

While I experience many of these in varying degrees, the biggest ones for me are forgetfulness, lack of concentration, pessimism, and lack of productivity. Those lead to feelings of failure and the need to try harder which causes me to circle further down in the burnout spiral. I know I’m not alone…

How to recover from burnout

“I’m definitely burned out, Taryn. What I need to know is how to fix it. Like, yesterday!”

I hear ya.

I wish I could tell you to sleep 10 hours each night over the weekend, eat 4oz of brussel sprouts, go on a hike, and you’ll be well Monday morning. But unfortunately, it’s not a one-size-fits-all fix. And it’s not an overnight (or over-weekend) process.

But with some intentionality, you can get back to normal. (And once you do, refer to the above section about how to prevent it the next time. Don’t get caught in the insanity loop!) Here are some tips to get you started.

  • Look at your life. What is on your plate? What is stressing you out? Write it down. Just writing it out takes half the stress away simply because it’s not swirling in your head anymore and feels more manageable. Plus then you can take a good look at it (see next step).
  • Reduce stress. Look at your list. What can be eliminated? And before you say, “nothing! That’s why I’m sooooo stressssssed!!” actually take some time to consider what you can realistically change. Be honest with yourself. Get creative, delegate tasks, lower your standards for yourself a little bit (do you really have to make 3 pies for the potluck on Sunday or will 1 work?), and purge your schedule.
  • Say no. This is hard to do. But it’s a necessary skill to learn and essential when it comes to recovering from burnout. Instead of instantly saying “yes” to every request that comes your way, get in the habit of saying “no.” A good rule of thumb: if it’s not a definite “yes,” it’s a definite “no.”
  • Give yourself a break. Literally. If you’re constantly rushing from one thing to the next, you’re booking yourself a little too tight. (If more than half of your meals have been skipped, eaten in the car, or consumed standing up, I’m talking to you.) Schedule time to take it slow, relax, or just stop and reflect.
  • Unplug. Close your laptop, shut off your phone, and power down your tablet. Take a break from all the things fighting for your attention and focus on one thing instead, even if it’s just for a 15 minutes. Your brain will thank you.
  • Socialize. Get out. Stop being so focused on productivity and just go out and have some fun for the sake of having fun. Spend time with friends and enjoy life.
  • Set start and stop times. Whether it’s school or a job, have set times that you work on those things and then stop. Don’t take work home with you or let your college classes creep into every aspect of your life. Set boundaries with your time (and location, if applicable) and then stick to them.
  • Accountability. Sometimes you just need those friends who will come alongside you and help. The ones who will ask you the hard questions about what you’re doing and if you’re taking care of yourself. I have four close friends who are awesome at calling me out and making sure I’m doing what I should. They’re invaluable to me.

Burnout doesn’t have to be a constant cycle. With some intentionality and awareness, you can prevent it and thrive in school, work, and life.

Have you ever been burned out? How did you recover?

Taryn Austgen
Taryn Austgen

Taryn is a lover of learning, great literature, a Capella music, writing, and singing and dancing wherever she goes. A California girl at heart, she now calls Texas home.

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