What to Do When You’re About to Burn Out

I’m a former workaholic. Well, let me clarify. I’m a former workaholic who tends to relapse often. Since I’ve been through several burnouts myself, I’ve gotten really good at identifying when I’m about to burn out and what actions I can take immediately to prevent it.

As an entrepreneur, I love the saying “work smarter, not harder”, but I find it’s harder to practice that in real life, so I end up working harder. Working harder for a long period of time turns into burnout which is a not good situation to be in.

With the World Health Organization officially recognizing burnout as a medical diagnosis, it’s time to take burnout seriously.

When I feel I’m about to burnout, the first thing I do is try to get three full days of zero activity. And when I say zero activity, I really mean sleep. A lot of it. I know this is harder than it seems because of real-life commitments. So, here is how I do it:

1. Reschedule all meetings immediately.

I’m all for being honest on letting your colleagues and clients know why you’re rescheduling the meeting, but you have to tread carefully with them. On one hand, if you tell them you simply need time off for a vacation to relax and reflect on why you’re working so much, they might breathe a sigh of relief because they knew you were overworked.

On the other, if they didn’t know you were burnt out, it might bring up more questions that you weren’t ready to discuss. But let’s be real, chances are they know already. They can tell from your work quality, missing deadlines, etc.

Clear your schedule as soon as possible. Trust me when I say the work will be there waiting for you regardless of whether you take the meetings or not.

2. Be honest with your family that you need time to yourself.

I remember when I was burning out, and I kept telling myself I needed sleep. But because of my commitments at home and work, I kept ploughing through, never getting caught up with my sleep. Then one Friday I literally could not do a single thing. I couldn’t write emails, I couldn’t even bother to call into a status meeting that I set up.

I’m lucky enough to have an understanding spouse, and I told her directly, “I desperately need to sleep this weekend. I know we have plans, but I’m seriously in bad shape. Can you take care of the kids this weekend while I sleep?”

I never slept so much in my entire life. I don’t think I got out of my bed. It was an amazing feeling to do absolutely nothing. Again, this is easier said than done, but if you find your body about to give up on you, be as direct with your family as possible. Of course, a weekend of sleep doesn’t fix burnout forever, but it’s a great start.

3. Use the time off to sleep, read, and reflect.

Your goal is to not to get back into burnout mode again. Your goal is to figure out a sustainable plan to do your best work.

When I went through this exercise, I found out that a big reason I was burned out was that I was setting unrealistic deadlines for my work. Even though I was the one creating the deadlines, I consistently missed them. I’m a horrible planner, and so it was one of my first priorities to be better at setting deadlines for myself.

The best quote I ever heard regarding burnout is, “Don’t set yourself on fire to make someone else warm.” This quote is something I will never forget, and I remind myself of it every time I feel my body telling me something is wrong.

Burnout is a real issue and it should be treated as one.

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