The ultimate burnout survival guide
I have a lot of experience with burnout. My odd combination of being an ambitious control freak with a powerful lazy streak and a huge resistance to change means that I was pretty much designed to get myself into situations where I feel overwhelmed and drowned in stress with no idea what to do next.
Luckily for me, my husband is the polar opposite. He has an incredible gift for finding solutions to difficult and complicated situations, and over the years I have learned a ton from him about how to navigate my way out of even the most hopeless cases of burnout. In fact, together we have developed a clear process that we work through whenever one of us starts to feel frazzled and stressed. The other day I was sharing this process with a friend of mine, and she enthusiastically suggested that I write a post about it in case it might be helpful to anyone else.
So here it is, our magnum opus burnout survival guide. If anyone out there is feeling burnt out and overwhelmed, I hope that these techniques that have worked so well for us might give you a little roadmap for finding your way back to a place of peace.
What is burnout?
First of all, how do you know when what you’re experiencing is true burnout, an unhealthy situation that needs to change, versus a healthy challenge that you need to just step up to the plate and get through? I’m neither a counselor nor a spiritual director so I won’t pontificate too much on that, but I will offer these wise words from Elizabeth Foss in this excellent post on burnout:
God tells us that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. So, if we are straining and fall under the yoke and the burden, it’s not God’s…I don’t mean that life is never hard or that our homes must always be filled with only sunshine and roses. But I still mean that if we are straining and falling and sinning under the strain of the yoke, it’s not God’s yoke…Yes, we will suffer, but I have learned that it is indeed possible to suffer joyfully. Burnout is not suffering joyfully.
My own litmus test is simply one of love: God is love itself, therefore a life in line with his will is one of love, even if it’s not always fun or pleasant. If some situation is stressing me out to the point that it’s blocking me from being able to give or receive love (e.g. I’m constantly snapping at people, feeling resentful towards loved-ones, frequently angry, etc.), I assume that this is not what God wants for me and something needs to change.
This is also a good place to note that what may seem like burnout could also be something more serious such as clinical depression, grief, a physical ailment, etc. and if you suspect that that might be the case you shouldn’t hesitate to get help. But assuming that what you’re experiencing is classic burnout, let’s start talking about what you can do about it.
Before we can diagnose the problem, we need to get in problem-diagnosing mode:
Get some sleep
We have a strict rule in our house that we never talk about problems when we’re tired, and I can’t tell you how much stress it has saved us. If you feel completely burned out, the first thing you should do is just get some sleep so that you can think clearly; your problems are going to seem insurmountable if you try to think through them when you’re exhausted. For some of us it might not be possible to retire to a perfect 12-hour, uninterrupted night of slumber, but do the best you can. And if your answer is, “But I never get enough sleep!”, then that is one of your biggest problems. I’d recommend dropping everything and putting all your energy into figuring out how you can start getting some rest before you try to tackle anything else.
Choose an advisor
Digging your way out of an overwhelming situation is much easier if you have someone to help you. Think of someone to whom you could turn for advice. This must be someone whose opinion you trust, who shares or at least respects your values, and who is able to be positive and solution-oriented. For married people the most obvious choice would be your spouse, but if the two of you have gone over the situation ad nauseam without making progress, you may want to consider talking to a close friend or spiritual advisor.
Plan a time to chat
Now schedule a time to chat when both you and your chosen advisor will be able to focus. This doesn’t have to be a formal face-to-face meeting with zero distractions; a casual phone call or chat on the living room couch is fine. It’s just a time when you both have about forty-five minutes to talk seriously without too many interruptions.
Think about your goals
Before you start trying to fix problems, it’s helpful to take a big step back and reflect on what your ideal life would look like. What really matters to you? If you found out you only had a year to live, what would your priorities be? If someone asked you what you believe the meaning of life to be, what would you say? You don’t have to spend tons of time on this, the point is just to step back from the chaos of daily life and do a gut-check about what really matters to you.
Go off to a silent place, take a deep breath, and ask God for his assistance. In these circumstances I find it helpful to specifically pray for humility and trust. Also spend some time asking for forgiveness for any acts against love you may have committed that would have separated you from God. Whether you can spend an afternoon in a chapel or can just barely escape the chaos long enough to lock yourself in your bedroom closet for two minutes, be sure you don’t skip this step.
Diagnosis: Figuring Out What’s Wrong
Over the years I’ve found that when I’m experiencing burnout, it is often because there are layers of problems going on, some of which I may not have fully articulated. In order to find solutions you first need to make sure you have clarity on what’s really bothering you, so let’s get started!
Grab a pen and paper, and start talking to your advisor
Now is when you have that phone call or sit-down talk you scheduled with the person you’ve chosen as your advisor. The purpose of this chat is for you to be able to do a free-for-all brain dump about everything that’s stressing you out. Just start talking. List every stressor in your life you can think of. The only constraint is to make sure you keep an eye on the ultimate goal of reducing stress for you and your loved-ones — i.e. don’t let the conversation degenerate into a gossip, self-pity or negativity session. And keep that pen and paper handy, because these conversations often lead to great insights.
Look for hidden trends
As you and your advisor chat, you should both be looking out for hidden trends in the conversation that may point to surprising stressors that you had never articulated. For example, a couple years ago I hit a low point and ended up having one of these conversations with my husband. I wiped tears out of my eyes as I talked on and on about what I thought was troubling me (worries medical bills, the house being a wreck, etc.) yet my husband pointed out something fascinating: over and over again I made passing references to my then-18-month-old daughter’s penchant for long bouts of ear-shattering screaming. In fact, I referenced it so often that he even suspected that that was 80% of what had me feeling down. As it turns out, he was exactly right. Even though there wasn’t a quick-fix solution, it was a tremendous weight off my shoulders to realize what my biggest source of stress really was.
Be humble and realistic about your needs
Based on my own experience and the experience of my friends, this is the #1 culprit of burnout, especially for women: we drastically underestimate our basic physical and mental needs. I’ve talked before about how I believe modern technology, artificial light in particular, tempts us to extend our working hours way past what is natural, and I think a good litmus test for whether or not you’re pushing yourself too hard is to ask yourself what percentage of your current activities you’d be able to complete if your workday ended at sundown. We’re all designed to need regular periods of rest and refreshment, and if you’re not getting that, it’s critical that you recognize that that’s a big problem. For me, it is usually pride and fear that cause me to ignore my own basic needs: I don’t want anyone to think I’m weak or lazy if I can’t do as much as other people can do, I won’t take anything off my plate because it’s all too “important” (yet I refuse to ask for help), and I fear that critical things wouldn’t get done if I broke down and admitted that I just can’t do it all.
As you talk to your advisor, make a conscious effort to set aside pride and fear as you go through the questions:
- Are you getting regular time to “recharge your batteries,” i.e. engage in relaxing activities that fill you up with energy? (I talked more about that in #3 here.)
- Are you getting enough sleep?
- Are you getting regular, quality “adult time” with your spouse?
- How do your days begin? Do you have a little time to think and pray and plan before you have to jump into the fray?
- Is your home environment conducive to peace (e.g. your house is in good repair, you’re able to keep it at a level of cleanliness that works for your family, etc.)?
- Are you praying every day?
- How’s your diet? Are you eating foods that promote good health and give you energy? (You can read about the huge impact that had on my life here.)
See if any of the problems need to be broken down
When you’re feeling overwhelmed it’s easy to see your problems as vague, amorphous blobs of stress. It’s much easier to solve small problems than big ones, so as you talk to your advisor, see if any of the stressors you bring up could broken down into component parts. For example:
GOOD: “I feel overwhelmed by homeschooling!”
BETTER: “The kids are really frustrated by the new math curriculum,” “I don’t have any time for myself,” “My teenager is increasingly rebellious about doing his assigned work.”
GOOD: “I hate my job!”
BETTER: “My boss constantly belittles me,” “I’m always yanked around from one project to another,” “I don’t make enough money to support my family.”
Now that you’ve gone through these steps, let what you’ve learned sink in for a while. That may take five minutes or five days — whatever you need to feel like you have clarity on what, exactly, the main stressors are in your life.
Now that you have a better handle on what’s bothering you, it’s time to find solutions! One of the biggest lessons I have learned in terms of overcoming burnout is this: finding solutions is a creativity issue. It’s not about being brilliant or organized or a life management expert; it’s about being creative. So all the tips in this section will be geared towards getting you in an open, imaginative mindset.
Prioritize your problems
Now, think about the problems you came up with in the last section. What floats to the top of your mind as the most pressing? Go with your gut reaction, even if it seems illogical. It may be one single thing or a set of interrelated problems, but decide which one(s) you want to tackle first.
Time to brainstorm!
It’s time for you and your advisor to have a little brainstorming session. You can do this as part of the same conversation where you articulated your problems, though sometimes I find it helpful to sleep on it and have a separate solution-seeking conversation the next day. Anyway, the point of this exercise is to expand your mind, be positive and have fun! Start throwing out possible solutions to your problems, even if they seem impossible or crazy. And the cardinal rule is this: No shooting down any ideas during a brainstorming session.
To give you an idea of why that rule is so important, I’ll use my friend “Mindy” as an example: She was feeling burned out about homeschooling, particularly because her kids argued a lot. In the solution brainstorming session her husband half jokingly threw out the idea of getting one of those big ready-made storage sheds to put in the back yard and use as an external schoolhouse. She was about to veto it as a ridiculous idea (no air conditioner, no bathroom, no insulation, expensive, not big enough), but in the spirit of brainstorming decided to just write it down. When they went over their brainstorming list later, however, they kept feeling drawn to think about that option more, and eventually realized that it appealed to them because their house was so cramped that it was making everyone tense, which was undoubtedly contributing to the kids’ arguments. They ended up doing a major decluttering spree and rearranged bedrooms in order to have a designated school supply room, and are slowly saving up to one day build an addition onto their house. Mindy felt so much better to have finally diagnosed the problem and found partial solutions, and it all came about thanks to talking about an idea that was technically ridiculous.
Remember that almost all situations can be improved
There might be some problems that you’re tempted to shrug off as having no solution. To use my example of when I was at my wit’s end because of my toddler’s near-constant screaming, what could I do? There was no medical cause, and it’s not like I could wave a magic wand and make her stop yelling. In one of our brainstorming sessions my husband offered the partial solution of making sure that I got extra quiet time each day: When he got home from work, I would go shut myself in our bedroom and relax in silence for a while. Normally I didn’t like to miss out on family time, but we found that it was well worth the tradeoff to get me through that difficult few months. It didn’t solve the problem completely, but it was a huge improvement.
Think big, think small (and watch out for sacred cows!)
Especially if you’ve been feeling burnt out for a long time and/or you’re having trouble finding any solutions, it may be time for a radical change in thinking. Are you boxing yourself in by ruling out options that you see as so big that they’re out of your grasp, or so small that they’re beneath you? Are there any sacred cows you’re clinging to? Are you letting pride keep you from accepting offers of help that God might be sending your way? Drawing from my own experiences as well as those of my friends, here is a partial checklist of some options that are often so far outside our normal way of thinking that it’s easy to overlook when considering solutions. Do you need to consider:
- Moving to a different city? Or, if you’ve been moving a lot, putting down roots?
- Finding a completely new career path?
- Making big sacrifices in one part of your life to improve another part (e.g. cutting cable and cell phone bills to make room in the budget for a monthly cleaning lady)?
- A radical lifestyle downgrade (e.g. getting cheaper cars, going down to one car, getting a smaller house, etc.)?
- A new schooling method for the kids, or tweaking the current method?
- A new way of approaching child discipline?
- Cutting down on ministry work, extracurricular activities or other non-essential projects?
- Accepting help from friends, family or community members?
- Hiring a cleaning lady, lawn mowing service or babysitter?
- Re-discerning if something God once called you to do is still what he wants you to do?
- Drastically slashing your expectations of how much you can get done in a week?
- Getting marriage counseling or participating in a marriage enrichment program like Retrouvaille?
Anyway, the point is just to be positive, humble and expand your thinking. As long as it doesn’t go into the territory of sin, leave nothing unconsidered. It may take you an hour or a week to complete your brainstorming session, but at the end of it you should have a good list of possible solutions.
Now that you have identified what’s bothering you and have a list of possible solutions, it’s time to revise the list to get some clarity and decide what you’re going to do. You can do this part on your own or with the help of your advisor.
Before you go any further, find a quiet moment to ask God for his assistance…and don’t forget to make sure you’re listening for his answers.
Be very careful about distinguishing “I can’t” from “I feel overwhelmed / challenged by this”
In the early days of my conversion, when my husband would suggest solutions to my problems I was often all too eager to “offer it up” instead, trying not to let the glow of my halo hurt my eyes as I dolefully explained that this difficultly was just my lot in life. I would love to tell you that it was motivated by nothing but a sincere desire to renounce my will for God’s, but I see now that the truth was that too often it was an excuse not to make difficult changes that God wanted me to make. For me, martyrdom is often easier than stepping out of my element.
As you consider your list of possible solutions, keep in mind that in a burnout situation there probably aren’t going to be any easy solutions — if there were, you would have implemented them a long time ago. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any solutions. Improving your situation is probably going to mean stepping into territory that’s unfamiliar to you, so be careful not to block off potential paths by being too loose with the word “can’t.”
If a solution seems good but overwhelming, make a list of the conditions that would make it less overwhelming
During a rough patch last summer my husband suggested that we get some babysitting help. My blood pressure rose and I immediately started spewing reasons why that would be impossible: We couldn’t afford it, I wouldn’t want a stranger in the house, I’d be embarrassed for anyone to see how messy everything is, and so on. He pointed out that my objections were valid, but that that just meant that we should find a solution within those constraints. For example, if we could find a trusted friend of someone we knew, who had experience with having young kids around and therefore wouldn’t be shocked by the chaos, and let her know up-front that this would be a temporary position because we weren’t able to afford it for the long-term, that just might work. It seemed like it would be impossible to find someone like that, and I had no idea where to start, but I decided to give it a shot. It turns out that we found a wonderful neighbor who was our babysitter for just two months to help me get through that rough patch, and being able to have that job was as much of an answered prayer for her as it was for us.
Make a decision about what you’re going to do
Now that you’ve looked at all your potential solutions with a positive attitude and considered them from a variety of angles, it’s time to decide what you’re going to try. The keyword here is “try.” You may find that an idea that seemed good leads to a dead end and you have to go back to your list, but that’s OK! Just keep searching and thinking and talking and praying and trying things and eventually something will work.
Get ready to step out of your element!
If your experience is anything like mine, you may have realized that what it’s going to take to turn around your burnout situation is going to challenge you to approach certain areas of your life in a whole new way. If you’re feeling hesitant about this, here are some ideas to try:
- Find a mentor. Contact someone you know who has done something similar or seems to be skilled at this type of thing, even if you don’t know him or her very well. Imagine how honored you’d feel if someone came to you with a similar request!
- Get in character. When I had to start looking for a babysitter last summer, I was so overwhelmed! I didn’t know what to charge, how to go about interviewing people, where to start looking for someone, etc. What got me over the hump was to get “in character.” When I had to make those first few phone calls, I pretended like I was an actress playing the role of a confident executive who did this every day. It sounds totally silly, but it worked wonders for helping me get over my anxiety.
- Pretend like you’re doing it for someone else. Similar to the above, another technique that helps me keep the word “can’t” out of my vocabulary is to pretend that a friend in dire need has asked me to handle this for her. It’s amazing how much more energetic and positive I am able to be if I’m helping someone else instead of myself!
- Pray. Don’t try to execute solutions by your own strength alone. Ask God to open doors that need to be opened, and to give you the courage you need to break out of your rut and make exciting changes in your life.
I hope that this glimpse into the process that I have learned for handling burnout might be a spark of encouragement for others out there who are feeling stressed and overwhelmed. And remember that it’s not a “one and done” thing — you’ll probably end up getting burned out again at some point in the future, and that’s OK. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed; it’s the nature of life in a fallen world that we’re always going to be fighting against chaos. The most important thing is simply to have a good process in place so that when it does happen again, you’ll have a roadmap to lead you out.
- Admitting that I can’t do it all (or even half of it)
- Schedules and hard stops
- A lesson about accepting imperfect help
- Crying because I can’t follow God’s will…or my will?
- Finding my way (at Living, Learning and Loving Simply)