The Truth About Burnout

It’s not just about how we work, but also about why

Note: This first appeared in the Peak Performance Newsletter, which I coauthor with Steve Magness. Subscribe here.

At the end of last year, I wrote an article on burnout for the Thrive Journal. During my reporting, I learned that burnout — a state of physical and emotional exhaustion often followed by apathy and illness — is ubiquitous across industries. Physicians, businesspeople, artists, teachers, and athletes all have high rates of burnout. As a matter of fact, most studies show that between 40 and 50 percent of people are experiencing burnout at any given time. This is cause for great concern. As I wrote in December, research shows that burnout and underperformance go hand-in-hand. Physical (e.g., speed, strength), cognitive (e.g., alertness, focus, creativity), and emotional (e.g., patience, resilience) ability all decline. And this is to say nothing of individual human suffering and lost potential that accompanies burnout.
 
The most commonly discussed way to reduce burnout is to change how we work. We need to take more breaks, disconnect from our digital devices, get more sleep, and exercise. While this is all good advice and true, we can also alleviate burnout by changing why we work. This is related to a topic we’ve covered in the past: the difference between harmonious and obsessive passion.
 
Harmonious passion is when an individual becomes completely absorbed in an activity because they love how the activity itself makes them feel. Obsessive passion is when an individual gets hooked on something because of external rewards; read: fame, fortune, a promotion, or in this day and age, Twitter followers. According to Scott Barry Kaufman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies intelligence, creativity, and wellbeing, burnout is linked to obsessive passion. When we are obsessively passionate, we are constantly striving for things that are outside of our control; other’s opinion of our work, not our work itself, fulfills and satisfies us. But leaving our professional — and perhaps even personal — worth to others is a recipe for disaster, a recipe that often results in burnout.
 
A far better approach is to cultivate harmonious passion in ourselves and others. This runs counter to a “results first” and “selfie” culture. Yet when people are encouraged to engage in an activity for the love of the activity itself, they rarely, if ever, burnout — even when they log long hours and neglect other elements of their lives (for a period of time, anyways). They are happy to spend their hours “working” because they love their work and they have removed themselves from the emotional roller coaster of external validation.
 
In summary, preventing burnout requires being very deliberate about how we work but also why we work.

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Here are some tips to prevent burnout, regardless of field:

  • Sleep 7 to 9 hours every night. Sleep is one of the most productive things you can do. It is key for physical, cognitive, and emotional restoration. Sleep is a non-negotiable. Once your work cuts into your ability to sleep at least 7 hours a night, you are losing, not gaining, by doing it.
  • Move. Second to sleep is physical activity. Try to exercise for at least 30 minutes per day.
  • Disconnect from your devices in the evening. We strongly believe that shutting down digital devices prior to and during sleep is key when it comes to general health and preventing burnout. The bedroom should be a no-go zone for iPhones.
  • Have at least one activity that is separate from your main pursuit. We both work with world-class performers and know well that “balance” is often an illusion. But we also know how dangerous it can be to have one’s entire identity wrapped in a single pursuit. If you run professionally, take up writing/reading. If you write/read professionally, take up running. Give back to others. Get a cat or a dog.
  • Cultivate harmonious passion. Do you love a certain activity because you enjoy the activity itself, or because you enjoy the external rewards/validation associated with the activity? If the latter, try to remember what got you started in the first place and get back to that. If you were chasing external rewards all along, realize that you may be setting yourself up for future disappointment, and rethink your mindset.

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If you like what you read, I’d be honored if you considered reading my book, Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success.

Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He is a columnist at New York Magazine and Outside Magazine.

You can follow Brad on Twitter @Bstulberg