I used to think that burnout was only about being tired. For months, this misunderstanding kept me from accurately identifying and treating burnout. Often, I would end up attributing cynical thoughts, another component of burnout, to my work environment, mental attitude, or fatigue.
As a result, burnout became this monster in my head which took over whenever it wanted. A monster I couldn’t properly identify, and, thus, had no idea how to fight. All I could do was duck and pray for it to magically leave.
Luckily, I stumbled upon a study which used self-efficacy exercises to reduce burnout and enhance performance in college students. It was like someone had perfectly described my state of mind.
Since then, I have used those exercises to avoid fatigue and recurring exhaustion. I’ll show you how to do it, but first, you have to identify the culprit.
Are You Suffering From Burnout?
Thanks to the study, I finally had a name for my monster. Here’s a basic formula to help you identify if you suffer from burnout:
Burnout = Cynicism + Feeling of detachment + Exhaustion
For example, cynicism would be to think “I won’t be able to get an A on this test.” Proceeding to detach yourself from the problem, you’d then stop wanting to even look at your books. On top of all this, you’d feel preparing for your tests is very draining, in spite of not doing much at all.
In addition to the three basic components of burnout, I also identified the following symptoms from my own experience:
- A temporary, but significant fall in persistence. Example: “Look! I made a small calculation error. Let me close my book and not study for another week.”
- Overthinking. Example: “What if I make silly calculation errors during the exams as well? What if I never stop making silly calculation errors in math? What if I never stop making silly errors in life? Am I really doomed to die a mediocre guy?”
Knowing what exactly burnout was I already felt some relief. It was like finally having found an itch. The next step was to figure out how to scratch it.
Using Intervention To Fight The Monster
Self-efficacy is your belief in your ability to succeed. It’s a major driving factor of burnout. Having burnout is essentially having a self-efficacy crisis.
Thus, by carefully moderating my level of self-efficacy, I concluded that I should be able to become almost immune to burnout. I started maintaining a calendar, marking occurrences of my “monster” to study the correlation between my mood, productivity, and burnout. It was a strong one.
Notice how the frequency of occurrence changed before and after a research-based intervention:
It is worth noting that my workload has only increased with time. But even though I now spend over 14 hours every day on writing, coding, or learning, I rarely get burnt out, and when I do, I have a plan for recovering quickly.
What Makes A Good Self-Efficacy Intervention?
Since a burnout is essentially as self-efficacy crisis, improving your self-efficacy will help reduce burnout. According to this research from Albert Bandura of Stanford University, our levels of self-efficacy are determined by four principle sources:
- Mastery experiences: The most reliable and powerful source of self-efficacy. Have you ever felt elated and super confident after having successfully performed a task important to you? That is what a mastery experience is, and it boosts your level of self-efficacy.
- Vicarious experiences: Watching others, preferably our role models, succeed using sustained efforts at the tasks we ourselves are aiming to succeed at. Doing this makes us believe that if others can do it, then we can too — thus increasing our self-efficacy level.
- Verbal persuasion: By having other people persuade us into believing that we “have what it takes” to succeed at the predetermined task, we can increase our levels of self-efficacy. These have to be people we’re influenced by, like parents, spouses, teachers, etc.
- Psychological and physiological states: Psychological and physiological aspects such as anxiety levels (and how we deal with them), stress, and fatigue also have an impact on self-efficacy. Untreated anxiety, high stress levels, and high fatigue all cause the level of self-efficacy to drop.
Here are the exercises I developed to draw more self-efficacy from these sources.
Four Exercises To Moderate Self-Efficacy
Below are the four practices which helped me moderate and boost my self-efficacy levels. Two of them draw from Bandura’s research, the others are based on my personal observations.
1. Trading your way up with mastery experiences
When you are on the downward spiral towards burnout, you can’t just jump back to writing a 2,500 word article and magically begin spiraling upwards. The process has to be gradual. When burnt out and unable to write, I start small by casual journaling to get the ball rolling — something which is easy to do and doesn’t require any creative energy.
Then, I aim to write a small, sub-500-word fictional story. I keep in mind that the story doesn’t have to be great. It just has to be. In this way, I gently turn on my creativity engine while increasing my self-efficacy, and often end up writing more than 500 words and loving the story. Eventually, I find myself self-effective enough to write a full-fledged article on Medium.
The task changes — writing, coding, sketching, painting, whatever — but the underlying process remains the same. You have to start with small victories which give you a small boost of self-efficacy because of the sense of mastery you get. Then, you have to use this boost to get a bigger victory. In this way, you can easily trade your way up to the desired self-efficacy level.
This is the most effective and reliable source of self-efficacy, and I recommend you perform it after receiving a small boost by performing some of the other steps mentioned below.
2. Visualization and auto-suggestion
This is a trick I learned from the book “Think and Grow Rich”. Auto-suggestion is a principle of altering your “underlying” or subconscious beliefs by repeated affirmations mixed with strong emotions. For example, you could repeat to yourself “I’m a self-effective person who sometimes gets burnt out but then recovers and thrives” several times each morning.
3. Set an example
When I’m not performing at my usual levels, I keep reminding myself that I must get back to my previous levels of self-efficacy so that I can inspire and set an example for those around me. This leads to a hike in my self-efficacy, which helps me produce work which, again, inspires people around me — inspiration which comes back to boost my self-efficacy again, forming a virtuous cycle.
For people who give a high priority to their pride and self-esteem, this is a great strategy.
4. Correctly deal with anxiety
Anxiety was one of the biggest factors causing dips in my self-efficacy and, hence, burnout. I used a simple three-step solution to deal with anxiety better:
- Pause thinking.
- Identify anxious thoughts.
- Analyze the validity of those thoughts.
Nine times out of ten, I found my anxiety rested on baseless fears and paranoia. If your anxiety is more complicated and severe, considering using this tutorial on WikiHow which goes to a deeper level, or consult a professional.
Some solutions proposed in the research, like verbal persuasion, did not work for me, but they may work for you. Consider talking about your burnout in great detail to the people who influence you, and then have them persuade you into having a higher level of self-efficacy.
Also, the third practice I mentioned was custom designed using my observations. It may or may not work for you. Similarly, try to identify your own sources of self-efficacy.
Some Key Factors To Keep In Mind
A few pointers while following the above mentioned practices:
- Mastery experiences deliver increasingly great benefits with continuous successes, whereas continuous failures lower our self-efficacy.
- The greater the difficulty of the task you’re trying to perform, the greater the boost to your self-efficacy because of mastery experiences.
- When the successful completion of your task is attributed more to your abilities than to your efforts, you get a bigger boost to your self-efficacy. In the opposite case, the boost is comparatively smaller.
- Similarly, if you perceive the successful completion of a task as a result of your environment and circumstances (and not your own abilities), the boost in your self-efficacy will be comparatively lower.
The Only Remaining Enemy
While the regular repetition of the four practices I mentioned above helps me avoid burnout, I still run the risk of burning out when I become fatigued.
As far as my knowledge goes, there really is no good way to “beat” fatigue and perhaps that’s a good thing. It is wise to compromise with it and always ensure that I get adequate rest, something which not only will help me avoid burnout but also improve my health in the long term.
Even now that my work load is way higher than it used to be, now that I’m either writing, coding, or learning for about 62% of my day, I have been able to greatly reduce my chances of burnout.
As soon as I sense my self-efficacy dropping — more cynical thoughts and detachment from work — I immediately begin course-correction.
This is how I beat the monster and I hope you will be able to conquer it too.