4 Steps For Cooling Down When You’re About To Burn Out

Burnout comes from lost energy, lost enthusiasm, and lost confidence. Here’s how to get back on track.

4 Steps For Cooling Down When You’re About To Burn Out
[Photo: Flickr user ellyn.]

“We’re doing the work of three people, our boss is a complete micromanager, we get no feedback, and there’s no trust in our office. All of the burnout signs you mentioned–that’s us! What can we do?”


This is how my conversation began with two people who recently pulled me aside after a presentation I gave on burnout and resilience. Their complaints are far from uncommon. And the thing is, they like their work–they just recognize there isn’t much they can do to change their company’s culture or their boss’s management style.

But the truth is that confronting those facts is the first step towards getting back on track. Faced with other factors outside their control, employes are often left to adopt their own strategies to relieve stress and stay grounded. Sometimes, they aren’t enough to prevent burning out. The three main dimensions of burnout are exhaustion (lost energy), cynicism (lost enthusiasm), and inefficacy (lost confidence). You need to focus on one or more of these areas if you’re going to be able to lift yourself back up. Here are four steps you can take that are geared to all three.

1. Do An Energy Audit

The burnout formula is very specific: too many job demands, too few job resources, and too little recovery. In modern work cultures, we’re all too ready to ditch sleep, relaxation, and leisure in favor of adding more busyness to an already too-busy life.

Worse still, many of us do that unawares. Ask yourself, “Do I know where my energy is going?” If not, you need to do an energy audit. Which people and activities restore your energy–both at work and outside of it–and which people and activities deplete it? Be honest with yourself. Then sort out how much time you devote the people and activities in either category. (Feel free to email me for a free worksheet to help get you started on this audit.)


2. Set Boundaries With A Quick No And A Mindful Yes

As a recovering people-pleaser, it’s always been hard for me to say no when somebody asks me for something. My instinctual worry is that people will think less of me for declining to help, even though that’s probably never happened. When you’re too quick to say yes, you waste precious time and energy stewing about whether you should’ve offered to help in the first place, wishing you’d said no, then finding a way to back out of the project. All that leaves you is feeling guilty and drained of time and energy you couldn’t spent elsewhere.

When someone asks for your help or participation, simply ask for some time. My first question is always, “When do you need an answer?” It’s rarely ever “right now,” so you’ll be able to take some time to think it over. You can evaluate whether the request is in line with your professional or personal goals, connects with your values, and is something you can realistically devote attention to.

There are times when you might have to help your boss put a pitch together on a Saturday afternoon or help your second cousin, twice-removed, move into a new apartment, but if you can offer both of them more intentional yeses, you’ll end up conserving more energy in the long run, and spending it in more targeted ways.

3. Increase Your Diet Of Positive Emotions

We’re bombarded by negativity every day. We’re told to fix our weaknesses and asked to help clients and colleagues solve crises–often without the resources for doing so. As a result, we tend to over-experience negative emotions and miss out on positive ones. But psychologists have long understood that positive emotions do more than just help you feel good. They increase your creativity, make you more social, build your resilience, and reduce the negative physiological impact of negative emotions.


The cynicism from burnout can mask a lot of what is going right in your life, so I suggest starting a portfolio to keep track of the good stuff. Collect thank-you notes and other tidbits that make you feel appreciated and happy, and either tack them onto a bulletin board or keep near your workspace. Personally, when I’m having one of those, “Why did I stop practicing law?” moments, those mementos boost my spirits and help me keep going.

4. Check Your Inner Critic

The faulty assumptions you make and the self-defeating narratives you spin about why something happened can really undercut happiness and resilience. If you catch yourself thinking any of the following, press pause and consider what factors might be driving the belief:

  • “It’s impolite to say no.”
  • “I have to be a people-pleaser.”
  • “If I want it done right, I have to do it myself.”
  • “Anything less than perfection is failure.”
  • “Once I give my word, I can’t back out.”

Don’t try to judge right away whether the belief is true–focus first on identifying why it is you feel that when. Then turn to these two strategies to help you evaluate it:

Does this belief get in the way of other things I’m trying to do? Evaluate whether the idea at hand is preventing you from accomplishing what you want to accomplish at home and at work. If it is, reshape it. You might even come up with a go-to “power phrase” to say when that core belief bubbles up. For example, if the belief you’re trying to reshape is, “I have to do it all and do it perfectly”–in other words, perfectionism–then your power phrase might be, “Good enough is good for me.”

Is this belief too rigid to be effective? Maybe the beliefs your inner critic likes to promote aren’t especially wrong-headed or toxic, they’re just too rigid to let you be effective and stay resilient. In order to become more flexible, try distinguishing between the situations where your belief applies and those where it doesn’t.

Whether you’re on the verge of burning out or just experiencing more stress than usual, taking these steps can help you replenish some of that lost energy, enthusiasm, or confidence.


Paula Davis-Laack is a speaker, lawyer, and expert on work-related stress, burnout, and resilience. Follow her on Twitter at @pauladavislaack.