Burnout

Burnout. Spending hours just staring into space when you’re supposed to be doing work, when you want to be doing work. Feeling foggy-headed and grey the whole time when you usually feel eager and excitable. Menial tasks are just about manageable, but anything requiring careful consideration or creative thinking feels impossible. I sleep but I still feel tired.

I’m burned out. The last couple of months have really taken their toll. I tend to always be on top of my work schedule, ensuring I don’t work late into the evenings or weekends on client work, as I know I need time away from the screen to spend on my social life and my health. However, due to some client work getting out of hand, over-optimism with scheduling, and a talk at Responsive Day Out (speaking is always exhausting), I got through the mad rush and just couldn’t do any more.

Adam Onishi has spoken extensively about burnout, and I know I’ve got it lucky. Burnout can be a bad side effect of really caring about your work, and I’ve always been aware that I’m inclined to over-work and so need to keep myself in check. I rarely lack motivation (though sometimes lack confidence), I love what I do. Burnout is not laziness, it’s illness.

Dragging myself out of it

After a week of feeling incredibly unhappy, I spent a weekend trying to escape work. But spending the weekend worrying about the amount I had to do once the weekend was over made it worse. The first step to dragging myself out of the burnout was acknowledging that it had become a problem, and realising that I would improve far quicker if I stopped trying to fight it and let myself rest.

A little bit at a time

I’ve found that working a little bit at a time is helping. I’m always very productive in the mornings, so I’ve been getting up early and getting on with work. When I feel the burnout dragging me down, I stop. I do something completely different, completely unrelated to work (walking the dog, playing computer games). These stints away from work seem to re-invigorate me, and after a couple of hours I can get back into working again. I can’t speak for how anyone else feels when they’re burnt out, but this seems to be making me more productive, and really helps my mood and motivation.

I’m also trying to harness the moments when I’m feeling sharp and focused. Right now I’m writing a blog post because it’s too late to do client work (I know it’d have an effect on a productive early morning tomorrow) but I’m still running off the adrenaline of a successful few hours work earlier in the evening.

Our minds are funny things

We forget how important our state of mind is to our overall health until it becomes a real problem. Recent events with those close to me, and Shannon Fisher and Liz Elcoate writing bravely about depression have inspired me to write this post. Let’s talk about these funny minds of us more.

27 comments

  1. Great blog post, i feel i can relate to ‘Burnout’.

    I’m currently working full-time, starting my own business and studying a distance learning degree! I’ve found that if things get too much and i feel myself getting stressed, i take 15mins to meditate. It’s something new for me but i’ve found that it helps.

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  2. The frustrating thing about it is that you can both understand how it was avoidable…but also how it couldn’t be avoided! I imagine it’s degrees worse as a full time freelancer, but the whole job is about relationships, and it almost seems inevitable that points are reached where we find ourselves painted in to a corner and unwilling (rather than unable) to do what we really should do which is be frank with those we’re working with and for.

    But there’s the fear that the relationship may sour, and probably some experience in the past about how turning back work, or pushing it back, has resulted in the business side of that relationship being as fruitful.

    Jenny (@Grinblo) posted this link today and I think it’s really useful on this subject: http://t.co/V8ZrEIAgIy

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  3. Thanks for writing about this. I had recently been in the same boat.

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  4. Karolina Szczur

    There’s an interesting take on positive side of burnout too: http://zenhabits.net/burn/

    And plus one to being there.

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  5. I’ve suffered from mild depression (actual, diagnosed depression rather than feeling depressed) in the past as well as having the occasional stretches of just feeling burnt out and unable to focus and it’s all gone away since I’ve started distance running.

    I love being outside in all weathers covering the miles on local trails and I’d recommend it to anyone who struggles.

    There’s a notion that designers love their jobs so much they’re always “on the clock” thinking about design, buying typography books or practicing photography skills etc and I think it’s vital getting away from it all whether it’s running or some other hobby/activity.

    Hope your mind clears a little after a break!

    J.

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  6. It’s so difficult to comment on this one… Kudos for having the strength to admit if though, I know what it feels to go through all this, and the hardest part is probably to admit it publicly.

    One deep cause that I’ve been able to identify was lacking a reason to keep on with the daily work routine that was progressively burning me out. After a year or so since I’ve finally realized this, I’ve still to figure out what could possibly change my mind so deeply (hint : at least I know it includes life changing decisions both in my work and in my personal life…)

    Reading Peter Bregman’s 18 Minutes has helped me a lot figuring out all this… If you haven’t read it yet, it’s worth giving it a try.
    http://peterbregman.com/18-minutes/

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  7. Ida

    Thank you for sharing!
    I kind of recognize this. People talk a lot about separating work and your personal life. As for me, since I started working as a web developer, I don’t have a barrier between those two anymore. This is both awesome and real bad. I’ve definitely had my moments when I’ve been totally stressed out.

    I really hope you feel better soon. Stay strong!

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  8. I am an always-on-the-clock kinda person, but I know (now, after many mistakes and f- ups) that I need to keep some slack in the schedule. Even if I’m in full flow and *could* take on one more thing, I’ve learned to keep enough slack so when I go into a mild burnout I don’t let anybody down.

    That’s when, not if. You can’t run 100% all the time, so don’t budget your time that way. You’ll make yourself ill trying to look after everybody but yourself.

    I generally take the view that any respectable professional looks after their tools and should be respected for doing so. Your number one tool is yourself; mind and body — not looking after your health isn’t going the extra mile, it’s unprofessional. You’ve got to say some small “no”s all the time, so you don’t end up having to say “no” for 6 months.

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  9. Ah yes burn out. Kind of sneaks up on you! Had a real bout of it over the last year since we had a little boy. Adding him and the associated sleep depravation and lack of free time suddenly shifted the balance and I realised I had been burning the candle at both ends in order to maintain things.

    As James mentioned about running I found that a run or bike ride really helped as well as accepting that I can no longer just work through the night to get something done!

    It is definitely something that affects web designers more than other fields. I think this is because of the constant shifting in skills and the like.

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  10. I find keeping up with the constant changes in the web dev world and the resources that go along with that the most exhausting thing (It does keep things interesting though!).

    I’d be interested to know how people manage to fit ‘education’ into their busy schedules, as I often find my twitter favourites / instapaper / google reader lists spiral out of control….

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  11. The combination of staring at screens all day, sitting, trying to keep up with the industry, looking for work, doing work… it all adds up to this mental juggling act and before we know it our brain and body fail.
    I’m working through similar issues. Being a one-person show as a freelancer is very difficult. Thanks for being honest. I wish you the best.

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  12. Nik

    I can completely relate to this – a bi-product of being a perfectionist, working hard towards my design career and having an almost full time admin job to hold down too. I find myself getting depressed and cabin fevery when I spend too long doing work in front of the computer so it definitely is worth considering our mental health, taking time away from the computer and doing things that refresh you. Wise words Laura!

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  13. Chris Comben

    Ah you all just need to man up! ;)

    I’ve found cutting up the day and not worrying about constant work helps me too. Watch some TV while working, take a 10 minute nap, call someone, go see a film. Yes it does mean sometimes I have to work at night, but if I feel like I can then it helps me. It amazes me if you actually stop and look at an office how often people are actually not working. You just feel that if you work on your own or at home that you have to do more hours than anyone else.

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  14. Paul Cross

    Possibly the “best” articulation I’ve read. 7 years into running a small business and I’ve been feeling like you describe for the last 2. There are a few other symptoms you’ve not listed, but I’m not man enough to admit to them. All the best.

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  15. Laura, this is such a great post. One I’ve been close to writing over the last few months as I’ve had too much on my plate and knew I was more than burnt out and had reached depression. Recently I took a few days off which lead to three weeks off work just so I could regain some balance. I’m still working on it as it isn’t easy, but I’m lucky to have a courageous life partner at my side.

    I want you to know that Shannon and I are in your corner ready to contribute to a healthy future! You should take some time off this summer and come to Vancouver. ; )

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  16. Brian Hermelijn

    I have to say, that I am completely related to this as well. Its like you work on for hours on end, without caring for your own health.

    So finding that [peak hours that makes you more creative, would not only give you the advantage to finish work easier, it will also makes you come up with better results.

    Aside from that, I wholeheartedly agree that playing games or just watch some shows that makes you laugh, can make your mind rest and enjoy the moment, until you can start working again. For some this may be difficult, since they become to focused on the other mentioned tasks.

    But it’s definitely something to try out. Thanks for posting this article!

    Brian

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  17. Chatman R.

    I’ve dealt with burnout a few times. It really is a consequence of loving your work so much that it doesn’t feel like work. I used to pull a ton of all-nighters to get things done, because I was so eager to get it all launched. Your sleeping habits get messed up, and the exhaustion just shatters productivity.

    That said, I’m nowhere near strict enough to have 9-5 kind of consistent hours. Instead I work when I feel most productive, and after a set time (usually 7 hours, give or take an hour), I just stop. I’ve found it helps to work according to your natural rhythm, and sometimes that just means stepping back from the keys when time’s up.

    Of course, as you said, sometimes things just spill over in ways we don’t expect. Burnout used to completely piss me off, but now I just try to accept it as a sign that my mind is running on empty and needs a break. And I completely agree that as people we try very hard to look bulletproof to the outside world. Sharing our vulnerabilities can be liberating in a sense, because we all have them. It’s just part of being human.

    As always, I appreciate your honesty. Lets us know we’re not alone with our frustrations.

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  18. I have talked with Adam about this having been through it myself several times. This is going to happen to a lot of people if they don’t balance life and work. You right to find other things to do but video games is a bit too close to working on the web – still using a computer. Taking the dog for a walk is good but you will still be thinking about work while getting pulled along.

    Find yourself a hobby – something you can loose yourself in that completly removes yourself from design and the web. I make model railways – it’s challenging and very creative (the way I do it – read ‘bodge’) and completly removes my mind from work and the web. Choose something that doesn’t put any time pressures on you, something that you need to concentrate on and requires some craft to acomplish. The craft aspect will instill ideas in you head for later by opening new nural pathways and provide inspiration.

    Last year I took a week off work and built a shed – quite a big shed. I was absolutly exhausted, had loads of cuts and bruises including nettle stings when I ignominiously fell off the staging into a nettle bed – and despite all that the following week I was unstopable at work, really motivated and full of inspiration.

    Go get ‘em girl.

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  19. One line you said really sticks with me, “Burnout can be a bad side effect of really caring about your work” The interesting thing for me lately is defining the which part of caring is bring me so much grief.

    Personally, I truly get invested in the success of my employers/clients. Sometime this leads to burnout from being overworked, other times it leads to burnout over the actions/inaction of said employer/client. This had led to a lot of thought over when to terminate work for a freelance client or look for a position at another company.

    I find the things the burn me out the most are feeling like you’re working for a company that doesn’t recognize your contributions, or for a client that doesn’t put foot to pavement and use the tools created to be successful.

    I often find myself analyzing what I could have done better to contribute to their success. What tools could I have equipped them with? Did I build the best product for them? Did I really hit their target market?
    Then apathy kicks in, and its defiantly a squatter in my house of creativity.

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  20. Nice article Laura.
    The way you explain to overcome ‘burnout’ is generally a very good way of working anyway; find the time you work at your best, and try to get a higher percentage of your work done during that time. Take short, regular breaks completely away from your work and your work station.
    I read a lot of blogs about this way of working and completely ignored it, questioning how I can do more work when I work less hours.
    I decided to try this technique in the last year of my degree, and it completely changed the way I was writing, revising and studying and haven’t stopped working this way since.

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  21. It is great that you are writing about the topic of burnout. I have been there and consider myself a recovering burnout.

    It is great that you are already aware of burnout and are addressing it before it becomes more serious. I denied its existence while it crept up on me, so it has required more time and change to deal with it.

    Getting away from work can provide a temporary relief, but doesn’t change the work situation. If you continue to find yourself in chronic stress, consider reevaluating your purpose, goals and processes on the work side of your life. Changes may be required.

    Reply

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