The Unscientific Causes and Cure to Burnout

Having recently burned myself out, it feels like it’s the unspoken condition plaguing those working in startups. It’s as debilitating to us as a torn ACL to a pro athlete, but is hard to recognize on the surface and not something you go to the doctor for. My hope is to help you and your team either avoid getting burnt out like I am, or if you are burnt out, help you understand the causes and how to bounce back.

Burnout != Tired

For starters, it’s important to understand this distinction. I’ve been plenty tired before. The kind of tired where you sleep all weekend or you skip an early morning class or meeting because sleep seems more important. In college, I would go with only 20 hours of sleep in a week during midterms or finals where I would be known to duck out of a classroom to do pushups to stay awake (yes, in retrospect, stupid). I continued similar behavior after college when working on my own startups or on the job, but after a good night or two’s sleep I was always ready for more.

Unlike those times, over the past couple of months I fell off the cliff into burnout. I managed to both physically and mentally exhaust myself in a way I never experienced before. So what was the difference? 

What causes burnout?

Simply put, it’s all about Passion.

When you do things you love and are passionate about, they actually renew you instead of taking energy. The problem emerges when that passion you feed on declines and work starts actually feeling like work. This quickly starts a death spiral as you need more and more energy to perform at the same level you’re accustomed. When you use up all of your reserves, you will find yourself burnt out.

As I was on the way down to burnout, this quote from Steve Jobs’s commencement speech really started to hit home:

“If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

It’s important to understand why you would wake up and feel that way. The things most likely to make you feel that way include: (See more on this MayoClinc article on burnout)

  • Your work not feeling important
  • Lack of recognition for your efforts
  • Not seeing the results of your efforts
  • Not working on things you’re excited about
  • Lack of real progress being made on your projects
  • Repeatedly clashing with a coworker, manager or leader
  • A shift in your company’s culture that is unappealing to you
  • Misalignment between your values and the ones exhibited by your employer
  • Feeling like you have no control over your work (i.e.- lack of independence/decision making ability)

If you’re an employer/founder, take a good look at that list. Anyone who you think would answer Yes to more than one of those items is at risk for burnout or leaving your company.

How do you overcome burnout?

After admitting that I was really burnt out, I started talking to a lot of people about it and found that a surprising number of people had experienced it. Thanks to their advice, I learned a lot about how to recover (an ongoing process for me now):

  • Travel: Getting out of your current environment and just enjoying a place you visit can do a lot to recharge you. One friend told me the founder he worked for spent a month on a secluded island in the Caribbean after a stressful acquisition process and “never felt more revitalized” when he returned. The location doesn’t matter as much as the removal of stress and normal day-to-day duties and triggers.
  • Turn off technology: All our apps, social media accounts and email draw energy from us one small bite at a time. Every person I talked to mentioned the importance of turning off push notifications and rationing exposure to these attention-demanding items to really rest the mind.
  • Write down things that really matter to you: It’s easy to never make time to think about big ideas that matter to you. When I spent a week in Santa Monica, I spent a day each on questions like, “What are my personal values?”, “What’s most important to me personally?” and “What do I want professionally?” These can often reveal mismatches in your life that may have led to your burnout and reveal what you should do next.
  • Be ok doing *nothing*: As a confessed workaholic, this was really hard. I love feeling productive and that I accomplished a lot every day. To recover though, you need to let your brain rest, which means doing things like going for a walk or sitting in nature with no purpose in mind. (Joel of Buffer’s nightly walk is a great example of a way to maintain your energy levels)
  • Be honest with yourself and others: For about a month at my job I was in denial of what was happening. I actually pushed myself harder at first and then thought if I eased up a little it would be ok. Both only made it worse. Having now had a few weeks to truly recover and been honest with people has helped tremendously; people are much more understanding of slow responses and postponed meetings when they know why (and can sometimes even help).
  • Confront the problem(s): Often, the trigger for all those feelings that send you on your way to burnout are related to a person or a part of your environment. You absolutely have to bring change to things that are causing the stress or no amount of travel and rest will matter. One of my friends who helped with this post was able to save a strained relationship by finally having a tough conversation on how he and one of his cofounders communicated.
  • Don’t be afraid to move on: If you are unable to confront and resolve the causes of your stressful environment that caused the burnout in the first place, it is best to move on. Lingering will only burn you out further, lengthening the necessary recovery time. It can be scary to consider doing anything but what you’re currently doing, but admitting it’s an option and thinking about what you’d do instead may very well be the push you need to make a choice that’s best for everyone.
  • Realize it’s a marathon: Unfortunately, you don’t wake up one morning and you’re no longer burnt out. Instead, you feel a little better or worse every day depending on how well you’ve taken care of yourself. Use the recovery process as a way to build healthier ongoing habits and watch for the triggers that got you there in the first place so you never return. Most people told me recovery is measured in months not days or weeks.

Why do people let themselves get burnt out?

If you’ve never burnt yourself out, consider yourself lucky. You may wonder why people didn’t do something about this before fully burning out. There are a lot of reasons, but the ones I heard most commonly were:

  • Pride: “I’ll be fine. I always come through.”
  • Money: “The money’s so good, how can I quit this job even if I don’t *love* it?”
  • Loyalty: “I can’t quit. I’d let down [investors, cofounder, manager, teammates].”
  • Denial: “This is nothing. It will pass and I’ll be fine. I just need a good night’s sleep.”
  • Fear: “What would I do if I left?”

This is where you, the manager, founder or friend comes in; sometimes people need help realizing (or admitting) what’s going on. Recognize this and help them resolve it whether they need a vacation, a different role in the company or it’s time for them to move on.

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Why did I write this?

There’s been a lot written on burnout, but I felt like no one really boiled it down to its common, core elements. Hopefully some aspect of this is helpful for you, a friend, a coworker or your team whether you’re avoiding burnout or dealing with it already.

There’s a lot more to be said about burnout, so I hope you can share your experiences and great links to more on the subject in the comments.

Further Reading:

In my process of researching burnout, I came across some helpful links that are worth reading if you have additional interest in the subject (I’ll add any others you share in the comments):