No exaggeration, the past six months have been the most exhausting months of my entire adult life.
I feel like I’ve aged three years in only half a year.
The funny thing is, nothing actually “bad” or “terrible” happened.
The reasons for my exhaustion are mostly good.
And while I can’t go exactly into what made me so fatigued (not yet, anyway; I’ll do a longer series of posts on that topic in the future), trust me when I say that even good things can drain you, tax you, and eventually burn you out.
So, what does burnout feel like?
And how can you prevent it from happening?
I don’t claim to have all the answers…but I can show you what I’ve done to prevent burnout and recover from it.
It starts by burning the candle at both ends
When my wife and I were in our early to mid-20s we would typically go to 30-35 concerts per year.
One music festival in particular went for 3-4 days.
We would stay up super late, drink way too much, and sleep far too little.
My wife’s father would always condescendingly laugh at us and say we were “burning the candle at both ends.”
That’s a fair analogy.
If you’re not sleeping much, and at the same time expending a lot of energy (and not to mention, filling yourself with alcohol, which is effectively a poison), then your body has no time to recover.
Eventually you’re going to burn yourself out…but being tired alone is not sufficient to create burnout.
Being tired vs. burned out
Burning a candle at both ends implies there is a wick at both poles of the candle.
Both wicks are lit simultaneously, and then the candle burns towards the center, eventually exhausting itself (as the image at the top of the previous section shows).
This analogy implies that burning a candle at both ends is actually a slow progression — it takes time for the burning wicks to meet in the center.
If you’re paying even a small amount of attention to your work hours and stress levels you can extinguish one or both ends of the candle, allowing your body and mind time to recover.
When you burn your candle at both ends:
- You feel tired
- You have trouble concentrating
- You notice tasks that would normally be easy for you require far more effort than they otherwise would
- You body struggles to recover from physical exercise (i.e., you’re sore and tired the next day from what otherwise would have been a simple workout)
But being tired, having trouble concentrating, and struggling to recover from physical exertion is not burnout.
Burnout is something far, far more insidious.
What does burnout feel like?
The following list enumerates the progression from “tired” to “burnout”:
- Feeling tired is what happens when you burn your candle at both ends
- Feeling rundown happens when both wicks of the candle meet and the flame extinguishes
- Feeling listless and depressed is what happens when you take poor, insufficient rest after you are rundown, leaving you with a new candlestick just a quarter in length
- And burnout is what happens when you light that shorter candlestick on both ends and place a blowtorch underneath it
Here’s how I would define burnout:
Eventually, your candle is going to become so small that even a small lick of flame from a blowtorch will melt it to its very atoms.
Burnout is like placing a blowtorch under a candlestick lit at both ends
Burnout is more than just burning a candle at both ends.
It’s the burning of your soul.
When experiencing burnout, you feel like your candle is not only burning at both ends, but also underneath, lengthwise, as well.
That blowtorch causes the wax to melt far faster than what the fire on the poles of the candle can accomplish.
And in a very short period of time, the candle is gone.
Even the flames on both ends.
All of it.
I felt burned out recently
As I mentioned, the past six months have been the most chaotic, exhausting, thrilling, depressing, happy, and exuberant time of my life.
I have never experienced such a juxtaposition of emotions.
And like I said at the beginning of this post, the reasons for my exhaustion levels were predominately good.
Most people talk about burnout in the context of negative circumstances, including work and/or personal tasks piling up, grinding harder than ever, but finding their wheels spinning and failing to gain enough traction to get them out of the rut they are in.
The most insidious part of burnout is that it can happen even when 90% of your life is going well; if you are overworked and aren’t allowing yourself proper time to recover (both mentally and physically), you will eventually burnout.
You can run but you can’t hide from burnout.
And funny enough, the more you run, the more you exert yourself, and the faster you burn out.
When your fight or flight response kicks in with burnout, it’s best to turn and face the monster — running is only going to make it worse.
Are you feeling burnt out?
According to a recent study in Forbes, over 52% of survey respondents reported feeling burned out (that’s an increase from 47% from pre-COVID times).
Millennials are specifically affected — 59% reported feeling burned out (again, up from 53% during pre-COVID).
What’s really concerning about millennials (which includes me) is that they are more of a “reclusive” generation. It can be really hard to recover from burnout without a good, supportive social group.
Burnout is an inevitability for high performers…but you can catch it early
For many (all?) high performers, burnout is an inevitability.
Part of what makes you so effective in the world is because you care so damn much.
That level of caring allows you to accomplish far more than the average person:
- You put in the extra hours
- You train during the “offseason”
- And most importantly, you derive joy from what you do
What others think of as “work” you think as “fun”. It’s that edge that makes you so effective.
Some people will even think of you as a superhero for your strengths of willpower and discipline.
However…you are only human.
And burnout will catch up with you…eventually.
I’ve felt extremely burned out twice in my life.
The first time was towards the end of my grad school career. I had completed the entire PhD program — coursework, research, writing a dissertation, and defense — in 3.5 years.
I was able to accomplish such a feat because I cared tremendously at the task at hand and poured my heart and soul into it.
As Friedrich Nietzsche said:
He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.Friedrich Nietzsche
But…that level of exertion for prolonged periods of time took a toll on me.
The same can be said of my experiences of the past 3-6 months.
It was an incredibly good, productive time…but I was also tired in ways that I had never felt before.
The trick is to catch it early so you can get in front of it and reduce the negative impacts it has on your life.
Catching burnout early requires that you be in touch with your mind/body connection.
Once a month you should set aside one hour, go to a coffee shop (or somewhere else quiet and comfortable), and bring only your pen and notebook — anything cellular or WiFi-enabled is strictly prohibited.
From there, open up your notebook and start stream of consciousness journaling.
Don’t stop to edit typos or grammar mistakes.
Don’t edit yourself.
Don’t hold back.
Just fucking write and get all your emotions, struggles, and thoughts out on paper.
Then, a few days later, review it with an open mind.
If you are starting to feel burned out you’ll notice:
- Way more negative emotions in your writing than positive ones
- You’ll see clues about your energy levels
- And maybe you’ll even notice your passion for your work waning
Those are early warning signs.
And if you detect them, start planning a vacation for 1-2 weeks, free from distraction (and again, ideally, from anything with a screen or cellular/WiFi connection) so you can truly recover.
Remember, recovery requires discipline
While many high performers (such as yourself) have discipline to execute, many don’t have the discipline to allow themselves to recover.
Why is it so hard?
Well, for one, it “feels” like we aren’t “doing anything”.
I fill my day with productive exercises, from work tasks, to personal errands, to body/mind refreshing todos, like meditating and hitting the sauna.
I’ve programmed myself to be efficient, and as a result, I get a lot done in a single 24-hour timespan.
However, when burnout kicks in, I know it’s time to “deprogram myself”.
I need to disconnect from the daily grind and loosen the reins on my schedule and todo list.
It’s easier said than done.
And in fact, if there is any area of my life that I want to improve upon, it’s my ability to recover — it’s something that I continually practice.
How I got out of the burnout hole
The following list is what worked for me.
It may or may not not work for you, but it should at least give you a starting point.
- Don’t work afternoons. Get your work done in the morning and then sign off before lunch. I’m typically online and working by 5AM. That means by 11:30AM I’m done for the day, no exceptions. Your work will be there for you tomorrow, I promise you (and the world won’t collapse if you don’t get everything done today).
- Meditate daily. At least 10 minutes. I like the Calm app.
- Get quality sleep. Aim for 2 hours of REM and 1.5 hors of deep sleep per night. I like the rule of “9 to make 8”. If you lay in bed for 9 hours, typically you’ll get 8 hours of sleep.
- Reduce caffeine intake. Caffeine is a stimulant and can do amazing things when your body is rested and focused. But when you’re burned out, all caffeine does is increase your heart rate, lower your HRV, and increase your stress levels. Try cutting your caffeine intake to 50% of what it was pre-burnout. I know, that sucks. But it makes a huge difference.
- Reduce the intensity of your workout regiment (but still workout with regular cadence). Burnout disrupts your mind/body connection, and you need to rebuild it. That means you should still workout, but you need to dial back the intensity of it.
- Remove alcohol. In fact, this is just generally good life advice. Alcohol is a poison. Three years ago I effectively stopped drinking. I may have a beer or two with friends now and then, but for all intents and purposes, I don’t drink. I regard it was one of the best life decisions I’ve ever made.
- Start gratitude journaling (if you haven’t already). This is one of the single best life practices you can do. Every morning, ideally as soon as you get out of bed, write down 3-5 things you are grateful for in your life. Burnout undermines the positivity in your life. Gratitude journaling can bring back those positive things to the forefront of your mind. Even if you’re burned out, be grateful, you’re still alive.
- Go to your primary care doctor and get a blood panel done. Burnout messes with your hormones and protein levels. It’s particularly bad in men — your free and total testosterone levels could drop if you’re feeling really burned out for extended periods of time. Get your blood analyzed so you can identify what compounds are missing, and therefore what supplements you should take to help you recover from burnout.
- Read. Turn off the TV. Pick up a book, ideally nonfiction, that is outside your area of expertise. Reading content outside your area of expertise will help you identify new patterns in life, give you new ideas, ignite your brain, and invigorate the passion that lives inside you.
- Accept you have limitations. Truly, I am awful at this one, so I feel bad even adding it, but it’s so true that I need to include it. You are only human and you do have limitations — you can’t operate like a superhero 100% of the time. Give yourself some slack, and most importantly, give yourself permission to recover.
Have you dealt with burnout before?
Burnout is a massive, sensitive topic that no single blog post could possibly cover.
I’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg — there’s a lot more than I can (and will) write about burnout in the future.
That said, if you’ve dealt with burnout before, leave a message in the comments section of this post with your own suggested burnout proofing and burnout recovery tips.
Want coaching to help get out of the burnout rut?
I know what it feels like to be burned out.
And I know how to get out of it.
Need some help?