How to recognize burnout before it’s too late

I’ve always been a workaholic. Here’s how I learned to recognize when I was about to burnout during the two years I spent working at a startup.

Why do we so frequently confuse burnout with dedication or passion? I blame it on a persona I like to call Lindsay — she’s the unattainable idea of success we all (secretly) subscribe to. We know her well.

Lindsay is never late for work, in fact she always gets in early and goes home late. She always has the next big idea in her head. She knows the company inside and out. She’s in with her coworkers and upper management. She’s friendly and helpful and always knows the right questions to ask in a meeting. Her work is immaculate and she always seems to be up for a promotion.

She’s composed, professional and yet still has time for a life outside of work. She’s also completely made up—but we treat her like she’s real anyway. So we constantly compare ourselves to her and, *shockingly*, we never measure up. So we push ourselves even harder. And that pretty much always leads to trouble. In my case, it meant two bouts of burnout. But I was able to take a step back and prevent it from happening a third time.

Here are some of the burnout warning signs I learned to watch for while working at a startup:

Zoning out during the morning commute.

I’m not a morning person, but I always tried to use my commute to do something relatively productive and good for me, like reading a book or articles unrelated to my job. And while San Francisco doesn’t have the best public transportation (ok, it’s actually pretty bad), I usually managed to get something done while trapped underground in a steel tube with 1,000 other people every morning.

That was one of the first things to change as I started to burnout. (That, and I found it increasingly difficult to be polite on public transit. But that might have been because tech bros had invaded S.F. and had zero consideration for other people.)

Newfound enthusiasm for things that are just really excuses to procrastinate.

I’m not an email person. It often makes me anxious to see a new email in my inbox if I know it’s something I have to reply to. But when I’m starting to feel overworked, I check my email more frequently and spend more time responding than I normally would. Even though it was a draining activity for me, it gave me a bit more time away from “real” work.

Negative initial reactions to new assignments.

When I first started working at a startup, I was ecstatic about almost every new assignment. Was I naive about how much effort it would take? Of course. I was new to the company and this was my first post-grad job. But I also knew that growth requires a lot of time and effort. And I knew that even if I made a mistake, I’d at least learn something and it would help me get better at my job in the long run.

When burnout was starting to creep into my brain, however, I’d get a new assignment and immediately think, “This is going to be so much work.” I had to consciously remind myself of the potential for growth and long-term success. That’s a big red flag.

Having difficulty taking time away from work.

I’m a natural workaholic, but I’ve always had a clear delineation between work (or school) and real life. When you work a 9-to-5 job, it’s easy to stick to those boundaries. But when you work at a start up, those lines get a lot blurrier. (Thanks in part to working with enthusiastic and talented people. But it’s also because of Lindsay.)

And as I started to slip into burnout territory, it became harder to do the actual work and I needed more time to get stuff done. That’s when I’d start spending a couple extra hours at the office, or spend the occasional Sunday trying to catch up. That extra time, and mental energy, adds up fast.

Fluctuations in time spent on travel-related daydreams.

I suck at taking time off. But I love exploring new places and planning trips. As my unhealthy work tendencies started to take over, however, I started spending less time dreaming about those vacations. In the throes of burnout, it got so bad that I honestly forgot going on vacation was a thing, until a colleague started talking about their recent or upcoming trip.

But this can happen in reverse, too: If you don’t love planning trips, you could suddenly find yourself procrastinating on actual work by virtually satisfying a sudden desire to go camping in the Pacific Northwest. (Or you could just end up watching “Wild.”)

Side note: Unlimited paid time off — which a lot of startups tout on their “work with us” pages — is great in theory. But it’s basically a scam for workaholics like me. When you don’t have formal limits to stick to, like two-weeks paid vacation, it’s easier to avoid taking any time off at all. So worker beware.

Increased coffee (or sugary snack) consumption.

I’m a two-cups-a-day-no-exceptions kind of coffee drinker. And I’m ok with that. It kind of goes with the startup/freelance worker job description, especially as a journalist.

But when the coffee is free (which is basically always is at startups), normal habits and limits can easily go out the window. It’s even harder to stick to caffeine (or sugar) limits when you feel like you need a little something extra to get you through the day.

Taking yourself way too seriously.

I have a self-deprecating sense of humor. And I can usually take a joke at my expense because of my almost unhealthy respect for comedy.

But when my nerves start to fray, that gets a lot harder. There’s always a little sting of truth in those situations, but it’s harder to accepting your flaws when you feel like the pressure is building. That leaves you vulnerable to burnout as well as imposter syndrome—a dangerous combination for anyone. But that’s especially true for those of us who are early in our careers.

The bottom line: The best way to recognize oncoming burnout is to know yourself, your habits, thought processes and how you work. That way, you’ll be able to recognize subtle changes in your daily or weekly routine and know when it’s time to give yourself a long weekend or a few days to collect yourself and start fresh.
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