Confession — right now I’m standing at a crossroads with a minor case of the burnout blues. It’s foggy, and I know in one direction lies the dark woods of melancholy and depression, and in the other direction lies sunny fields of possibility, where goals seem meaningful and effort seems desirable.
So I’m writing this post as much for me right right now as for any reader who stumbles across it someday in the future. This post attempts to work through what to do when you arrive at this crossroads. How do you point yourself in the right direction?
Feelings are Messengers
I think of the burnout blues as being a twofer — two lousy feelings with one catchy name. One is the feeling of exhaustion and depletion, using up more energy than you have available, and one is the feeling of being blue, of being melancholy, where you question whether anything you do has a point.
I keep coming back to this idea that feelings are messengers. Unpleasant feelings like the burnout blues don’t mean that something is massively wrong and my entire life needs to change; everyone has feelings they don’t enjoy from time to time. Maybe what I need to do is investigate my feelings with an open curiosity, and sort through why they may have arisen. Then I can figure out the most healing actions I can take.
Burnout Blues – Handling Burnout
I know why I’m feeling a little burned out right now — I was putting a lot of effort into creating a photography course, and the videography and video-editing is kicking my butt. Plus, I just led my first online mindful photography workshop for a small group. Both of these projects required me to step out of my comfort zone and be visible, and to learn new technologies.
Now that the workshop is finished and Week 4 of the photography class doesn’t need to go up for 5 more days, the energy house of cards I built with caffeine and adrenaline has collapsed.
Solution – Physical Rest
It seems pretty clear that rest is the only solution. Physical rest, and mental rest. To many of you, physical rest may seem like an obvious revelation, but it’s not obvious to everyone! There were many decades when I prided myself for my ability to work through anything, to handle any level of pressure, to get the job done no matter what. And I kind of believed the amount of sleep you needed was a function of your mental strength.
I don’t know if it’s getting older that made me reassess that belief, or if it’s just me having kinder, gentler role models who are showing me a better way to be in the world.
But regardless, I now believe in the restorative power of a good night’s sleep. And science backs this up too! According to the NIH, sleep is vital to our wellbeing, servicing our bodies at a molecular level, as well as being necessary for energy, brain function, and mood.
Solution – Mental Rest
Rest is more than sleep, however. Rest is a detachment from your work, whatever that is, AND building a little space into your day where your brain doesn’t have to be on duty, thinking about what needs to be done and using mental labor. Detachment from the computer, giving your thinking mind a break, coming into the present moment, allowing yourself to enjoy life as it unfolds moment by moment.
In today’s wired 24/7, work-from-home, gig/side hustle economy, the idea of a day of rest is completely strange! But even thousands of years ago when the pace of life was far less frenetic than today, the wisdom of a day of rest was important (all religions have traditions of rest — even God took a day of rest!).
I took today off partially, but I’m clearing my calendar on Sunday — no work, no video editing, no computer. And I’m going to fill the day sponaneously, finding easy activities that recharge my energy levels. I love walking by the river. I love practicing mindful photography. I love connecting and spending time with cherished friends and family.
Burnout Blues – Handling the Blues
Melancholy is a little more complicated. These are feelings of “What’s the point?” “What’s the use?” “Why bother?”
Echoes of the Past
There have been times in my life when I’ve felt pretty down, and in childhood and adolescence I developed some pretty unhealthy ways of viewing myself and my relationship to the world. When my internal dialogue becomes the language of absolutes (worst, terrible, etc…). those excesses alert me that my thoughts might be echoes of the past, unhelpful patterns of thinking and processing the world that reassert themselves when I’m tired and let my guard down.
It is possible that some of my projects and goals need adjustment or realignment, but it’s never a good time to do that when one is physically tired or emotionally tender.
Solution – Be Kind to Myself
I think one of the most important things to do during this time is to monitor my internal talk and be kind to myself. Whatever I am beating myself up for, I just try to respond, “It’s okay, it will be okay.” Long winded, logical explanations are completely impotent in the face of burnout blues. In a way it’s like I’m reaching back through time, giving those feelings what they needed so many decades ago — reassurance.
If I start telling myself all of the things I should have done, I try to respond to that by reframing it as an action I’ll take next time. I literally cannot rewrite the past. Marie Forleo uses a catchy phrase in her book “Everything is Figureoutable“: “I win or I learn, I never lose“. And I love that, reframing what wasn’t successful as an opportunity to learn.
Another important strategy is trying to find some nourishing and healing activities I can do.
Healing Activities for the Burnout Blues
The key is to find an activity that feels relatively effortless AND that your future self will be okay with. Sitting on the sofa binge watching TV with a bag of Hershey’s kisses or a container of Talenti gelato, for example, would be effortless and make me feel good in the short term, but I’ll eventually feel worse.
These are some of the activities I like to do:
- Time in Nature. A Forest Bath. In fact, I took one earlier today, a two hour walk in the woods. I know that sometimes this seems like too much work! But what about even going into the yard. Beginning to sort through the winter debris, turning the soil, getting ready for the spring parade of flowers. Or pruning some bushes and trees, or emptying out my pots so they’ll be ready for plants.
- Demonstrate Personal Agency. Sometimes taking a very small baby step that has immediate results can lift my spirits. Clean out a junk drawer. Darn your socks. Go through your bookshelves. Vacuum or sweep your floors. Go through your spice rack. True story: my college aged son and I went through my spices last fall (I needed him to see the expiration dates) and there were some spices that were older than he was!
- Play. Whatever this means to you! Painting is my go-to right now.
- A Mindful Photowalk. Slowing down, getting into the present moment, and taking some pictures!
- A Drive. I like to play show tunes and sing along loudly and badly.
- Connect With Someone. Who is in your corner? Who can you call that you haven’t talked to in a while?
- Do Slow Things. Modern society has sped everything up! Make a yeast bread that you have to knead. Darn some socks. Make some candles or soap. Paint an old piece of furniture that you’ve been thinking about getting rid of. Write by hand instead of type – perhaps send someone a letter!
So I’ve been working on this article all day, and now that it’s near the end, I’m feeling better. I began the day at the crossroads, but I figured out which road to take. I expect to feel much better in a day or two. And once I do, I want to think about how to build routines around the nourishing things in my life.
And I want to pay attention to and document the energy draining activities I do, and figure out if its possible to limit them. Facebook was a huge energy drain for me, and I no longer have a personal presence on that platform (although I still have a business page).
And finally, I want to start tracking my moods in my calendar, and notice if there’s a pattern to them.
I don’t have any illusions of eliminating the burnout blues from my life. Maybe the burnout blues are just the price of challenging yourself and trying to figure out how live a meaningful life. It’s impossible to do everything perfectly. My objective is to create a good plan for tending to myself when I pass this way again so that I can reorient myself and send myself back into my life.
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