Jennifer C Vigil

Overcoming burnout

Time for a change? How to overcome burnout

Burnout happens but you can overcome it and learn how to avoid it in the future. Burnout doesn’t have to be inevitable. Live your best life now.

Are you burnt out from a career that you were once amazingly passionate about? You know, the one that was your dream job and that you were excited to go to each day. You loved the work, it challenged you. Your colleagues are great but lately, even your work BFF is annoying you. You used to enjoy it all, but lately, “you’ve lost that lovin’ feeling”. Maybe you are even considering a job or career change.

What do you do when you are burned out from a job you love, your dream job or even a job that was once rewarding that now leaves you watching the clock, longing for the weekend and dreading Mondays?

How do you distinguish between burn out and when it is time to make a change?

Is this an existential crisis or something survivable?

If you are thinking, “how did you know?” then you are not alone.

And how do you bounce back from burnout?

the causes of burnout

the number 1 cause of burnout

Isn’t funny how being “busy” is the new badge of honor in the US. People “brag” about working 60-80 + hours a week. Oh, I know that you are thinking, “I don’t brag about working long hours. I’m complaining.” No your not, you are humble bragging about either being a martyr to your job or you want people to be impressed with how dedicated you are. You aren’t a superhero for working all those hours. You are just setting yourself up for burnout and a mid-life crisis.

Here’s the thing. We (read Americans) think that if we only work 40 hours a week that we aren’t really committed, that we won’t get the promotion, the raise, the good annual review. And let’s face it, to some extent that philosophy exists on both sides of the employment relationship. Often bosses fall prey to the same “busy” facade, the idea that the more hours you work, the more dedicated you are and the more productive you are. That is one of the biggest productivity myths.

The truth is that we lose our productivity after a certain point in time. Those extra 10-40 hrs/ a week over our 40-hour base aren’t really our best. And the reason they aren’t is that we need a break.

Our brains need a break to be able to function and to come up with juicy new ideas. You know the ones that come to us when we are walking the dog or running on the treadmill at the gym.

Our brains can’t sustain prolonged focus. I know that when I don’t put a time limit on a task (say 30 minutes to write the first draft of a blog post), the draft will take me all day. The same for packing for an upcoming trip. If I set a timer and say it must be done in 30-45 minutes, surprise it gets done in that time. When I don’t, it morphs into an hours-long project (accompanied by catching up on the latest Netflix releases).

Let’s face it. Our projects are like goldfish that grow to the size of the time/ tank that it is given. The more time you allow the more it will take.

At work, this is the same. You know that you can crank it out if given a deadline, but when we don’t have a deadline we are inefficient. I know. You’re thinking, “Hey, I can’t sustain deadline intensity long-term.” Well, that isn’t what I am saying.

I’m suggesting that instead of staying in the office, at the computer, or in your studio for hours on end, that you take breaks. That you set timers and tell yourself that you will focus for the next 30 minutes on the task at hand. And when that timer goes off, you reward yourself with a break. Get up. Walk around.

I love to take Just Dance breaks every 50 minutes. And if you don’t know what that is you are missing out 🙂 It is an old school Wii game (there are updated versions of the game for new gaming systems) where you dance along with the people on the screen and you get points for how well you follow the dance moves. I will do one or two songs and then go back to work.

Commit to working 40 hours a week and stop all the extra overtime. Unless you are truly dealing with a live or die deadline, it isn’t critical for you to work so many hours. And remember that your productivity declines over time during the day.

When you make room for R & R in your day, you give your subconscious time to percolate. It is like your hard drive or an app on your phone. Your brain processes in the background working on problems and coming up with unique new solutions but only if you take a break from actively focusing on the task. A watched pot never boils.

community matters

Who we work with really does matter. Having negative, toxic or even worse, ambivalent colleagues can lead to burnout and ultimately to a loss of job satisfaction. We crave connection with others even at work. Why else would every office sitcom have that one character that is all alone, the outcast from the group, the clique?

Employers understand that “work culture” is important and having employees that fit into that culture makes a difference. Work culture is more than just a business’ mission and values, it is about the “vibe” of the place and the community of people that work there.

What is your current employment’s “work culture” like?

Do you feel like you fit into it?

Do you like the people you work with? You don’t have to like all of them but do you have a few people that you look forward to seeing and working with. Having a good cohort at work makes even the most mundane jobs enjoyable.

Rare is the job without one jerk. You know that person, the one who is toxic or backstabbing. If s/he is your boss and you find it unbearable to work with them, transfer departments or start looking for a new job. Life is too short and it is highly unlikely that you will be able to change them. Once you have a new position, you can resign with a smile on your face.

If you work with a Negative Nelly or horror, a group of them, perhaps a change of scenery is in order. First, you can try to shift them by changing the subject when they complain or you can take the direct approach and tell them you are giving up complaining because of the article you read that shows complaining is bad for your health and makes you dumber. Ask them to join you on a complaint fast. But if one must complain, consider this article on how to focus on change, not just criticism. If you can’t curb the complaining or complainers at work, see if you can move to a different team or consider another job.

Do you fear that you are the office complainer?  Read the articles linked in the last paragraph. If that doesn’t motivate you to change, consider the impact you may be having on your coworkers. You’d be surprised at how positivity begets more positivity. Be that person that everyone is delighted to see each day. Suggestions on how to be that person:

  • Show gratitude. Thank your colleagues and acknowledge their work. Be grateful for the good things big and small that happen at work and share those observations with others. It will help them to start seeing things they can be grateful for too.
  • Remember people’s birthdays and important dates. I know we all hate the forced office birthday celebrations, the cake, the group card. . .but remember that for some people this may be the only acknowledgment of their birthday.
  • Random acts of kindness. What little nice things can you do for others? A compliment? Bringing them a cup of coffee when you go get one for yourself. Little things matter. Think of what would make you smile if someone did it for you.
  • Baked goods. Never underestimate the power of pastry. Bringing someone some muffins, a cupcake, donut, cookies or sweet bread can brighten their day. Even better if they have a food issue like gluten sensitivity and you find a special treat that they can eat. Now don’t go sabotaging anyone’s diet but a little treat even a healthy one shows you care.

Having worked in academia as a university professor in the humanities (can we say no money), everyone was overworked, underpaid and underappreciated. Instead of trying to make it better for each other, many people just complained and fought with others. It was amazing how just being kind towards others, acknowledging their accomplishments and showing gratitude when they helped me made such a difference for us all. I know, I have heard it before, “But no one appreciates me. Why should I send them a congratulatory email or bring them cookies?” It has to start somewhere. Crabbiness begets crabbiness. Joy and kindness beget more joy and kindness.

A quick note on ambivalent relationships. They are those people who we aren’t sure if they like us or not. We are constantly vacillating between feeling like we like them/ they like us and thinking that we did something wrong/ they don’t like us. Ambivalent relationships are worse than toxic ones because we are always uncertain and off-balance in regards to that person.

Toxic is easy. We know what it is. We know we don’t like it or want it. And we can avoid it. Ambivalent is hard. At work, it can be even harder to negotiate because if you were with a group of people who you are never sure where you stand with them, it is draining and exhausting. In your personal life, let those relationships drift into oblivion. At work, if you can’t change your situation, just make a decision to put them in the “no” column.

So how do I know if I am just burnt out or if it is time for me to move on?

Try these suggestions for a month or two and if you don’t see an improvement, consider the actions in the next section.

step 1: Step back from the crazy schedule

Commit to working only 40 hrs/ wk for the next month. If you work for yourself, commit to 4-6 hours max a day of focused work and then use the remaining time for planning, office tasks, and preparing for the next day. If you are working on a creative project, you may find that you can only handle 4 hrs of concentrated work a day.

step 2: Making a plan for your day

Set up push sequences aka work sprints of 30-50 min blocks with 5-20 min breaks. The longer your sprint block is the longer your break should be. When you are done for the day, prepare for tomorrow.

  • Lay out what you need to get started right away. If it is office work, get the file out or have it open on your computer.
  • Make notes on what you need to do next and put everything you need out. If you are a writer or an artist, the same routine applies. Leave a note on your painting on what you need to do next. Get the materials ready.
  • Clean up your space (this applies to office work to) and put away things you don’t need.
  • Eliminate any busy work that would keep you from picking up where you left off.

Having a clear plan for starting the next day will help you avoid the indecision loop that plagues us most days. It also makes it easier to not get sidetracked by email, to-do lists or requests from others. Why? Because you are making the decision on what is the most important next step when you’re in the thick of it. You are able to get your mojo flowing right out of the gate the next day.

step 3: leave work for the day

Now that you have tomorrow’s plan made, it is time to close the door on the day’s work. Easier said than done! I know! But leave it you must.

  • Stop thinking about work. Your job now is to recharge and relax. If you don’t remember how to do this, well now is the time to get to know yourself again.
  • Don’t check work email or texts. If you have one of those jobs that require you to be always available, see if you can set limits on that. Maybe let people know that you will check once an hour. Train people to only reach out to you if it is a true emergency because really, most things can wait until you are back in the office the next morning.
  • Move your body. I find that moving my body does wonders for recharging my soul. Time in nature is the best. If you can go for a walk in a park or go hiking you will get a double dose of soul charging energy–movement and nature love. Our bodies crave connections with nature. The Japanese understand this and it is why forest bathing, shinrin-yoku, is so popular there. Nature heals our mind and body. It lowers our blood pressure, calms us, and inspires us.
  • Find a hobby. Do you have any hobbies? Is there something that brings you joy? Do it. Now here is one for the creatives out there. You are not to do a variation of the same creative work. It is fine to leave the painting studio and then knit but to jump into going to do watercolor or sketching is really more of the same. The idea is to give your brain a rest from your primary work. Ideally, do something completely opposite of your daily work. If you are a creative, explore something more left brain. If you are a left-brain person who is dealing with analytical tasks all day, dance with your creative side. Take a cooking class. Learn an instrument. Tap into something outside of your norm.

take stock

If after 2-3 months of making these changes you are still feeling burned-out or not sure about whether you need a big change, it is time to take stock.

It is time to get some perspective.

I find that getting away is the easiest way for me to get some perspective. Being out of my usual routine and familiar routine helps me see things more clearly. I often find inspiration and sparks of ideas that make me charged up and excited to return home and get working.

Many people rack up vacation days that they never use, hoarding them like gold saving them for a rainy day.

Use your vacation days! 

Short and long breaks away can help you get clarity on what is most important, help you recharge, and keep you healthy.

I take 3 retreats each year. This might seem like a lot but really it is just the right medicine for my soul.

I am part of an artists’ mastermind group of about 12 people. We have video calls twice a month. This is my lifeline. Twice a year we meet in person for a 4-day weekend retreat (two full days of retreat and two half days which are our travel days). Being together in person, setting aside an extended time to focus on one theme moves us all closer to our goals. We leave feeling closer to each other, inspired, and eager to take on the projects we just mapped out. Most of all, we are energized and connected. We feel less alone and are buoyed by knowing that the others are dealing with the same issues we are. It is also powerful to have a group of people who are there to cheer our successes too.

But what to do if you don’t have this kind of group.

Make your own. The reason I have this group is that it was important to me. We all met as part of a group coaching program. I didn’t want to lose this so I agreed to keep organizing our monthly calls. I volunteer my time to do the administration side of it so that I can have these talented, like-minded artists in my life. We are in our third year and still going strong. The core group is still involved. Sure, we have some others who have come and gone but our core 10 people show up regularly on video calls and 8 of us make it in person o the retreats.

Does the thought of where to begin creating a community leave you overwhelmed and at a loss of where to start?  Are you more of an introvert who prefers more intimate groups and is horrified with the thought of trying to find people? No worries. I recognized a while ago that not everyone has this in their life and often don’t know where to start to build it. I realized that I am great at organizing and planning and I love meeting new people. Connecting with others and helping them bui

So I wanted to create an opportunity for others to connect, channel their creativity, recharge, and be inspired. And that is where my annual Ignite Your Creative Potential retreat to Florence, Italy emerged. It is an opportunity for me to bring together a group of like-minded people who want to take a break from their daily routines and reconnect with their creative impulses, to take stock of where they are at, to get inspired and to return home refreshed and recharged.

If you are ready to take a break, recharge and be inspired, join me for 7 days in Florence, Italy Oct. 13 – 20, 2020. The birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence is the perfect place to spend a week with a small group of like-minded people exploring the work of the Italian Renaissance masters. Adventures for all the senses–cooking class, tours of museums, learn about how to jumpstart your creativity, lots of fresh pasta and gelato and so much more. . .

Registration is open. Learn more.

Remember with a little forethought and self-care, you can keep burnout at bay AND live a happier life.


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