After working on a demanding grant application for a charity for several weeks, I was exhausted. When my boss asked me to perform simple tasks it was all I could do not to snap at her. And when my colleagues and friends asked how the new job was going, I made cynical jokes about how it was a waste of time.
I didn’t know it then, but I was burnt out.
According to the University of California Berkeley’s Christina Maslach and Susan E. Jackson, both authorities on the subject, workers who are burnt out "feel unhappy about themselves and dissatisfied with their accomplishments on the job."
Burnout can happen to anyone, even those who enjoy their jobs and their careers. But if you feel exhausted, irritable, or cynical about your work, don’t worry. Here are four scientifically proven ways you can avoid burnout and recharge.
In 1943, the American psychologist Abraham Maslow explained an individual can only be happy if they are able to express themselves and achieve their potential.
He called this self-actualization and cautioned that "the story of the human race is the story of men and women selling themselves short."
If you spend your working day responding to the demands of other people or if you work only on projects only because you are told to, burnout is inevitable.
Leaders of successful companies recognize the importance of self-actualization, and this why many of these give employees time to work on their favorite projects through hack-athons and "20% time," which allows employees to take one day a week to work on side projects.
If you work in an office, focus on your most important projects in the morning before the interruptions of the day. This way, you can advance a personal project in small increments each day.
If you work in a profession where your role is to serve or help others, it’s still important to find a way of expressing your values or working towards your professional goals.
Meditation has been around for thousands of years, but if the weight of history isn’t enough, a 2009 study from Denmark concluded long term meditation is associated with increased gray matter density in the brain stem.
Meditating for just ten minutes a day regularly will gradually rewire your brain so that you are naturally more able to focus on the task at hand. Being able to focus should enable you to finish what you are working on and then switch off and recharge when the job is done.
If you struggle to include even 10 minutes of meditation into your day, there’s another trick you can use. The next time you find yourself working on a monotonous chore—like updating a routine spread sheet—avoid doing or thinking of anything else but the task at hand.
As Henepola Gunaratana explains in Mindfulness In Plain English, this is hard to do. "Your mind will wander off constantly, darting around like a bumblebee and zooming off on wild tangents."
However, Gunaratana explains this phenomenon is well known and that any meditator, no matter how inexperienced, can push through it and achieve mental focus and clarity. Cultivating this type of awareness will also help you recognize the symptoms of burnout sooner and then address the underlying problem.
Exercise increases your heart rate, which in turn pumps blood faster and clears toxins from system. After a rigorous run or workout, you will naturally feel better about yourself and the project or colleague that’s raising your blood pressure.
Anxiety is another key symptom of burnout that you can overcome through exercise. A 2004 study by Joshua Broman-Fulks of the University of Southern Mississippi demonstrated that students who exercised reduced their sensitivity to anxiety. This is just one of many scientific studies that demonstrate the benefits of exercise.
If you haven’t exercised recently, you’re not going to experience these benefits immediately. The benefits are cumulative, and they amount to small wins that you can reap over time.
You could bake exercise into your day by making a point to swim or run before work, by going for a strenuous walk at lunch, or by bring your gym gear with you so you can exercise before going home. The trick is to create a routine of regular exercise whereby it takes less mental effort to exercise than it does to not exercise. This is what good habit formation is all about.
According to Heather Stuckey and Jeremy Nobel from the Foundation For Art & Healing, writing has "positive consequences" and can even produce "long-term improvements in mood and health.
You can experience these benefits by keeping a professional journal. At the end of the week or during a quiet moment take thirty minutes to evaluate your progress and difficulties you encountered over the past few days.
Record your accomplishments, what you’re working on, and what’s holding you back. You should also write down any open loops (things you’re unsure of) or questions about your ongoing commitments.
This will help you identify patterns in your work and figure out what you need to do next. You may even find solutions to potential problems before they arise.
This strategy naturally lends itself to those who like to express themselves, but it doesn’t matter if you’re not a writer. You can record answers to these questions in a bullet point format or even by using the memo function of your phone.
The point is to force yourself to zoom out from the trenches of day-to-day work and view the battlefield of your working life as a whole.
This way, you can identify what you need to do to achieve your goals and if you’re working towards them. And you take action before you become burnt out.
If you’re still experiencing burnout after an extended period, consider if the professional path you are walking on is the right one. Then ask yourself (or a mentor) what you can do to change direction and realize your professional potential.
Whatever your situation, you can write a different story.
How do you avoid professional burnout? Please let me know in the comments section below.
—Bryan Collins is on a mission to teach people how to become writers and finish what they started with A Handbook for the Productive Writer.