Feeling burned out? Here’s what you should do next…
Contributor Simi Juriasingani
“I’m tired… all the time.”
“No matter how hard I work, I’ll never catch up.”
“I don’t even care anymore. I just want to go home.”
During undergrad, at some point or another, we’ve all said something similar to the statements above. Almost all of us have or will experience burnout during our lifetime. Burnout looks different for each person, but for most people it manifests as some combination of consistently lacking energy, lacking motivation, feeling overwhelmed and feeling exhausted.
It’s important to be aware of what your normal is, so that you can identify burnout when you experience it. Once you’ve determined that you are feeling burned out, reflect on what has contributed to it. Does your workload feel manageable? Are you lacking motivation to get through your to-do list? Are you sleeping enough?
Unfortunately, sometimes we need to work hard despite feeling burned out. We simply can’t hit pause on life and avoid the deadlines that are waiting for us. If you find yourself in such a situation, here are some immediate steps to manage burnout:
1) Take a break to do something you enjoy.
If you focus on something for too long, it’ll drain your energy and make you feel exhausted. Burnout is a result of a relentless cycle of doing the same things or experiencing the same emotions. One strategy to reduce feelings of burnout immediately is to take a break and do something you enjoy for a short period of time. Whether you like to sing or go for a run, doing something fun can drastically improve your mood and reduce your stress levels. It will also make it easier to go back to doing what you need to do, so that you can meet your deadlines.
2) Reward yourself for meeting your deadlines.
This strategy is an extension of Step #1. In addition to taking a break by doing something fun, pick something you like to do/eat/have and set it as a reward for finishing major tasks. When I was an undergrad and I just finished major essays or lab reports, I would injudge myself with my favourite treat, a Starbucks cafe mocha. The reward serves as motivation to get through your to-do list while your intrinsic drive is lacking, and it’ll help you trick your brain into starting and finishing tasks faster.
3) Get a few nights of consistently good sleep.
You may have heard the saying, “There’s nothing that can’t be fixed after a good night’s sleep.” One of the leading causes of burnout and exhaustion is a lack of sleep. While all-nighters are necessary sometimes, a few nights of consistently good sleep (i.e. 6-8 hours) can reduce your stress, and improve your mood and energy levels. If you find that you are tired all the time and you can’t get any work done despite working for hours, try getting some consistent sleep because it’ll help you manage your burnout.
4) Find inspiration and get motivated.
Oftentimes, burnout is caused by an accumulation of short term stressors that limit your ability to keep the big picture in focus. When you wake up exhausted or unmotivated day after day, break the cycle! Steps 1-3 will help you break the cycle physically, but it’s also important to get your mind back on track. Thinking about your long term goals, speaking to a mentor or listening to a podcast featuring someone inspirational can help you get motivated again. If you’re looking for some sources of inspiration, check out podcasts by Jay Shetty (https://jayshetty.me/podcast/) and Tom Bilyeu (https://impacttheory.com/episodes/).
5) Know your options and do what’s best for you.
Currently, there’s a lot of pressure on students to do everything simultaneously (study, work, volunteer, etc.). But when you’re stressed and your workload feels unmanageable, know your options and don’t be afraid to do what’s best for you. If you’re overwhelmed with studying for 4 midterms, consider using one of your self-reported absences. If you’re sick, get a doctor’s note and get your exam moved. Make your wellbeing a priority because your health will serve you a lot more than your degree will.
The steps described above will help you deal with burnout in the short run. However, the goal with any problem is to solve it for good, so here are some steps to avoid burnout in the long run:
1) Be proactive in identifying signs of burnout.
The first step to avoiding burnout in the long run is identifying the signs that show up before it happens. One of my friends said that she couldn’t sleep well, despite going to bed early, in the weeks leading up to the realization that she was burned out. Over time I’ve discovered that I feel a sense of detachment from my life due to exhaustion before I realize I’m burned out. Each person experiences burnout differently, so it’s important to learn your body and mind’s signals leading up to burnout to prevent it.
2) Create a work-life balance.
Sometimes it’s impossible to live a balanced life. However, incorporating good sleep, regular exercise and quality time with friends and family into your routine alongside work will help prevent burnout. If you have activities other than work or school to look forward to, the stressors associated with those aspects of your life won’t impact you as much as they otherwise would. It’s OK if you have a busy week at work or if you don’t see your friends for a while because of exams. However, if you find that you’ve deviated away from your ideal work-life balance for too long, focus on re-establishing it as soon as you can.
3) Identify and work on the habits that contribute to your burnout.
We all have tendencies that can drive us nuts sometimes. Habits such as perfectionism, overthinking or working on something for long periods of time can contribute to burnout. For example, I tend to overthink my professional decisions and my interactions with others.This can cause a lot of unnecessary stress. To change this habit, I find other tasks to do when I recognize that I’m overthinking or when my friends point it out to me. To avoid burnout in the long run, it’s important to recognize and change the habits that contribute to your burnout.
When I look back at my undergrad experience, I ended up in tears way more than I should have. Self-reported absences didn’t exist then, but I wouldn’t get exams moved even when I was very sick, which wasn’t a bright decision in hindsight. As a grad student, I still experience burnout sometimes, but I know the signs and have gotten better at preventing it through the tips I’ve described above.
The bottom line is: experiencing burnout is normal. But it is possible to recognize, manage and avoid feeling burnout through self-awareness, reflection and action. I hope these tips help you overcome and avoid burnout as we approach exam season.