The Only Good Option In A Burnout Spiral

You can unplug the Internet and pull the shades–or you can phone a friend.

The Only Good Option In A Burnout Spiral
[Image: net_efekt]

You’re reaching the frayed ends of over-caffeinated overtime and if your inbox pings one more time, you might throw your laptop at a wall. If you had the time to read a whole self-help book on being overwhelmed, well, you wouldn’t need it, would you?


A study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology looks at your options for bailing out of a burnout, before the meltdown starts.

Using a psychology model of coping mechanisms called selection, optimization, and compensation, the researchers tested each method with a sample of 294 employees and their supervisors. Only one of these strategies actually worked. But first, a review of their definitions:

Selection: Assess every responsibility, from the 9 a.m. conference calls to your overflowing inbox, and start abandoning the ones that aren’t absolutely necessary. This is the bailing of baggage off your ship to keep from sinking.

Optimization: Like cross-training for your brain, learning new skills can refresh your mind, without taking a week off work to veg out. Focus on something that’s fun yet productive–like designing new business cards or redecorating your home office–can bring you back to the grunt work relaxed and re-energized. In theory, at least.

Compensation: Not compensation as in, that check you’re still waiting for from the last project. When we’re stressed, we can compensate by delegating tasks or outsourcing parts of the job. This is the call for help, when you can’t do it all alone.

The catch?


Only one of these is effective, according to the study.

Selection is a tempting option (who wouldn’t like to shirk “secondary tasks” like answering emails or morning meetings), but the least useful. As Freelancers Union notes, these are the parts of our jobs that keep us agile; getting tunnel-visioned on specific tasks let others slip. When it’s time to catch up on those non-essentials, you’re suddenly back to overwhelmed.

Optimization would be nice, if you weren’t already burned out. Who has the motivation to attend a website-building workshop, when you’re already pulling 60 hour work weeks? You’ll start with good intentions, but end up ordering Thai takeout and watching Netflix instead.

Compensation, then, is the burnout’s best bet. Outsource those non-essentials, instead of nixing them completely. Start saying no to new responsibilities, and refer them to colleagues–extending your network even further.

Here’s what good compensation looks like, from the Freelancers Union:

  • Outsource accounting, bookkeeping, taxes, organization, and other tasks to a virtual personal assistant
  • Subcontract your projects
  • Refer gigs you can’t handle to another freelancer
  • Get advice on projects from other freelancers/friends/contacts
  • Talk through tough spots with your network

Asking for help feels like defeat to an overwhelmed perfectionist, but might be the only lifesaver when you’re drowning in work to do.

About the author

Freelance tech, science and culture writer. Find Sam on the Internet: @samleecole.